Acrylic paint is a fascinating paint medium to use. It is very quick drying and permanent once dry. It can be diluted with water and clean up is easy with no toxic chemicals needed.
To my senses it is almost odorless while wet and I can’t detect any off gassing as it cures. It is unbelievably versatile and is truly a modern space age invention.
It has a few downsides, but no medium is perfect for every occasion.
I won’t go into the chemistry of acrylics because number one, I don’t understand nor want to wade through the technical specs behind acrylics (yawn) and number two, manufacturers have very technical websites with all the chemical properties and data that conservationists and chemist require.
Suffice it to say that it is a durable water based paint which means it will dry as the water evaporates from the wet paint and has an easy cleanup.
This article is for beginner painters who have not used acrylics before, or those who have specific questions about acrylics.
1. Is acrylic paint waterproof?
The short answer is sort of, but (there is always a ‘but’) it depends on:
- what surface you are intending to paint on
- if you have applied a good varnish on the end product
- if you have used a proper primer coat underneath
- if you have diluted the paint beyond 30% with water
- and if you have prepared the surface well beforehand.
That’s a lot of ifs, but read on! Hopefully I can answer all your questions.
Firstly, understand that any paint is going to break down over years of exposure to weather, water and sun. If properly prepared, and using the right formulation of acrylic paint, it can last a longer time and be fairly water resistant.
For example, house paint is formulated with all kinds of added chemicals to make it more light fast and weather proof and resistant to mold. It is not the acrylic paint itself that stands up to the abuse of mother nature, but the additives put in the paint. Some house paints are warranteed for 10 years and have additives for mold resistance and fading.
If you are going to paint furniture or a house exterior I would get paint from the hardware or paint store that has been created specifically for that purpose. Using a primer beforehand will always strengthen the bond of the acrylic paint to the surface. Do not dilute the paint with water, or it will inhibit a good bond to the surface.
If you are going to paint a boat that will come in contact daily with water and wave action and storms, then you will need a paint formulated for that. You won’t find these paints at the local craft store. There are very specific paints made for boats and they have quite toxic properties, so really do your research first, buy well respected brands of paint, follow directions explicitly and use protection for your lungs and skin if you are going to paint a boat.
For bathrooms, patios, furniture and craft projects intended for outdoor use, or objects that need to survive high humidity and occasional contact with water, acrylics will do great with proper preparation, application and varnishing of the finished product. You can paint a tray or coasters, for example, and if properly done, water will bead up on the surface and spills will wipe right off. I’ve also painted exterior signs for porches, varnished front and back and all sides several times and have had them last for over a decade. However, I would never paint anything that I expected to get prolonged exposure to water like a kid’s bathtub toy with acrylics. It’s just not that waterproof!
Make sure you varnish your finished work on all sides with a polyacrylic varnish intended for acrylic paints like this one:
Minwax 255554444 Minwax Polycrylic Water Based Protective Finishes, 1/2 Pint, Gloss
2. Is acrylic paint good on wood?
Yes, acrylic paint is great on wood. That being said, though, I’ve had issues with painting on wood over the years.
If I were to paint a piece of artwork on wood, I’ve learned that wood with knots is problematic. Knots sometimes excrete a substance (back to chemistry again = ‘Too Much Information’), that bleeds through sealers, gesso and paint. I’ve had beautiful pieces that I’ve painted be ruined after eight years or so because the knots bleed through, despite using every preparation precaution.
It is important to prepare dried wood for painting by first using a sealer or sealer stain product then a gesso layer before you start painting and then apply a polyacrylic varnish after you are done.
If you use acrylic paints on wood that is not dry or that is not properly sealed, the paint will crack and chip as the wood expands and contracts in seasonal changes. Wood was a living organism after all, and it is slowly decomposing, so eventually ALL paint on wood is going to react as it responds to the changes that the wood goes through…unless it has been sealed and varnished and protected from the weather. Not taking all the preparatory steps can be hazardous. It can look quite extreme:
I have successfully painted on wood for decades though. There is so much you can do with acrylic paint on wood!
