Acrylic paints are versatile. Maybe too versatile?
There are so many posts with “information” about acrylic paints…what is the truth? What will I need to do acrylic painting? How can I sort out what will work best for me? This post is designed to help you choose, and to find the best deals, too.
The world is your oyster with acrylic paints.
Acrylic paints can be used thinly like a watercolor, or laid down like oils. That translates, when you ask what to paint on with acrylics, into the multitude of surfaces you can use.
They range from papers to canvases, to boards, to metals or plastic. Basically, you can use acrylic paints on anything that is neither too shiny nor too oily. And if it is shiny, you can often sand it to rough it up so you can have the acrylics stick to it.
To determine what surface to use, it helps to think about what your expectation is for the art you plan to create. Is it going to be a practice piece? Is it going to be used for a one-time event and then most likely discarded? Is it intended to become a family heirloom? Is it something you plan to sell?
The plan you have for the piece is a key consideration in what surface you select to paint on. Each option available has a range of prices and quality, as well as advantages and disadvantages.
Also when answering What to Paint on With Acrylics, you will want to consider where you will be painting. Will you be doing plein air painting? Will you be in your home? Will you be in a class? Some surfaces that are available are more portable and lighter than others.
Paper or Canvas or What?
As we said, there are many options to choose among. Paper is least expensive, then canvas, then fine woods. All have their purposes and uses.
Paper has composition, weight, texture, and coating. Paper can be made of cotton or of linen, and be paint worthy. Cotton is less costly than linen. The weight of the paper you use is important, because acrylics are water-based. A less dense paper will soak and curl. You will want to use a paper that is heavier made, a 140 lb or greater is my recommendation.
Then there is the texture of the paper. More texture means more tooth, while finer texture means you will be able to put in more detail and finer brush strokes.
Watercolor paper can be a good option for acrylic painting techniques. Cold-pressed paper tends to be a coarser texture while hot pressed is smoother.
You can also affect the texture and the weight of the paper by coating it with gesso. You need to use a gesso that is made for acrylics or for both oils and acrylics. Oil-based gesso will not work, the acrylic paint will peel off.
With cotton paper, one to 5 coats of gesso can be applied for good results. If you vary the direction of the coats, you can give texture to the paper, and weight as well. You can use the gesso as both a surface preparation and as a glue to have the paper stick to a wood surface for more stability.
You should pin the paper to the wood if you do this, apply the gesso around and under the edges, allow drying, and then remove the pins.
Paper is especially good for student work or practice. It is not a surface you should expect to endure for a long time.
Painting on canvas with acrylics
is a very popular option. Canvas is time-tested for durability, and is easy to transport. It is flexible to be used in a wide range of sizes, from very small to wall-sized pieces.
You can obtain packs of canvases in various sizes, pre-stretched and either coated or not. Again, if coated, please make sure acrylic-friendly coating was used. You can also buy rolls of canvas and make your own stretched frames.
Canvases that are pre-stretched may have thick or thin wood stretchers. Your choice may depend on whether you plan to frame the finished work or not, and the look you want. If you do not wish to frame, you can paint the edges with a continuation of your painting, or with a plain blackish paint, or even run some duct tape or electrical tape around the edge to give it definition.
Canvas can be made of cotton or of linen, with linen more costly. Weights vary and you should aim for a thread density for cotton of 12-15, definitely avoiding 8-10. Most painting canvases being sold today are acid-free, and that is what you want.
You can use the canvas either primed with gesso or not. With unprimed canvases, the work is more dull.
Painting on Wood with Acrylics
is a time-honored tradition. Wood can be a hardwood, which will be both heavy and expensive. It can also be a Masonite or the newer Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF).
MDF is made with formaldehyde, so be careful if you cut it. The expectations for MDF are good and it is being improved all the time. With Masonite, make sure it is untempered, since tempering uses oils, and that would not work for painting on wood with acrylics.
Masonite and MDF are both less costly and lighter than hardwood. They can also be used as a backer for canvas paper attached with gesso as discussed earlier.
How to Apply Gesso
Gesso is the primer for acrylics and oils. Read the label. Some gesso is specifically for oils, some for acrylics and some for both. Gesso can prepare a surface for a brighter paint application.
Gesso is not necessary, but it can give good results. You can also buy painting surfaces that are already primed for acrylics.
To apply gesso, you want to use a very large brush, like a house paint brush, or a roller. If you have a low cost brush, be sure to keep it trimmed and remove loose bristles so they do not get stuck on your paint surface.
If you are applying one coat, just use it straight from the container. If you plan more than one, you can thin the gesso somewhat with water for the first coat. Apply and let dry for 8 hours or so. Then apply the second coat in a diagonal direction full-strength.
You can apply up to 4-5 coats if you want. On the final coat, you can obtain a smoother surface by mixing the gesso with medium gel. Or you can get a rougher painting surface by adding sand to the gesso.
It is evident that deciding what to paint on with acrylics is dependent on what you plan to do with your painting. For practice, paper is fine, inexpensive and lightweight. For a work you want to keep, I like canvases, because I do a lot of plein air, or travel and paint. I like the lightweight and the versatility of canvas.
It will be interesting to try a very large Masonite painting someday, I think. What are your goals and expectations for your work? What are the choices that make sense for you? I look forward to hearing from you.
Get some paints and give it a try. It can open up even more creative mindfulness for you. Do something creative today! Painting is an easy start to creative brain exercise. And that can impact your life!
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