Here’s a short introduction to acrylic paint;
First things first, what is acrylic paint?
To put if very simply, acrylic paint is made of one or many pigments grinded into a water-based acrylic polymer. Acrylic polymer is also known to some as “acrylic medium” which you can buy on it’s own to change the consistency your paint, make it more transparent, and extend it.
As acrylic is a water-based paint, you can add a limited amount of water to dilute it, and make it flow a bit easier… but, be very careful when adding water to your paint as it will weaken the binding between the pigments and may create “holes” in the paint film when the water evaporates while the paint is drying. One of the best tool to have handy when painting is a spray bottle filled with regular tap water to help keep your paint moist on your palette as well as on your canvas. If you need to change the consistency of your paint even more, acrylic medium (polymer medium), as mentioned earlier, is what you are looking for. You can find all kind of acrylic mediums at your local art store!
One of the most fascinating, and at the same time most frustrating qualities of acrylic paint is it’s drying time. Acrylic paint dries really fast, compared to oil paint. Most artists find this a great quality, as you can work with many layers, and finish painting without having to wait forever for it to dry. On the other hand, it can be some frustrating at time when you are trying to blend colours on the canvas and it starts drying… or if you leave your brush out for too long and the paint dries. Now, there are some mediums, such as acrylic retarder that you can add to the paint to extend it’s drying time – although it will never, ever, take as long as oil to dry. I will expand more on this in another post about mediums!
Acrylic paint is very versatile and can be found in different consistencies, such as fluid (Golden Fluid Acrylics), high viscosity (Golden High Flow Acrylics), soft body (Liquitex Soft Body Acrylics), and the most popular, heavy body (Golden Heavy Body Acrylics, Stevenson Paints). You can also find many additives and mediums to add to your paint to change their consistency.
As well as being available in different consistencies, acrylics, like other types of paints, can be found in different grades of quality; artist’s quality, and student quality. The quality is determined by the amount of pigments in the paints, the grind consistency and size of these pigments, as well as the quality of the acrylic polymer binding the paint together.
A quick way to find out what grade the paint is to look at the price tag. If the price on the tubes varies from colour to colour, you have found a paint that uses a higher concentration of true pigments, and is probably considered artist’s quality (or professional quality). On the other hand, if all tubes in the series, from white to red, are the exact same price, you are dealing with a student quality paint.
So, what are the differences?
I know some people might read the paragraph above and feel intimidated by the term “artist quality” or “professional quality” – but your level, may it be beginner or professional artist, doesn’t really matter in choosing paints. It depends more on what you are doing with the paint!
The biggest difference you will notice with between the artists’ and the students’ quality paint is the colour coming out of the tubes. The artists’ quality paints are brighter, more vibrant, true colours that have a better lightfastness than students’ quality paints. Wait, what is lightfastness?
Lightfastness is a strange word that refers to the quality of resisting changes due to exposure to light. Basically, it means the permanence of the paint. Some pigments are known to have a very poor lightfastness, even if they are found in an artist quality paint. Most paints will have a lightfastness indicator directly on the tubes. The scale of lightfastness or permanence will either be in ASTM standard (like on the Golden Acrylics tubes) where I is excellent, II is very good, and III is not sufficiently light fast. On the Stevenson’s tube bellow, they have a different scale, where **** means excellent (some companies might have AA instead), going all the way down to * (or C) meaning the colours are fugitive (not very lightfast).
The quality of the pigments found in the tube will be most noticeable when you try mixing your colours. The artist quality paints will be a lot easier to mix and create different hues, and will create more vibrant secondary colours (purples, greens, and oranges). Lower quality paints will often have some fillers added to the tubes, which may weaken the colour, and create inconsistencies when mixing. They may not always create the same exact colour from time to time, even if you follow to same mixing recipe. They will also get muddy more easily if you mix in too many colours together, creating colours that turn on the brown or grey side instead of staying nice and vibrant.
So if you are planning on buying only your basic primary colours (red, yellow and blue), some black and white to create hues to mix your own colours, you will definitely want to invest in higher quality paints to avoid frustrations in the long run.
The second factor mentioned above is the consistency of the paint. The artist quality paint will have a smoother consistency of pigment grind, and a higher quality binding agent (acrylic polymer). This will make them easier to blend together and make for smoother application of layers. The artist quality paints will also be more compatible with different additives and mediums available.
Ok, now which one do I choose?
Choosing paint types and brands will often be a personal preference, as it usually is in all arts materials.
If you are a beginner, it is fine to buy student quality paints to start. But be aware that they may not create the best mixes. This means that if you plan on buying your primaries and mixing your own purples, greens, oranges, and hues, you might be very disappointed with the results and have to return to the store and buy those extra colours in tubes.
If you fall in love with painting, and you wish to continue learning, and maybe eventually even sell or show your works, I would highly suggest you invest in higher quality paints, such as Golden or Stevenson listed above. Not only because you will definitely have an easier time creating the colours your are looking for, and have a lot more possibilities with mediums and such, but also because when you care about your work and sell it to others, you should also care about preserving it. Most student qualities paints do not have a high lightfastness and have not been tested as thoroughly as artist quality paints, and therefor might change, crack or do weird stuff in the long run. Often times those changes will not be noticeable in the first year or even the second one, but after five, ten years… So if you want your works to last, and your customers to be happy in the long run, keep this in mind!
Another thing to note is that since the paints are all acrylic based, they should all mix fairly well together, no matter the brand. I you mix a high quality paint, such as Golden, with a lower quality, you will be lowering the quality of your Golden paint, and it may cause irregularities in your painting, so make sure to try to avoid mixing different quality paints together.
Some artists will do their underpainting (first lines) or background colour with student quality paints to save a bit of money, and use their professional quality stuff on top. This is a great tip if you want to start your painting with a one-colour background.
Now when it comes to the consistency of the paint, the heavy body paint is the most popular, because it is usually what we are most used to, and is the most versatile. It can be thinned down with mediums or a bit of water, or can be thickened up with other types of additives, and can be used to create textures. You can also use different types of paints to create your works. For example, the Golden High Flow paints are great for small detail work as they are very thin while being still quite opaque and vibrant, so some artists will use these paints to add drip marks, or even to sign their paintings since the paint is light and flows great with smaller brushes.
In the end, acrylic paint is a very forgiving paint… there are no real set rules, and, bonus; you can always paint over it if you don’t like the result you’ve achieved! The best way to find out which paints you will prefer is to try them out for yourself, and talk to the staff at The Art Shack about what you are trying to achieve with the paint, so that they can help you find what is best for you!
Our favourite here is canadian made Stevenson acrylics. They are great price, with a heavy pigment load that results in superbe colours on the canvas.