For art and craft projects where I spend a lot of time creating a look that I want to stay looking new, I’ve learned to use pristine wood with no knots and very little grain, or color variations (like birch), for my acrylic or oil painting projects.
These are a good value:
U.S. Art Supply 11″ x 14″ Birch Wood Paint Pouring Panel Boards, Studio 3/4″ Deep Cradle (Pack of 3)
If I am painting for fine art, and I want quality to be foremost, I will use this brand intended for museum quality materials:
Ampersand Art Supply Unprimed Basswood Artist Panel 7/8″ Cradled Profile 16″x20“
I’m a big fan of not wasting time, so I will buy the panels pre-applied with gesso. They cost a bit more, but I can get right to painting and not muck about with sanding and painting multiple layers of gesso.
Value Wood Art Painting Panel Primed Smooth by Ampersand 1/8″ Flat Profile 18″x24″
And the top drawer pre-painted panels are available from this company in a variety of sizes and depths:
Ampersand Gessobord 11 in. x 14 in. 1/8 in. each
You can also use hardboard panels if you seal them with gesso first. It is the most economical way to create a lot of panels because you can purchase the hardboard at the hardware store and cut them up into different sizes as you wish. You’ll have to sand the edges and basically take an afternoon or day to cut, sand, prime with gesso and let them air dry in between several coats. So, cost savings versus time spent is a factor to consider. Also, ya gotta have a vehicle capable of hauling a large panel of wood or pay extra at the store and they may cut it up for you for a fee.
If you don’t have access to a hardware store or vehicle to transport, these panels will do the trick:
Jack Richeson High Density Tempered Hardboard(6 pack) , 14×18
This gesso by Golden Artists Paint company is black, which is a great time saver if you are intending to paint on a layer of black paint. It will save you paint because you will only need one layer of black acrylic paint to cover the gesso instead of several if the gesso is clear or white:
Golden 0003560-5 Acrylic Black Gesso Jar, 8 oz
If you need white, there are many, many brands to choose from. If you are making a craft project, you can go economy and use a brand like this one:
Delta Creative Prep Artist Gesso, 8-Ounce
If you want the wood to show through at all, gesso is available in clear:
Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Medium Clear Gesso, 225ml
And if you are going to paint a fine art painting, use a brand specifically intended for fine art, which will be archival and give you great coverage and results:
Liquitex G5316 Professional White Gesso Surface Prep Medium, 16-oz
And, make sure you varnish your finished board with a matte or gloss acrylic varnish…..UNLESS you are o.k. with an aged, shabby look. For interior use you can also use a wax finish, but the upkeep on wax doesn’t get my vote. It does look great on old antique looking deliberately aged projects.
3. Can you paint on metal with acrylics?
Yes, absolutely! Acrylics do well on metals. There are some steps you can’t skimp on if you are going to paint on metal though.
Here is a lovely Tole painted chocolate pot that my sister Erin Katzer painted for me one Christmas.
The trick is to prepare the surface with a good wash of white vinegar to remove any grease or oils on the surface. You would be surprised how much oil transfers to a surface from the skin on your hands.
Then lightly sand the area with fine sandpaper or superfine sandpaper to give a tooth that the paint can adhere to. Wipe away the dust from sanding and then always use a metal primer first then a coat of gesso or metal primer gesso combination before you start your final artwork. Here is a good one:
DecoArt DECADM-36.14 Americana Decor Metal Primr8oz Americana Decor Metal Primer 8oz
If you have a little rust on your metal piece, you’ll need to sand all the rust away that you possibly can first. Then wipe thoroughly and then use a metal primer made specifically for rust like this one:
Rust-Oleum 7582838 Professional Primer Spray Paint, 15 oz, Gray Primer
Be forewarned that spray paint is extremely smelly. You absolutely can not use it indoors unless you open all the windows and vacate the premises for a couple of days. As it cures it continues to smell. You don’t want that anywhere near your lungs. It will need longer to dry before you can paint on it…and it will depend on the humidity and the temperature in the air. If I were going to do this, I’d give it a good three days in the garage to fully cure before I painted on it, regardless of what the can says. I would still use a layer of gesso over the primer paint, although it is probably overkill on my part. I’ve been trained to always use gesso before I paint!
