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Painting Techniques

(an introduction…)

Techniques For Painting In Acrylics

Acrylic paint was introduced to the art world in the 1950s, which makes it a relatively new type of painting medium. However, despite the fact that acrylic painting does not have much history behind it, contemporary artists are already employing a number of different painting techniques – some of which have been developed specifically for acrylic paint.

Incidentally, there are two important advantages of acrylic paint over oil paint:

1 – acrylics can be diluted with water
2 – acrylics dry quickly

Now, because it can be diluted with water, acrylic paint can be used to create artwork that effectively looks like watercolor. And because acrylic paint dries so quickly, it lends itself well to multiple layering techniques since you only have to wait a few minutes for the paint to dry between applying different techniques.

Now let’s return to our discussion of techniques… Here are some of the more popular acrylic painting techniques.


Acrylics Used as Watercolor

As mentioned previously, acrylic paints can be thinned using water. When adequately diluted, acrylic paintings actually look like watercolors. (To see an example, check out the acrylic painting at the top of this article entitled An Off-color Remark On Shikoku.) The difference between the two is that acrylic paints are waterproof once they dry, whereas watercolors are by definition soluble in water.

Using acrylics to create a watercolor effect is a very popular technique. However, one thing you have to be careful about is that acrylic paint must be allowed to dry before you apply an additional layer. Conversely, since acrylic is not water soluble when it dries out, you may have difficulty in modifying your watercolor-like painting.


Paint Pouring

You do not have to always use a brush when painting with acrylics; provided the paint is fluid enough, you can simply pour it on the canvas. But for this technique to work well, you first need to choose whether you want to pour a pure color or a mix of colors. And then you need to decide if you want to keep the canvas level or tilted when pouring. Of course, not all paint that is poured on a canvas sticks; but if you are careful, the extra paint that runs off can be reused.

Look at the vibrant colors and the dynamic fluidity of the composition that Margot was able to achieve through the paint pouring technique.

Incidentally, one of the major concerns about pouring paint is the formation of bubbles, especially when the paint is poured from a higher elevation. Bubbles can be avoided by applying a spray of alcohol on the canvas before pouring the paint. Alcohol spray can also be applied after pouring as long as the medium is wet.



Scumbling means adding a scratchy and speckled layer of one color over another. It is a well-established technique that has been used over the centuries by famous masters like Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Monet. They, of course, used this technique with oils. However, acrylic paints also lend themselves beautifully to the use of this technique.

Check out this short but elegant demonstration of the scumbling technique to heighten the sense of atmosphere in the sky. Jan’s reference to Turner is very fitting. (Incidentally, Jan Blencowe is a superb teacher and you can see another of her scumbling videos HERE.)

The key factor in scumbling is the use of a dry brush. Once you have applied the base color, pick up thick paint using a dry brush and apply it over the base color. Note that the goal here is not to apply paint as we usually do, but rather to apply it partially in a bid to blend two or more colors. You can get different results by applying force or pressure of varying degree. The end result of scumblng is that parts of the base color can be seen through the surface color, which gives an effect that cannot be easily duplicated by other techniques.


Acrylic Glazing

Glazing refers to the technique of applying a transparent layer to a surface. In painting, glazing is used with oils as well as with acrylics. With glazing, you apply a transparent layer of paint to a surface that has been painted over with a base color. The visual result is a blending or mixing of the colors.

However, the glazing effect is markedly different from what you would get if you actually mix the paints. This is due to the fact that light bounces off of two or more layers of colors with glazed surfaces independently – which creates a unique result.

Here’s a simple, but effective demonstration by artist and best-selling author Nancy Reyner.

Acrylic paint is very suitable for this technique because glazing requires that the base be dry when the upper layer is applied, and acrylic paint is known to dry fast, especially when compared to oil.

Since glazing is used with transparent (or semitransparent) colors, you need to have a good understanding of transparent colors to use this technique effectively. Particularly, you need to know what kind of results you can expect when you glaze one particular color over another.

