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Adventures in Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint by Emma Cownie

You probably think that artists are good at creating paintings/images in all mediums; oil, watercolours acrylic paints. Many probably are, but I am not.  I need to work at it. It’s a bit like being an athlete. You might be great at football but it doesn’t automatically mean you are a great sprinter, tennis player or swimer. Although there are athletes who have successfully switched disciplines, like Usain Bolt, who started his career as a footballer; extra training is needed. I think painting is like that. Almost all of my experience up to now has been in working with oil paints but in the last six months I have been working hard at painting in acrylics.  Why? I knew that in our small house in Derry, until we got stairs put into the attic space, that oil paints and with their associated mess and fumes weren’t going to work.

Unfortunately I feel like I have been hitting my head against a brick wall for several months. I have learnt a great deal, using acrylic mediums and varnishes is very technical, but I won’t go into all the detail of what I have learnt. The strange thing is that the finished paintings looked good but the process of creating them was slow and frustrating. Here are some early examples;

Painting of fram buildings in Donegal
Shadow on the Entrance, Bloody Foreland
House in Inishbofin
House on Inishbofin


Stony Wall, Cnoc Fola (Donegal)
Stony Wall, Cnoc Fola (Donegal)
Painting of the view above Magheraroarty_Emma Cownie
Above Magheraroarty_Emma Cownie

This last one is my favourite but it took weeks to complete rather than days. I just don’t have the patience to spend that long on one smallish painting.

I also used acrylic paint for underpaintings for my oil painting, which worked better for me. It enabled be to paint faster, but this approach would be no good in Derry where I couldn’t use oil paints.

Boat at the Pier, Gola_Emma Cownie
Boat at the Pier, Gola (Donegal)
From Magheraroarty to Muckish
From Magheraroarty to Muckish (Donegal)


So why was I taking so long to complete these acrylic paintings? Acrylics don’t act like oil paints, that can be a good thing as well as a bad thing. You can correct mistakes easily. Acrylic paint is a relatively recent invention of the 1950s. It’s essentially a plastic. It is amazingly versatile but it’s origins as a polymer  presents a couple of challenges that I have struggled with for some time.  The first issue is that it dries fast. Really fast. I found that it dried on my palette within minutes. I hate wasting paint, so I made my own wet palette, so that the paint on my palette dries within days and not minutes.

It still dried very fast on the board/canvas on which I was painting. That meant that large areas, such as skies, werevery difficult to paint without looking patchy. I learnt to mix up large quantities of paint so that if I needed to, I could repaint a small area of the sky. Otherwise,  the whole sky had to be repainted.

The second big issue I had was somehing called “colour shift”. Acrylic paint dries dark. This is because most makers of acrylic paint use white binder that dries clear, so it looks light when you apply it, but goes dark as it dries. It seems to affect blues and browns particularly badly. I tried painting patches of colour to see who was the worst offender.

Colour Shift
Colour Shift (these are all dry so you cant see the colour shift but my notes tell you what I saw)


Although Windsor & Newton’s paints use clear blinder and have little colour shift, I didn’t particularly like them as a paint. I am not sure why I didn’t like them, possibly I just prefered to colour range of other manufacturers. Anyway, in the end I bought lots of Schminke PrimAcryl paints which also use a clear binder and results in only a small colour shift.

Finally, I decided to experiment with indirect painting. This is a method where by an underpainting in grayscale is done first and light layers of colour are applied as a glazes.

Again, its’s not as speedy as painting in oils (although I have used brown-tonal underpaintings in the past – with oil paintings, see here).

So here are two paintings I painted tonal underpaintings, and then added colour through a series of glazes.

Greyscale study of lambing Season at Fanad Head
Greyscale study of lambing Season at Fanad Head
Work in Progress - Lambing season at Fanad Head
Work in Progress – Lambing season at Fanad Head

Painting of Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal)Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal) – Final version

Greyscale study of Fanad LighthouseGreyscale study of Fanad Lighthouse – painted on a blue ground, which I left in the sky area of the painting.

Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Almost done – Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Lighthouse at Fanad Head (Donegal)
Lighthouse at Fanad Head (Donegal) – Final version with lightened sky


This approach seemed to work well for acrylics. Although I am still not as quick as I am in oils, this process enables me to produce paintings with greater depth of colour and more accurate tonal values. It is especially good for getting distant mountains right, something I have struggled with in the past. I am hoping that I have finally got the hang of working with this medium. I think it’s the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. There’s always so much to learn with painting no matter which medium you use!


Some of my resources

Indirect painting and Glazing

Willaim Kemp’s Art School

UK stockist of PrimAcryl


28 thoughts on “Adventures in Acrylic Paint

  1. I always find your work to be very beautiful, and know that each medium can be very different to work with, and must be very challenging at times

    1. Thank you, Beth. Ironically, I dont want my paintings to look like they were a struggle to produce, but some of them are definately easier to paint than others. The odd thing is that I cant always tell which ones will be easy before I start!

  2. So interesting Emma. I really don’t like using acrylics but also find myself needing to use them when out and about and at life drawing class etc. Some great tips you given so thank you! Katharine

    1. I have found them great for sketching and for a long time this was the only way I used them.

  3. I like the final result of your acrylic painting of the Fanad Lighthouse, but I still wonder whether an oil painting would look like.

    1. Good point – I will maybe do a version in oils when I am back in my Donegal studio.

  4. Thank you Emma for this blog. I am an oil painter but recently inherited a goodly amount of high quality acrylics. I am starting to experiment and am reading as much as I can. Your comments are most helpful and just what I needed this morning. Your paintings are a joy to see. I live on a peninsula on the Washington coast and I can smell the sea air in your work. Keep painting and keep posting. Lindy

    1. Thank you so much Lindy – yes, I trawled the internet for tips and advice. I expect you are familar with the forum on where people raise interesting points and they get a range of answers. A lot of people said they just added extra white to their colours and got used to colour shift.

      1. Emma, Thanks for your tips I am checking them out. Keep posting I love your work. Lindy

      2. Yes – I follow a number of threads on wetcanvas. Thank you Lindy

  5. I enjoyed this post, Emma. You are so much more systematic than I am! I’m the reverse~a lifelong acrylcist who is dipping my toe into oils.

    1. Yes, I am a bit of a geek. I got obsessed with trying to work out what exactly the problem was with acrylics. I bought a couple of books but they only mentioned colour shift in passing. I was going nuts trying to match colours that dried a different colour!!

  6. Thanks for an interesting article Emma. I have only used acrylics to scrape on paper for my collages. However I did notice how quickly they dried. I can appreciate how difficult that must be for large areas that you want to be smooth, like your skies. There must be days when you long for the oils!

    1. Oh yes! Graduations of colour over a large area are a nightmare but slight less so with glazing!

  7. One of my biggest beefs with acrylics is that once they dry on my brushes I might as well throw the brushes away. More than half my life ago I used to use them and I extended their drying time with a gloss gel which also allowed for the transparency I love. But it still didn’t do a lot for my brushes. I do think your acrylics came out fantastically well even if you didn’t exactly enjoy the process. People who can paint well in both acrylics and oils continue to amaze me.

    1. Yes I have met quite a few artists who say, yes I I tried acrylics once and then moved on to some other medium. I have taken to buying cheap brushes from a craft shop in Derry. They are pretty good and last just as long as more expensive ones. I wash them in Master’s soap or leave them in water – it doesnt seem to make much difference to have long they last – about three paintings’ worth.

  8. Love your writing about painting. I love how clouds change ’round the world yet remain the same. I want to see more Irish clouds.

    1. Hello Malaga, that’s an interesting point about clouds. I look up at the clouds when I am in Derry but can only see part of the sky – on the west coast of Donegal you see the whole sky and there’s usually some “drama” going on. I find the Donegal skies endless fascinating.