Once your sealer is applied and a layer of gesso is applied, you are ready to paint on your acrylics.
Don’t forget to varnish your treasure when you are finished.
How fun would this tin organizer be to paint?! Lemme at it!
CTW Galvanized Metal Wall Mounted Hanging Pocket Organizer
Or this fun kitchen lazy susan?
Park Designs Rustic 2 Tier 13″ Lazy Susan Vintage Kitchen Spinning Organizer
Or Stencil or freehand “welcome to the __________ home” on this for a wedding gift?
Tablecraft Galvanized Oval Beverage Tub, 5.5 Gallons
Stop me now, I could go on for hours……
4. Can you mix additives into acrylic paint?
The resounding answer is yes! It is amazing what you can do with acrylic paint. Unlike other paint mediums, you can add a plethora of additives made for artist’s acrylics to do the following:
- Thicken the paint to a 3D like consistency similar to toothpaste
- Thin the paint down to watercolor consistency without losing adhesion quality
- Crackle medium to make your paint look aged and cracked, without degradation of quality
- Levelling medium so that your thinned paint will flow with gravity and have a perfectly smooth surface that touches all inner edges of your support (like a tray, for example)
- Pouring mediums for the uber popular poured acrylic art
- Course or fine grained molding paste for a textured finish
- Hard molding paste that when dry can be carved and sanded
- Extenders can be added to increase the volume of the paint without losing quality
- Flow enhancers when added the paint let you do fluid stroke work
- Wetting agents to break the surface tension of the paint which allows for easier work on porous materials like watercolor paper
- Gel medium to preserve strokes in impasto work
- Retarding agents which slow dry time
- Glazing medium for thin translucent applications of paint and multi layering capabilities for jewel like finish
- Matte medium can be used for collage and adhering found objects into the paint surface
- Additive for painting permanently on most fabrics
Here are a few popular additives:
METAL POWDERS and Beads
You can add glitter, metal powders, gel thickener and even super fine beads as in the example below:
If you want the iridescence of glitter or gold powders etc, then consider using them blended into Matte Medium, then painting onto your dried surface. The matte medium is a milky white when wet, but it dries completely clear and hard. (If you mix the powders directly into paint, the opacity of the pigments will coat the powders and glitter too much to see. Which defeats the purpose of using them!)
I keep Golden brand Matte Medium at all times in my studio and I use it often. It’s perfect for adhering paper or found objects in collage work or adhering paper to hardboard.
Golden 35305 Matte Medium-8 ounce
These are fun additives to matte medium for acrylic painting:
Jacquard Pearl EX Powder Pigments (32-Color Set)
Here I added grit to my paint to resemble gravel in the painting below:
It’s not a terribly good photo, but the light is reflecting off the faces of the grains of the tiny stones and the camera had trouble (well, I had trouble) getting the focus to work macro, but you can get the idea. It was very effective and fast. By using the Glass Bead Gel, I didn’t have to resort to hand painting thousands of tiny gravel shapes on the painting to give the impression of a gravely rough road.
This is the grit that I used:
Golden 8 Oz Glass Bead Gel
Acrylic paints with Pouring Medium
The whole process for pouring acrylics is simple, but messy. You will need to lay down a sturdy tarp on your table or floor, lay your chosen board or canvas down on inverted cups or blocks of wood so that no portion of the art board or canvas touches the tarp or table surface. Ideally you’ll need to raise the edges on all sides of the tarp to catch drips and paint run-off, gloves for your hands, disposable cups (one for each color) , a canvas or board to pour onto, several bottles of craft acrylic paint in at least five colors and for a high gloss finish, glossy acrylic varnish. You need a totally flat surface once your art is done so it can dry undisturbed and completely horizontal.
Golden Artist Colors Color Pouring Medium, Gloss Finish, 16 Ounce Bottle
Follow directions for mixing with colors and watch this cool video!
