Acrylic Paint is made of pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion. They are faster drying than oils, and are more easily manipulated with the use of a wide variety of mediums available for acrylic painting technique. Acrylics were first developed in the mid-1930s and boasted a mixture of qualities also possessed by either watercolour or oils. Many artists enjoy using acrylic colour because although they dilute in water they dry waterproof, and they are faster drying than oils, yet colours can be just as intense.
In considering the various factors at play in the realm of acrylics you will find the following terms, claims and assertions: Maximum lightfastness levels. Smooth buttery consistency. Holds peaks. No colour shift. Highest levels of pigmentation. Good coverage/opacity levels. Optimum colour brilliance and colour depth. Durable paint film. UV and weather resistant.
If you were new to acrylic painting and you wanted to choose the best brand of acrylic colour to use, you would come across phrases such as the ones above in nearly ALL the literature you would read about any of the professional (and in some cases, the student grade) acrylic colours on the market. You would then be none the wiser; which acrylic colour should I use? Which is the best for my painting techniques? Do they really all behave in the same way? In this investigative survey we will guide you through the factors to consider and the comparisons we can make between the brands available at The PaintBox, as well as the other art materials you might choose to invest in. This will enable you to buy your art materials online with confidence.
Lightfastness refers to the amount of resistance a pigment in a particular paint has to exposure to light. Pigments can be organic or inorganic and are either naturally sourced (dug up from the ground) or synthetic (produced chemically in a factory). All fine art colour will use pigments that have a very good (ASTM II) or an excellent (ASTM I) lightfastness rating where possible. The internationally recognised classification for lightfastness, ASTM, was originally founded by the inventor of Liquitex acrylic colour, Henry Levison, during his retirement, and since then the ASTM rating scale has had very little improvement or expansion, despite the fact that many more pigments are now used in acrylic colour. In Britain we also refer to the British Standard Wool scale rating, which is a much more recent scale and takes many more pigments into consideration, as well as how pigments behave in sunlight when used as a mid-tint (mixed with a little white) and then used as a full-tint (mixed with a lot of white). The highest level of lightfastness on the BS Wool scale rating is 8, and the lower the number the poorer the lightfastness. It may be because of the BS Wool scale rating that Schmincke are particularly proud of their PrimAcryl titanium white, with its ‘high pigmentation, opacity and cover rate which allows for incredibly brilliant mixtures’, which would also allow for maximum lightfastness ratings when testing pigments as tints. Lightfastness, as well as being a characteristic of the pigment itself, is also affected by the concentration ratio of pigment to acrylic binder (the acrylic liquid that the pigment is suspended in). As you might expect, more expensive professional acrylic ranges have a greater concentration of pigment and so are considered more lightfast than cheaper student grade paints (other phrases to look out for include ‘high loading of pigment and ‘intensely saturated’; they all mean the same thing). Sadly the most fugitive or least lightfast pigments are the fluorescent colours, and to date no acrylic paint manufacturer has been able to produce a fluorescent colour that is of ASTM I or ASTM II rating. However they are often useful and there is still a market for them, and that is why brands such as Acrylicos Vallejo (AV), Daler Rowney System 3 and Golden still offer these colours in their ranges.
Colour Brilliance and Depth
Another claim by many professional grade acrylic paint brands is the brilliance of their colour as well as depth. How do they achieve it and what do they mean anyway? Colour brilliance (the brightness or purity of a colour’s appearance) is best achieved with the use of a single pigment in a colour; by not mixing pigments colours are able to sing and appear vibrant, and when mixed with other colours by you on a palette, the colour mixes you produce are less likely to appear dull. This is why many brands including Winsor and Newton (‘69 single pigment colours, 86% of the range’) and Golden (‘only 30 of our 101 colours are mixture colours’) are very proud of the number of single pigment colours they have in their ranges. As Daler Rowney say in their Cryla acrylic literature, ‘Mix as few colours / pigments as possible. The more pigments that you mix together the more likely you are to create dirty colours, try and limit your colour mixes to mainly two colours with only a touch of a third. Be careful some colours are already a mixture of pigments so additional colour should be added to them sparingly’ (It is interesting however that it is very difficult to find in any of their literature a statement of how many single pigment colours they have in their range). The other factor that maximises colour brilliance and depth is the milling, or grinding of the pigments so that the smallest possible particle size can be achieved. A triple roll mill is used to do this – this is a machine comprising of 3 steel rollers that rotate in alternate directions. Between each roller is a very small gap. As the colour passes through the mill the pigment is crushed to a smaller particle size by each of the 3 rollers. This process, which has been in use since the invention of acrylic colour, allows more light to travel through the paint film and thus create the depth, richness, and strength of colour. It also allows the transparency or opacity of the pigment to show through to its maximum potential without compromising on the brightness of the colour. Do not be fooled by brands who say all their colours have ‘excellent covering power’ as this implies they have added opacifiers to their colours, including the transparent pigments, just so that inexperienced painters think they are getting good value for their money, when in fact they are losing out on the beautiful variations in characteristics that these pigments have to offer! In direct contrast to this is the statement made by Golden in their description of their Heavy Body colours – ‘Each heavy body colour is formulated differently depending on the nature of the pigment. Colours that tolerate higher pigment loads dry to a more opaque matte finish. Colours that are more reactive and do not accept high pigment loading dry to a glossy finish and tend to be more transparent.’ The real experts of acrylic colour are sensitive to the characteristics of the materials with which they are working.