  9. That lighthouse painting is gorgeous! What an interesting insight into your painting journey.

    1. The Lighouse at Fanad Head is marvellous – such a stunning location.

  10. I love seeing the paintings in several stages. I can’t imagine how you do that, but all the same I appreciate getting to go behind the scenes.

    1. I am not an artist who can face doing a time lapse video – it interfers with my thinking too much!

  11. Interesting conundrum, which you seem to have solved marvelously. I never noticed a color shift in acrylics. I will have to look for it. I used to notice the shift in oils between application and drying but haven’t paid much attention to that anymore. I’m not sure why I stopped noticing. Maybe I should notice!

    The drying time of acrylics is indeed fast. When I’m painting in acrylic, it’s the fast drying that I seek to exploit. So I don’t try to slow it down. But I lay out the palette very differently than when I use oil. For oil, I put out all the colors I think I shall want. For acrylics, I put out the colors I want now. Now is defined as “the next five minutes.” I am always opening tubes, mixed, using, scraping the palette clean again. Open the tube again, etc. Hardest thing to get used to was opening tubes and closing tubes of paint constantly. But I’m accustomed to it now. I approach color as I would when using pastel. You reach for the stick you want. In the case of acrylic paint you are, as it were, composing the stick you want. You reach for it now. Use it. The paint dries. That requires reaching for “another stick of color.”

    I think of all art tools now as just pigment on surface. Optically, they all work about the same as long as the color properties are the same. The same pigments mixed together produce the same results across media. Sometimes the binder alters color a bit, but its relative since you are with each medium using the same binder.

    Since artists paint in different styles one really has to find the solutions amenable to one’s style. I found with acrylic that mixtures with white sometimes let some bits of white appear (because paint was not thoroughly, uniformly mixed), so I began mixing lighter shades (sometimes) using pre-mixed paint. Thus to get a lighter blue, I’d add a tube of pre-mixed light blue to the straight blue. Any bit that didn’t mix completely still has blue as the underlying hue rather than harkening back to the bold white of canvas. I found this works well for me. Sometimes the optical properties I want can be met halfway by mixing these “almost” shades rather than mixing pure colors plus white as one does with oil. But, again, it’s an idea I got from using pastels (or wax “oil” pastels) where you have all sorts of shades and tints already made.

    Whenever I want a continuous tone, when possible I reach for an out-of-the-tube solution. But it’s rare in my painting that I want that effect since I tend toward broken color. I’m usually looking for more ways to break up the color, looking at Monet and asking, “Claude, how’d you do it?”

    My original shift to acrylic was, like yours, practical. When I wanted to paint larger I needed the fast drying paint because of the dog. Where are you going to store a large wet canvas? When there’s more than one it’s a problem multiplied because anything that is low enough to the floor to be within aim of a large, happy dog’s tail presents a hazard. A dog’s wagging tail is just another sort of brush that can carry wet paint from one location to another!

    1. Dog tail painting is a whole other thing – I have cats running around in a small space and a husband who is very sensitive to the fumes! That reaching for paints/sticks is very important. My oil paints have a certain arrangement so i know where the colours are but my stay wet palette is too small to have a permanent spot for the acylics. It’s quite good that you have to screw the lids on straight away to avoid them drying up – it makes for a much tidier box of acrylic paint (compared with the poor old oils…I can never through a tube away no matter have tatty if there’s a bit of useable paint left in it).

      1. All the bits of external life, unseen as far as a painting goes, that nevertheless shape its creation — like accommodations for dogs and cats! I wonder if Giotto had a menagerie … he might have! At long last the rule is: “whatever works.”

  12. […] Adventures in Acrylic Paint […]

  13. Thanks for introducing me to the quirks and challenges of using acrylic paint. You seem to have conquered some of the most frustrating aspects.

  14. […] More about greyscaling  […]

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