Learn Painting Series: Acrylic-Paint Types: Beginner’s Guide

Just What are Acrylic Paints?

Acrylics are somewhat similar to oil paints, but in some ways, they are fundamentally different. Since acrylics dry so quickly, you won’t have to wait forever to hang or sell a piece of artwork. However, since they DO dry so fast, they are harder to make adjustments to, before you consider your art work finished. For this reason, it’s best if you start with a painting by numbers kit. You create your painting in small, easy steps so it’s ideal for a beginner.

Paints When you choose your colors, try not to overwhelm yourself by selecting too many. You don’t need lots of colors to make creative works of art. When you mix colors properly, you can create basically any hue you might want. As a beginner buying acrylic paints, you may be daunted by the choices in colors, brands and other aspects.

This blog post will help you to find the acrylic paints that will fit your needs — and also your budget. Selecting paint is personal, because it all depends on what style you want and what techniques you use. I’ll help you make informed choices, but you may want to buy a few and try them out first. As you become more experienced, you’ll develop varieties and brands you like the most.

Let’s Go Shopping!

When you shop for acrylic paints, you’ll want to consider:

  • Quality
  • Colors
  • Permanence
  • Viscosity
  • Form (jar or tube)
  • Drying time
  • Brands 


We’ll start with the most important element of the paints you buy. The two types of quality paints are artists and students quality. There are also some sub-divisions of acrylic paints we’ll take a look at.

Professional Acrylics

Artists’ quality paints are sometimes called “professional” paints. The range of colors available is wider, and they include a higher concentration of pigments. Their permanence ratings are higher, as well.

Student Acrylics

These are similar to professional level acrylics, and painters attending art school often use them. There is a lower concentration of pigmentation in student acrylics and they don’t have as many colors available as professional paints do. This can be an asset, since using fewer colors teaches you how to mix colors properly. Student acrylic paints are a great choice for beginning artists who want to become more familiar with acrylics.

Artists’ versus Students’ Paints

The difference between these two types is in how they are made, but also in what they look like when used.

Artists’ paints have more vibrant colors and their smoother consistency makes them much easier to layer and blend. Students’ colors are fine if you’re just beginning, or if you’re on a budget. Once you are comfortable with mixing paints, you may want to go artists’ blends, for their superior performance.

You can also use students’ quality paints for your earth colors, and spend more on artists’ quality pure and intense colors. Some artists also save a few bucks or more by using students’ quality paint for their underpainting, and using artists’ quality paints for the top layers.

Academic or Scholastic Acrylics

Scholastic paints are often used with primary school students. They are inexpensive, and may be mixed with dyes instead of pigments. This makes it harder to achieve the precise color you may want. They are designed for user safety though, so children and those with health issues can use them more readily.

Heavy Acrylics

If you have a mental image of a painter and his palette, you’re probably picturing heavy acrylics. They usually come in tubes, and they are very thick. Art supply stores carry these paints, and the tubes are available in a variety of sizes.

Craft Acrylics

Craft acrylic paints are made to be used on many different surfaces. You can use them on stone, wood, canvas and cloth. Craft acrylics are easy to find at craft stores. Most acrylics used for craft purposes are premixed, which is handy, since they’re ready to use without manipulation.

Pearlized Acrylics

These paints have been mixed with mica, or other iridescent pigments. This gives these paints a most distinctive sheen. Very few artists use this type of paint, as they are most often used for crafts.

Open Acrylics

The main challenge with acrylics is almost always the speed at which they dry. You may sometimes feel like you’re racing to finish a piece of artwork. Open acrylics have been created with special resins that slow the dry time of your paints, allowing for greater time to work with your painting.

Acrylic Gouache

This is related to watercolor paints. They dry with a matte finish and their opacity can be easily manipulated using water. Using this type of paint allows you to mimic the behavior of watercolors. In addition, if you learn to use these paints well, you will find it easier to use watercolor paints, if you decide to use them, as well. 

Paint Colors

There is an amazing array of acrylic paint colors available. If you’re just starting out, you can purchase as few as three colors, but you shouldn’t buy more than 10 colors. These can be mixed to create most any color you’ll need. Another valuable option if you’re a beginner is to buy a set of acrylic paints.

They are cheaper in a set than individually, and they offer all the colors you’ll need, as a beginner. If you want to purchase artists’ acrylic paints, you’ll find that the prices vary by color.

This is because some of the pigments are more difficult to obtain. Some brands are grouped by series — “1” are the cheapest paints and “7” series paints are the most expensive. As a rule, earth colors are the least expensive. Cadmium-based colors can cost much more. Some brands have cheaper, synthetic pigments, but their color is less intense and they won’t last as long.

The cheapest paints have the word “hue” after the name of the pigment. This means they may have synthetic pigments in them. But some are quite serviceable, and probably fine for most beginners. Today, you can also purchase “specialty” colors, including iridescent and fluorescent paints. Their pigments create luminous effects in your art work. Some specialty paints are not permanent, just so you know.