Another important factor is that you need to allow the paint to dry between applying different layers. Glazing can be compared with scumbling because both these techniques involve the layering of one color over another. However, the results for both are markedly different.


Tonking and Sgraffito (Scratching)

Tonking and sgraffito are simple but powerful techniques. Tonking means partially removing some paint by pressing paper or tissue onto a targeted area of wet paint and then carefully removing the paper or tissue – as demonstrated in this excellent video by Paul Taggart:

Historically, sgraffito has mainly been used with wall décor and ceramics. The technique itself consists of scratching a layer of color to reveal the color underneath it. Sgraffito can be used with acrylics to get textured results, especially with impasto painting.

When doing sgraffito with acrylics, you have to first apply the base color, and let it dry. It is very important to let it dry completely because once you scratch the surface, you do not want the base layer to come away too. Once the lower layer is dry, apply the upper layer. The upper layer should not be too runny or diluted.

Before the upper layer dries, scratch the surface as appropriate so that you can see the lower layer through the upper layer of color. You can scratch the surface using the end of your paint brush, your fingernails or even harder objects such as screwdrivers.

Note that when sgraffito is applied on paper it results in a more well-defined upper layer, because wherever you put pressure on a paper, the upper layer color will collect there.


Also known as spraying, spattering entails spraying small or large drops of color onto a canvas. You can spray or flick the paint onto your canvas using a paint brush, spray diffuser or even a toothbrush.

With the spattering technique, you have to hold the brush a few centimeters above the canvas and hit it with another object so that it sprays paint over the desired location. You can spatter multiple layers of colors and mix multiple-colored spatters to get unique stone or marbling effects. One trick is to mask part of the painting, so that spattering is done only on the part where you want it done. This is used to get a crisp border for the areas that have been spattered on.



With any medium, this is one of the easiest techniques that can be used. Stenciling consists of using a cutout, made of materials such as cardboard, to apply paint only over the area as specified by the cutout. The cutout is used over dry surface, and is removed only when the newly applied paint has dried too. What makes this technique attractive, especially for projects that require it, is the fact that stencils can be used multiple times to get similar results.



Impasto usually involves applying thick and liberal amounts of paint so that it keeps the marks, ridges and crevices left by the brush or palette knife. Artists often use mediums and specially made impasto gels to heighten the effect of this technique.

Here’s a masterful demonstration by Dee Cowell of how to effectively use a painting knife to push and pull impasto gel.

In addition painting knives, short flat brushes – sometimes referred to as “brights” – are useful for applying the thick, heavy paint that produces impasto effects.


How to Add Texture to Acrylic Paintings

Finally, we finish this discussion with some suggestions of how to give texture to acrylic paintings. We have already talked about impasto, but there are a number of other techniques that can be used to add texture to acrylic.

One of them involves using tools such as sponges and spatulas to stamp the paint on the canvas. By laying paint of varying thickness on the canvas, you give it a natural depth that is hard to beat as far as texture is concerned. This process requires the use of acrylic heavy gel mixed with an equal amount of modeling paste to create the base layer of textured surface.

Another method is to use interesting three-dimensional objects such as leaves and stones to imprint texture on acrylic that has not yet dried.

You can also combine mediums or additives with acrylic paint to get texture. Mediums such as glass bead gel, fiber paste, sand gel, tar gels, string or black lava gel have become popular among artists who want to add texture with acrylic.


Using a Variety of Acrylic Painting Techniques

In conclusion, you can use acrylics to paint watercolor-like effects or to create amazing textures. Techniques like glazing, scumbling and sgraffito can be used with multiple layers of acrylic paint to visually blend one or more colors in interesting ways. By using various additives, you can obtain incredibly thick textures. Thus, with so many different techniques to choose from, painting with acrylics never gets boring!


written by R.G.

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