However, the extent of one’s sensitivity of the characteristics of the pigments being used in each colour is an area for debate. Golden are actually one of the few acrylic paint to make statements such as ‘Heavy body colours contain no additives such as matting agents, therefore the gloss of each colour will be different,’ for the reason explained above – they feel it is better to keep the natural characteristics of the colours unmodified. But other professional and student ranges do modify their ranges. Winsor and Newton’s student range, Galeria, state that their colours dry to a ‘smooth satin finish’, Amsterdam Expert acrylic dry ‘uniformly gloss’, Old Holland New Masters make the contradiction in their literature to say that they allow for the unique characteristics of the pigments to define the behaviour of the paints, but then go on to say that all colours ‘dry to a satin gloss’. Of course there is argument for both – if one is well acquainted with the characteristics of pigments in their unmodified state, one might wish to take advantage of these. However if you are less acquainted with the characteristics of pigments then you might misidentify the undulations in the sheen of Golden colours to be a dulling of colour caused by manufacturing faults or the sinking of colour into an unevenly primed support. If this is the case the sheen can be made uniform again once the painting is finished and dry by varnishing the work. Modified colour will dry with a uniform sheen across the painting surface (unless one is painting on an unevenly primed surface) and so varnishing is not necessary to unify sheen (although might be desired in order to protect the work from dust, wear and tear, and enhance lightfastness). There are ranges of matte sheen paint that have recently arrived on the market, Holbein Acryla Acrylic Gouache and Golden So Flat being pre-eminent amongst these offerings given that they both produce a flat matte finish that does not appear plastic.
Ranges of acrylic colour like to tell you how many colours they have- it shows they offer you maximum choice and maximum control over your palette. What is more important than the size of the range is how many single pigment colours they have – these are the colours that will offer you the greatest control over your colour mixes, or if you prefer to paint with colour straight out of the tube, try testing the colours that you feel will communicate your idea the best. There is no reason not to mix colours from a number of different ranges, and this is a particularly good idea if you want to also explore the differing consistencies and drying times on offer from varying paint manufacturers. Student ranges of colour may substitute more expensive pigments with synthetically developed substitutes; these have the word ‘hue’ after their name. The fluid and airbrush colour ranges may not have the heavier pigments in their ranges as it is impossible for these pigments to suspend evenly in their very liquid acrylic polymer binders. Always remember that colours of the same name may behave and appear slightly differently between brands. There are always varying consistencies, drying times, and concentrations, not to mention variations in the blends of pigments if the colour is not a single pigment hue, so never think a French ultramarine in Golden Heavy Body can be replaced by a French ultramarine by Daler Rowney Cryla mid painting unless you have tested the 2 paints checked that any differences are ignorable.
