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Acrylic paints, a modern medium which came into general use in the 1960s, have become very popular due to their extreme versatility. They are made from pigment, water and an acrylic binder, which forms a hard, clear film as the water evaporates. It is this transparent film, reflecting light from the pigment inside it, that gives acrylic color its brilliance.

Acrylics dry very quickly, avoiding a tedious delay before painting further layers. The film is more flexible than that of other media and is unlikely to crack. Acrylics are resistant to water once dry, which means they can be overpainted without disturbing the previous color. This means that color cannot be dissolved with a damp brush as it can with watercolour. To thin the color, simply add water.

Acrylics become darker in tone as they dry, rather than lighter as with watercolour, so remember to allow for this effect when mixing your colors. You can mix them with water and use them rather like watercolour, or you can use them straight from the tube as if they were oil paints. Do not think that they are just a pale imitation of these other media, though they are a fascinating medium in their own right and are used by many professional artists in a variety of ways.

Watercolour Technique
By thinning acrylics with a small quantity of water and acrylic medium, a paint that can be used like transparent watercolour is produced. Alternatively, Acrylic Flow Improver will give acrylics the consistency of watercolours while maintaining strength of color.

Comparison with watercolours

1. Since acrylics are water-resistant when dry, they can be over painted without disturbing previous color.

2. For the same reason, there is no need to frame an acrylic painting behind glass. For additional protection, it is advisable to use varnish, which can be removed if necessary when the surface becomes soiled.

Oil Technique
When used straight from the tube, acrylics have a consistency very similar to that of oils. Like oils, they retain the impression of the brush or knife, allowing you to create a considerable variety of surface or textural effects.

Comparison with oil

1. Acrylics dry rapidly; it is usually possible to overpaint within an hour.

2. Even when dry, acrylics stay remarkably flexible, which means they can be painted on to most non-shiny, non-greasy grounds without cracking or splitting. The color can be built up into thick layers and, provided that you are careful, the painting can even be rolled up when it has dried.

3. Acrylics do not require a coating of size before being applied to paper, cotton, linen or wood, as oil paints do.

4. Because they are water-thinnable until dry, acrylics can be removed from brushes and palettes simply with soap and water. Be thorough about it, or paint can build up at the base of the hairs or bristles and cause damage.

5. Acrylics are weather-resistant (making them ideal for murals), and they retain their brilliance with age.

How to use acrylics
As mentioned before, for the watercolour technique you should dilute the paint with water (or medium) as you would watercolour to give transparent washes. (Work fast, though, as the paint dries so quickly.) Work from light to dark as is normal when working in watercolour.

With the oil-painting technique, using the paint in a more opaque manner, you should work from dark to light.It is a good idea to put a wash of diluted paint over the whole of your paper or board before you start - this helps to pull your picture together if it shows through any later work.

Acrylics can also be used for 'impasto' work, which means that you want the paint to be really thick, layered and textural rather than smooth and flat. You can make things such as grass and rocks slightly three-dimensional in this manner, which can look rather effective if not overdone.

Acrylics are excellent, too, for portraying texture, as the varied techniques will give a wide range of different effects. For a rough surface, try applying a lighter tone over a darker background with a dry brush and undiluted color. A succession of glazes of thin paint can produce some interesting effects, while heavy impasto work is good for portraying rough plaster or stucco.

Painting knives can produce crisp marks that are excellent for tree bark and foliage. Just experiment! In general, work quickly and boldly to keep your painting free and spontaneous - after all, you can easily correct it if you go wrong without losing that fresh look!