Layer by Layer Acrylic Painting Tips


Painting with acrylics involves knowing what areas of the painting need attention during the creation process. Each area of the painting should evolve simultaneously with the others. It is important to move around to different areas of the canvas when painting in layers. Each part of the image should be in harmony with the rest of the painting in the finished product.

Draw Well to Paint Well

  • It is always a good idea to have a drawing to reference while painting. Think of the drawing as a plan for the painting. The practice sketch is called a cartoon. Begin by drawing the cartoon practice sketch at relatively the same scale as it would be in the larger painting. Next, use a light shade of colored pencil to transfer that sketch to the canvas. Draw lightly at first using with a colored pencil on the canvas, and then darken the lines on the canvas so that they are clearly visible.

Original Layer

  • Next, fill in the basic color. On the base layer of the painting, the colors should be solid, so use basic hues to fill in each area of color. Use care when edging. Edging is filling in the colors without crossing over the preliminary drawing lines. A small, flat brush with a pliable bristle edge works best for this. With acrylics, mix colors as you go, as the paint dries too quickly to mix all of the colors beforehand. Some artists start by filling in the color from the top left and working their way across the canvas. Other artists keep one color on the brush and fill in all of the areas that require that color at one time. It may be helpful to use a mahl stick when edging color. This is a stick that is held be the non-painting hand. The top of the mahl stick is then rested on the top of the canvas. The painting hand is steadied by balancing it on the stick.

Shades, Highlights and Details

  • After the basic colors have been added, it is time to fill in the highlights and shading. Use shades of paint that are the same hue as the base layer's, only just a shade darker. Make darker shades by adding a small amount of black to the color that is being used in each area. Try to make each shaded area blend with the pre-existing layer, as there needs to be a subtle transition from dark to light. A number of shades can be used for each area of color to create this effect. Highlights should be treated in the same way unless a light reflection is being painted, in which case a small dab of white or yellow is added to the painting. Highlighted areas are created by adding white and yellow to a color. A technique called dry brushing can be used to help with the shading and highlighting. This technique uses a brush with little or no paint on it to blend the paint.
    Add small details using a thin brush used for painting lines. Continual refinement will be required until the painting appears satisfactory; however, knowing when to quit is also an important consideration when painting.

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