This factor does differ among some of the acrylic paints – student colours tend to all have ‘medium’ consistency (Chromacryl), Liquitex Professional Acrylic boasts ‘high viscosity’, Matisse say their paint is ‘very heavy body’, Charvin say their artist acrylic is ‘thick’ and Golden Heavy Body say theirs is ‘thick and buttery’.Golden Artist Acrylics are particularly versatile in that they are formulated to brush out easily, yet retain structure when built up impasto. The one common feature of the consistency of all these paints is their smoothness. This is in part due to the binders that they use, but more crucially, due to the fine nature of the pigments (which as discussed in the previous paragraph also enhances the brilliance of colour). The cheapest acrylic paint has an uneven consistency because it has coarser pigment particles in it that have not been properly triple roll milled and cannot suspend evenly in their binder. This means the pigment will actually sink down the binder over time and will be difficult to mix evenly again. ‘Golden Fluid Acrylic Colour’ paint, as the name suggests, is the consistency of double cream and is pourable and self-levelling, yet rather than achieve this by being thinned down with mediums and be of a lesser concentration than other ranges of professional grade acrylic paint, it is of the same pigment concentration but just uses a thinner consistency binder to many other professional acrylic colours. For this reason Golden do not produce some of the heavier pigments in the fluid range such as the Cadmium colours. The same is also true of AV’s Premium Airbrush colour and Liquid Acrylic. The consistency of acrylic colour can be manipulated in a couple of ways – firstly with the use of mediums, gels and pastes, of which there are hundreds, that allow acrylic artists more versatility and control than any other kind of painter, and secondly by mixing different type of acrylic colour with one another i.e. if Heavy Body colour is too thick you could mix it with some fluid colour.
If you ever ask an acrylic painter why they choose to paint in acrylics over oils, a common response is ‘oils take too long to dry’. Acrylic colour usually has an ‘open’ time (the time it is wet on the surface for) of around 15-20 minutes, but it seems that many new ranges including Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylics have worked on extending the open time to around 30 minutes. Cryla, one of the first acrylic ranges to ever be developed, have chosen not to extend drying times and claim their paints only stay open for around 5-10 minutes, explaining on their website that ‘This is a great advantage to artists who wish to paint quickly, as paintings that may have taken weeks to complete in oil, because of the necessity of waiting for paint layers to dry, can be completed in one session with Cryla Artists’ Acrylic’. Golden’s Open acrylics have the same drying times as you might expect with an oil paint range, i.e. a few days, and this range is popular with painters who like oils but not the need to work with solvents. The drying times of Open acrylics can be sped up by mixing with regular acrylic colour, and conversely regular acrylic colour can be manipulated to extend drying times by mixing with Golden Open acrylic. The drying time of acrylic colour can also be extended with the use of acrylic retarders – these are acrylic mediums that often also extend the colour and slightly increase the transparency of acrylic colour, but most importantly prolong the drying time. There are many other acrylic mediums on the market that manipulate the colour in a number of different ways (I will discuss this later on) – but do check on the labels to see if they state whether the medium will extend the drying time, as many of them do this as well as manipulate the appearance of colour.
At this point I should point out that all acrylic paint does actually take a little longer to dry than one might expect. Acrylics dry when all the water content in the wet paint moves away from the paint; it either seeps into the support that the paint has been applied to, or it evaporates into the air, and what remains is the acrylic polymer binder; tiny solid transparent particles that move closer together, causing the layer of paint to contract and form a solid ‘film’. This process happens fastest at the top and bottom of the layer – where the paint can either easily evaporate into the air or where the absorbency of the support pulls the water out of the colour, almost as if by process of osmosis. So therefore a skin forms on the layer of wet colour. The rest of the layer will take a little longer to lose its water content as there is less exposure to elements that encourage the liquid to leave. This is why very thick layers of acrylic colour can take years to dry. If you paint a painting with really thick paint, it is sometimes possible to feel the ‘sponginess’ of the paint – where the colour is still wet beneath the surface. When in this state colour is still water-soluble and relatively unstable, and more quantities of water can actually be re-absorbed into the layer of paint, and on occasion cause cloudiness. For this reason it is absolutely crucial that finished works should be left to dry completely before any varnish is applied, as any expanding or contracting of a semi-dry paint film will cause varnish to form blooms and cracks. Drying times of acrylic colour can be affected by other external factors. If you are painting in very hot conditions, this will speed up drying, and if you are painting in very cold conditions, this will slow the drying process. Very humid conditions will slow the drying process as the air is already heavy with liquid. A strong airflow or wind may cause the surface of paint to wrinkle or crack.
Colour shift is caused by an acrylic binder having a different appearance when wet to how it looks when dry. Cheap student and school acrylic colour will have a larger colour shift to more expensive acrylic colours. The very highest quality ranges either state they have ‘no colour shift’ or ‘very little colour shift’ such as Schmincke PrimAcryl, Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic, Golden Artist Acrylic and Daler Rowney Cryla. The truth however is they all have some amount of colour shift. In the case of Winsor & Newton’s Artists’ Acrylic, it claims in large print there is no colour shift but when you watch the video they have illustrating the point, you see that the binder that they use, in its wet state, although translucent, is milky in colour. When the binder dries it dries to a perfectly clear, colourless solid. The transition from milky binder to clear solid will have some influence on the appearance of the paint, and when it dries it will become ever so slightly darker. Until acrylic paint manufacturers manage to develop a binder that has exactly the same density as water this will always be the case.