I’ve also heard of using Floetrol as the flow additive instead of artist’s pouring medium:
FLOOD/PPG FLD6-04 Floetrol Additive (1 Quart)
Molding Paste and Wetting Agents
Acrylic paint with molding paste added for texture and with wetting agent on the cement bowl:
Golden 35705 Molding Paste, 8 ounce
Wetting agent Golden Release 4 oz bottle
5. Can you use acrylics like watercolor?
Yes, you can, right onto watercolor paper or bristol board just like watercolors. You can buy fluid professional acrylic paint that flows like liquid watercolors with an almost ink-like in consistency or thin with water.
However, if you are doing something that you want to LAST a long time, adding a lot of water will unbind the paint chemically and your subsequent layers are in danger of not adhering to your support. If you are making a greeting card, a calendar or anything crafty that you don’t intend to last for generations, then you could elect to go ahead and thin with water. It will adhere to paper well, but other surfaces need a thinning medium added to create a permanent bond, to the substrate and to stay strong enough for subsequent layers to bind to.
Here’s a video explaining it well:
Please note that Golden Paints makes a brand that is designed for flow called High Flow Acrylics. This brand requires that you use their flow improver, and NOT water, as the water plays havoc with the binding properties of the paint.
If you choose not to thin the paint with water, be aware that it may end up looking more plastic than watercolors do. The texture is different with matte medium, it doesn’t have as much of the ‘plastic’ like shine that can be indicative of acrylics when they are used thickly. To be on the safe side of durable, use this medium to increase fluidity:
Golden Fluid Matte Medium 8-Ounce
It is permanent, so you can glaze over without disturbing your first layer!
6. Can acrylics be thinned to transparency?
The answer is moderately to extremely well depending on the following:
It took me a while to figure this out, because it’s not a subject many books or websites talk about, but each tube of acrylic artists paint will have its own unique level of opacity or transparency. It will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Artist’s acrylic will label each color with a graduated grading system so you can accurately see how transparent or opaque each tube is. Cheaper craft paints don’t include this information and it’s a trial and error case to see how transparent they are bottle by bottle.
It’s important to know what the properties are of the tube that you select because if you are looking for a yellow to completely cover a previous layer of paint you will need to pick a yellow that is not inherently transparent, or you’ll lay down five or six layers and get frustrated because it is not covering well.
For example, Diarylide Yellow is a more opaque yellow, but Cadmium Yellow Light is more on the transparent range. If I’m painting something that I want to glaze with a yellow wash, I wouldn’t reach for Diarylide yellow, because it will give a more chalky glaze, not a jewel-like stained glass glaze. If I want that particular hue of yellow in an opaque form, I will need to select a different yellow or mix a glazing medium into the paint and try it out. You can quickly wash it away with a wet cloth if you don’t like the affect.
Indian Yellow (which is an orange yellow brown) is almost completely transparent. It would be a good choice for glazing.
Here you can see an orange and a school bus yellow paint thinned down and stroked over blue. Each artist tube of paint will list its opacity. Some paints are totally opaque and some lay down very sheer. In this example, the orange color is fairly opaque, but it has been thinned with a glazing medium to make it uber transparent. You can make most acrylic paint tubes semi-transparent by using a glazing medium, but if you want your end result to have stained glass-like transparency, for best results you will need to use paints that are labeled transparent on the tube.
7. Can you use acrylics on fabrics?
Yes, but if you want them to be permanent and hand washable then use an additive made for fabrics. It helps the paint adhere to the fibers of the fabric and sink in deeply. You need to prewash your fabrics so that the sizing that is most likely on the fibers washes away. Then follow the directions on the label. This one keeps the paint flexible so that the paint won’t crack as the completed painting moves and bends with the suppleness of the fabric. I’ve successfully used this on T shirts and on canvas shoes. It works like a charm and the garment and shoes wore down before the artwork did. The beauty of this is that it is formulated to work with inexpensive craft acrylic paint, available at your local hobby shop or big box store. Win, win!!
