Acrylic is my favorite medium to use because of its quick drying time and high versatility! I love to paint in thin layers or switch over to high opacity within the same medium. No other medium allows me to do BOTH within minutes of each other.
If you are painting right out of the tube of artists paint or craft type of paint, and are not using thick streams of paint, I can safely say that acrylic paint will dry within a few minutes.
The answer to the question of exactly how long does acrylic paint take to dry is varied and depends on factors such as relative humidity, room temperature, how thick your paint is, if you have added any additives and what surface you are painting on!
To be very specific though, paint can be dry to the touch and be ready for another layer of paint in as few as a handful of seconds, or take a few months to be fully cured! That’s quite a huge array of drying times. You can narrow down your estimation of drying times by factoring in the issues listed below.
Dry to the touch is different from fully cured, however. Fully cured is when all the chemical processes have come to a stable conclusion. This can take several months or even a few years for paint 1/4th inch or more in thickness. (Fully cured is ideal for longevity and maximum paint performance.)
When I am painting with acrylics, I gauge the approximate drying time using the factors below because trying to layer acrylics that have not dried enough is a prescription for disaster: the first layer of paint can lift off in the center area of the paint leaving a ridge of dried paint on the outside edge and a crater of unpainted area in the center. Once that happens, there is not much of a chance of a quick repair. Too often it is necessary to let it dry then sand the entire area down to the original support surface and start over. I am uber cautious about making sure my acrylic paint is dry enough to handle a second layer before I continue painting!
I’ve learned to gauge the level of drying by gently touching the surface of what I assume is the dried paint. If it is colder than surrounding areas, then water is in the process of evaporating and the paint hasn’t ‘set’ yet. If the surface is ‘tacky’ to the touch, then it’s definitely NOT dry enough for a second layer. It will pay big dividends to wait a few more minutes for that second layer!
If you are short of time, you can help things along a bit by using the cool setting on your hairdryer and blowing a stream of air across the surface gently. I generally don’t use a hair dryer though, as it only shortens the time by a minute or so and I can use that time to get fresh rinse water, clean brushes, contemplate my next move or set out fresh paint on the palette.
Factors That Contribute To Drying
A highly absorbent support like watercolor paper is going to draw in the water carrier that is included in acrylic paints and when the paint is highly thinned, the paint can dry in just a few seconds!
Painting on a hard, non-porous surface like correctly prepped metal or wood will increase the drying time by a minute or so. However, painting on something deeply 3D like masonry will mean pockets or wells of paint will take longer to dry, so allow plenty of time between layers and use a primer coat of paint to keep absorption of expensive paint low.
Higher levels of humidity in the air will slow drying time because the air’s water content will influence evaporation of the water within the acrylic paint. The higher the humidity, the longer the drying time. That’s where a hair dryer can really come in handy.
Moving air either from nature or from a mechanical device will cause the surface of acrylic paints to dry faster, but may also create a film of drying skin on the top of thicker paint, similar to the unappetizing skin on chocolate pudding.
Thickness of paint application
Acrylic paint is extremely versatile and can mimic glazing with oil or watercolor or be as dense as impressionistic or modern abstract impasto strokes.
I’ve found that very thin applications of acrylic paint need additives to the water/paint mixture, as too much water added can break down the adhesion of the paint pigment to my surface. If I’m doing casual craft painting or painting on cardstock, it’s not a concern, as the finished products will not last long. But if I’m wanting to create a frameable painting or I’m painting on a non-absorbent surface like metal or wood, and I want a watercolor-like look of paint, I will add acrylic glazing medium to make sure the bond is tough enough to last.
Acrylic artist paint (heavy-body paint) right out of the tube can be applied with a trowel or palette knife and retain its shape even when dry.
Thicker paint applied in an impasto technique or applied with thickening additives like molding paste, can increase drying time dramatically. With Golden Acrylic Extra-Heavy Molding Gel you can add it to your paint and apply it to your surface with peaks and sculptural forms like frosting a cake. That’s going to increase drying time. I always advise artists to run a test sample on the same sort of surface as the intended finished work to make sure you are aware of your drying time.
Layers of paint
Applying consecutive layers of paint will lengthen drying times as well. It’s not much of an issue with very thin layers, but you can imagine layers of thicker acrylic paint laid down on top of each other will require longer times to become completely dry. Layering will increase the bonding time between each layer to form a tight bond. I’ve had acrylic layers dry up to half an hour because I got impatient between layers and added more before the first layer was completely dry. Trust me, wait a little minute between layers will actually save you wait time in the long run!
If you hurry it too fast, the subsequent layers can remain tacky indefinitely….just imagine my kitchen cabinets: the renter previous to me repainted the kitchen cabinets and didn’t let the layers dry thoroughly. Now six years into my rental time the cabinets are STILL TACKY from the previous renter’s impatient attempt at cabinet painting, and what is worse, the paint is rubbing off from frequent hand contact! Grrrr!! The only option now is to strip the paint and sand the surface of the raw wood and prepare the surface properly before applying paint again. You can bet I’m going to let the paint layers dry for a couple of days before applying a second coat!
Properly prepared wood is an ideal surface for acrylic paint. The wood MUST be thoroughly dry and sealed before paint is applied though! Wood grain and surface stains have some bizarre sort of super-power which burns through paint and shows up months or years later as ugly marks on the artwork. Never skip the sealing stage! (Trust me, I know from sad experience….)
While not as fast drying as paper, wood properly prepared is not porous and lets the water in the paint evaporate quickly. Acrylic paint in this instance should dry within 30 minutes, depending on your prep, the thickness of paint and weather conditions. You can buy gessoed boards like these for paintings:
or use solid wood panels for outdoor signs like this:
If you are painting on brick, for example, and using thicker layers of paint, it may take a couple of weeks for the paint to bond sufficiently to allow a firm connection to additional layers of paint. Make sure you let it dry thoroughly, as tackiness may be a factor if you try and hurry things along with too many layers too quickly. Depending on the weather conditions, let layers dry at least five or six hours between application.
Make sure to use a primer paint layer made for masonry to seal the brick and save you some money on costly acrylic paint. Your paint will go much farther as it won’t need to travel into the deep crevices of the masonry grains.
It will feel dry to the touch, but for maximum durability, it’s wise to err on the side of additional drying times in between layers of paint.
Artist canvas requires a prep layer of gesso. Not necessarily for preservation issues, but to reduce absorption and help easy coverage of acrylic paint. Acrylic paint is ideal for canvas! Thin layers dry with a few minutes. Thicker layers of paint vary, and I would let thick layers dry for a couple of days at a minimum before applying a second layer. Test the thick paint for tackiness and rubbery-give before you apply paint. I would err on the side of caution and let it dry for a week or so, just to be safe.
Acrylic doesn’t have the caustic oils of other mediums and won’t seep out into the fibers of paper and ruin the finished appearance. Most artists acrylic paint companies recommend a prep layer of gesso, which is designed to seal the substrate and help the acrylic paint bond to the surface in the best possible way. For casual use, like greeting cards or paper crafts, I often just paint straight onto heavy paper.
Acrylics will dry within seconds on paper if applied thinly!
Extending the drying time of acrylics
It is possible to lengthen the dry time of acrylic paints by adding special additives to your paint while it is on your palette. These companies make ‘retarders’ that will keep the paint wet and workable for up to 40% longer. (please note that extenders refer to the volume and consistency of the paint, NOT the length of time the paints are wet). Retarders are great for seamless blending and working outdoors where quick drying paint is frustrating and problematic.