Painting with Acrylics

by Marcia Burtt

updated 9/14/19

Why I use acrylics.

I use acrylics because I love the quick drying time.
I want the freedom to change things immediately, no waiting.
If I’m in the desert or it’s extremely windy, I use glazing medium instead of water to thin my paints.
This slows the drying time down to about 30 seconds — just right.I ignore the value shifts. If I look carefully at what’s in front of me and mix that exact color/value, it doesn’t matter what happens to it when it dries.
All the colors will work because I am not measuring my mix according to what’s on the canvas — I’m matching it to what’s in front of me.
Ergo, all the colors are fine together.
It was years before I found out acrylics actually do tend to dry somewhat differently from their wet color.
But I bet oils do too — just no one notices it because it’s such a slow process.

I use Golden heavy-body acrylics. I’m very loyal to them. The pigments are intense and beautiful.
They surely are the equal of any oil paint. I wouldn’t change anything about them.

I like New Traditions AC14 linen panels. They are super-light, cut to any size, and you can’t beat the texture.
It survives ten or twenty repaintings without losing that slight irregular tooth.
They make me a better painter.

Acrylics are perfect for painters like me that don’t want to make a thumbnail, draw in the scene, paint the darks first, etc., etc., etc.  in a careful predestined painting.

I like being able to rearrange, repaint, smudge, rub, scrub, or do whatever I like with no penalties.
Acrylics are the medium for adventurous painters. No need to plan ahead, no need to be careful.
Stop when you are satisfied and no one ever knows the wrong turns you made on the way to the finish.

Here is a brief description of how I use acrylic paints.

Acrylics dry fast and thin, enabling me to continually repaint areas without losing freshness. When my first thin wash works, I can leave it alone and enjoy almost the brilliance of watercolor. If, as usually happens, I want to rework or adjust shapes, I am able to paint over the dry layer immediately.

I’ve been a landscape painter for over 30 years and am still crazy about acrylics. In order to adapt to the special requirements of painting on location, I’ve devised a simple paint-and-time-saving system for taking acrylics into the open air—and, in fact, I use this system in the studio.

Acrylic paint lends itself particularly well to working as I do, with a tendency to continuously assess and rework.

I begin by using a large brush–an inch and a half or two inches wide isn’t too big for a large canvas–to create large areas of color.

I skip drawing altogether, as I have found that I see and focus differently when using a tool that makes lines as opposed to a tool that creates planes of color. Even an excellent line drawing is doomed to be eradicated as I see the shapes differently with a brush in my hand.

Covering the canvas completely with large areas of color shows me whether the composition is workable and roughly sets values. At this stage I often work transparently, and since I begin with a white primed canvas or panel the transparent paint can produce vibrant clear effects.

Still using the large brush, I gradually refine colors and shapes, making sure the composition has the force I want. It’s hard to resist the pull to go straight to detail, but I’ve found that nothing ruins a painting so fast as getting out a small brush too early. Very few artists have the skill to keep all the values, shapes and colors balanced while working solely with a small brush. Acrylics tend to dry toward the middle tones—that is, the lights dry darker than they look when wet, and the darks dry somewhat lighter—so I’ve developed the habit of slightly exaggerating value relationships when I paint.

As my painting comes into focus, I shift to progressively smaller brushes. But if I see the painting going awry, I go back to a big brush and ruthlessly repaint.

I avoid putting in details because I believe each viewer needs to bring something to the work. Painting every blade of grass can turn a poem into a tract.