Can you say ‘summer camp project for kids???’
2-Pack – Delta Creative Ceramcoat Acrylic Paint (8-Ounce each), 0802 Textile Medium
8. Can you use acrylic paint on paper?
Yes! You will get better results if you coat the paper first with gesso. Paper is very absorbent, and the gesso helps to cut that down and to keep the water from wicking out of the paint TOO fast. Here’s a fun demo showing how easy it is to paint on paper with acrylics:
You can cut out the finished paintings and frame them individually or keep them together as a unit or even send them off like postcards. I love the idea of using Washi Tape to divide the paper into sections. When the painting is dry, you can peel off the tape and have a pristine white border around the paintings for a modern look. Make sure you use wash the painter’s tape because regular tape will shred the paper as you remove it.
9. Are acrylics non-toxic?
Well. The answer to that is…..maybe. But never ingest them, of course. They are generally considered non-toxic, but the plain truth is that as a human race we have not done long time-line double-blind scientific testing on practically ANYTHING we use in modern life. So, we just don’t know for certain what the long term ramifications are to getting acrylic paint on our skin. I would never deliberately paint human skin with acrylics just for that reason. No reputable artist acrylic paint company is going to come right out and say their paints are non-toxic because no one REALLY knows.
Some people develop sensitivities and intolerances to the ingredients in acrylic paint, so use your best judgement! House paint uses Latex rubber in their formulations which contribute to longevity and flexibility under extreme weather conditions. If you are allergic to Latex, check the label of every tube and every can of paint.
As a precaution, especially don’t paint on skin with any acrylic artists paints with the word “cadmium” in any part of the title. That is a toxic heavy metal and paints can be absorbed directly into your skin and into the bloodstream. That is a very chilling thought and I do think we do not give enough serious consideration to what we expose ourselves to on a daily basis. Afterall, our skin is very porous and we are made up of a large percentage of water. It makes sense to be very careful about what we put on our skin, even if the manufacturer states that their products are non-toxic.
For that reason alone, painting with acrylics is considered safer than using oil paints with their oils and petrochemical chemicals needed to clean brushes up afterwards. The chance for exposure on our skin or vapors inhaled into our lungs is fairly high when we paint. We KNOW those chemicals associated with oil paints are not good for our bodies and if ingested, will harm or kill us. Many people with health issues switch to using acrylics for those very reasons.
Please know that some artist paint companies have recently invented cadmium substitute pigments that are supposedly safe. So think about trying those instead.
One thing is certain, I am a messy, messy painter. There is no possible way I can paint without getting it on my clothes or skin. For myself, if I get a tad bit of acrylic paint on my skin, I just wash it off with soap and water right away but I don’t stress about it.
(If I get oil paint on my skin, by contrast, I freak out a little bit before I rush to eliminate any contact using a fruit based oil like avocado or grapeseed oil, then I use lots of hot water and soap. NOT paint thinner or OMS! Never let those chemicals come into contact with your skin.)
10. Are Acrylics Flammable?
No, acrylics do not contain flammable chemicals and you clean up your brushes with water, as directed. ( I use a little bit of soap in the palm of my hand while washing brushes I’ve painted acrylics with. You can buy brush conditioner, but I use cheap brushes for acrylic (see our article on the best brushes for acrylics here). Then dispose of any rags or paper palettes into your home garbage can.
Be forewarned though, the water that you clean your brushes with will clog up your sink eventually, so dispose of your wastewater responsibly. If you can, let the rinse water air evaporate until the sludge at the bottom starts to coagulate, then scoop it out and dispose of it in your garbage can. It won’t help the landfill, but it will help your city water and save your home plumbing.
I’ve taken a lot of classes from master artists and learned a ton along the way. I really enjoy this artist’s teaching! He is an artist from Australia and he packs his lessons with great material. For the price of his lessons, you’ll learn quickly and progress steadily. Check out Richard Robinson’s classes here:
Thank you so much for reading this article all the way to the end. Please let me know your thoughts below in the comments!
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