Permanence in acrylic paint is referred to as “lightfastness”. This means the pigment’s ability to resist even gradual fading when it is exposed to light. If a pigment fades over time, it is sometimes called a “fugitive” color. Most acrylic paints have better permanence ratings than watercolors or oils, which is just one more reason to love acrylics. Keep your eyes open for lightfastness standards when you buy paint. ASTM International (once known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) takes pain to classify artists’ colors by the way they perform after 20 years of simulated gallery exposure.

ASTM Permanence Standards

ASTM I equals Excellent Lightfastness ASTM II equals Very Good Lightfastness ASTM III equals Not Sufficiently Lightfast Unless you’re experimenting or practicing, it’s probably best to stick with paints with very good or excellent ratings of lightfastness. Jars and tubes of paint have the ASTM ratings on them.


The viscosity of paint refers to its thicknesses or consistency. Heavy body acrylics offer a buttery, thick consistency that is similar to that of oil paints. It retains your brushstrokes and offers ease in blending and mixing of colors. Fluid acrylics are thinner, even though their concentration of pigment is the same.

These are suited to dry-brushing, watercolor techniques, staining and detail work. If you want something between these two, there are a variety of mediums you may purchase to mix into your paints. This will give you the consistency you’re looking for.

Whichever type of acrylic paint you buy, your choice will be dependent on your personal preference and style of painting. Some experienced artists use more than one type, even in the same work of art. If you’re just taking your first steps into acrylic painting, start with the heavy body acrylics.

They are more commonly found and you can still thin them with an acrylic medium or water, if you need to.

Jars or Tubes

Heavy body acrylic paints are sold in jars and tubes. Cost-wise, it’s more efficient to buy jars, since you get more for the money. Tubes are smaller and more portable. The consistencies are also different. Paint in jars is thick, but not as thick as that in tubes, and it will flatten out on your palette.

Paint in tubes has the consistency of paste. If you don’t have any idea whether to buy jars or tubes, start with tubes, since they’re cheaper. Once you have colors and brands you prefer, you can buy jars of those. If you’re a beginner, 2-fluid-ounce tubes are a good way to start. A little will last awhile, and you may want to experiment with different brands. Fluid acrylic paints usually are sold in bottles. They have drippers or screw tops, so it’s easy to apply paint to your palette.

Drying Time 

Many artists prefer to use acrylic paints, since they dry fast. However, you don’t want your paint drying on your brush or your palette, if you haven’t yet finished painting. In addition, if you want to mix paints on your canvas to create the effect of blending, it’s much easier to do if you have a paint type that stays wet longer.

There are options that can extend the time your acrylic paint takes to dry. If you prefer the slower drying of oil type paints but want the permanence and versatility of acrylic paint, you can use a medium that retards drying time or by purchasing open/interactive acrylics. Open acrylic is a newer type of acrylic paint, and includes a retardant that can even slow down your dry time for a few weeks! Open acrylic paints are very convenient if you want to replicate the slow drying time of oils with your preferred acrylic paints.


Some acrylic paints are better than others. As far as the top manufacturers, it’s mainly a matter of which you prefer. Some of the brands are pricey, but if you experiment with some different brands, you’ll find one that fits your needs and your budget.

If you will be using different brands of acrylics on one art piece, be sure their quality is roughly the same and that they include the same binder. If you combine paints with different chemicals, it could cause poor adhesion, curdling or various other irregularities.

Gels, Pastes, Mediums and Additives

When you learn to paint using acrylics, remember that most brands have their own range of body or viscosity.

Soft and medium bodied paints are smooth, fluid and creamy. Heavy bodied paints are buttery and thick, while super or extra body paints are even thicker, and work well with the impasto technique. A medium gel is thick and adds transparency. Heavy gels add texture, so that your paint will hold its peaks.

Modeling paste is a thick additive that will allow you to create textured effects, which can even dry to flexible film. Retardant may be mixed with acrylic paint to slow the time it takes to dry. It is used when you are painting with a wet-into-wet paint technique. Mediums can be mixed with acrylics for glazing and thinning, and you can use it as a plain adhesive for mixed media work and collages.

A gloss medium will dry with a high shine, while a matte medium dries with a flat finish and no shine. Blending mediums will thin your paint, and lengthen the time it stays wet, to help you in blending colors in your painting. Flow improvers are used to make your paint flow more quickly and evenly. Gels and pastes can be mixed with acryli ic paints to add thickness or texture, while still allowing for a longer drying time.


You may apply a varnish to a finished piece of acrylic art in order to give it a dust-resistant, protective film. It stops some UV light damage. If you varnish with a material that is a non-acrylic, like mineral spirits, you can remove that layer at a later time. A multitude of other additives can be purchased from art stores. They offer you a literal lifetime of discovery and experimentation.

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