Artists who intend to paint work intended to exhibit out of doors will be concerned about the weather resistance of the materials they are working with. No colour can be 100% weatherproof. A painting exposed to strong winds is likely to suffer cracking, one that is in an area of very strong sunlight will fade even if the colour is the highest quality, and very cold conditions may prevent solid paint films from ever forming. If weather resistance is of paramount importance we recommend varnishing the finished work with MSA varnish to enhance protection from all these conditions. The more expensive paints with their stronger acrylic binders are likely to be more weather resistant as a result in their unmodified state than their cheaper equivalents.
WHAT IS ACRYLIC GOUACHE?
Acrylic Gouache colour is acrylic paint with an additive that causes all colour to dry matte. It is particularly favourable among illustrators as the uniformity in sheen is akin to the finish of most printed images, however many fine artists also favour the use of matte acrylic gouache. Acrylic gouache tends to be a little more fluid in its consistency than regular acrylic colour. Holbein produces professional quality acrylic gouache. Holbein’s colour range is particularly extensive, and is divided into several colour categories – Greyish, Japanesque, Lame, Lumi, Metallic, Pastel, Pearl and original. They have been divided in this way to help with palette selection (colours within each group are particularly complementary to one another). As with any additive in acrylic colour, the characteristics of the pigments themselves will be altered and there may be some effect on the brightness of some of the pigments, although of course all paint manufacturers would try and minimise this.
WHAT IS ACRYLIC INK?
Acrylic Ink, unlike drawing ink, is a fast drying fluid acrylic colour consisting of super fine pigment particles suspended in a watery acrylic emulsion. Acrylic Inks are waterproof when dry. The best acrylic inks, like all colour, are the ones with a high pigment concentration. Because the pigment particles are so fine acrylic inks will not clog air brushes and dip pens as easily as regular acrylic colour would (although we always recommend cleaning all painting tools thoroughly after use). Acrylic Inks can be used for a variety of applications including airbrushing, printing and stamping, calligraphy, dip pen drawing, and watercolour effects. Acrylic Inks can be mixed with all kinds of acrylic colour, regardless of whether it is heavy body or fluid, artist or student quality. Acrylic Inks are available at The PaintBox from Golden, Liquitex, and Daler Rowney.
WHAT IS ACRYLIC SPRAY PAINT?
Acrylic spray paint offers a means of applying thin and even layers of acrylic paint, dispersed through the nozzle in tiny droplets. Spray paints allow you to blend colours with ease. The layers are so thin they tend to dry very quickly. Professional acrylic spray paints offer low pressure handling, which means that you have much greater control over thin applications of colour. Spray paints can be applied to many surfaces including canvas, wood, concrete, metal, glass and even flexible surfaces, without cracking.
It is really good practice when using these sprays to wipe the nozzle with a rag after each time you apply a spray of colour – this will help prevent the nozzle from clogging, as these paints are pretty fast drying and are susceptible to clogging if one is not careful.
WHAT ARE ACRYLIC MARKERS?
Acrylic markers are pens that contain paint. They are versatile products and can be used for a wide variety of hobby and craft purposes. They can be used to write or draw on glass, plastic, metal, stone, wood and card.
The paints that these markers contain can either be oil-based or water-based. They create dense, opaque marks that are often glossy in finish. They’re very permanent, especially on porous surfaces, but can usually be abraded from non-porous surfaces over time.
Those who favour working in acrylics are often attracted by the myriad ways the paint can be manipulated with the use of mediums. Acrylic mediums and gels are made using the same acrylic resin binders that manufacturers use in making paint, to which various other materials including marble dust, stone and mica are added in order to alter the consistency and behaviour of the medium which in turn will manipulate the paint when the medium is mixed with it. Golden’s Artist Acrylic range includes a number of gels and mediums which are described below, and we also sell acrylic mediums by Golden, Liquitex, AV, Daler Rowney, Winsor & Newton, Lascaux and Ara.
Acrylic Gel Medium
Acrylic gel medium is available in Daler Rowney (known as ‘Impasto Gel Medium’), Golden (known as ‘Heavy Gel’ and is available gloss, matt or semi-gloss), and AV. Acrylic Gel Medium is made from acrylic polymer emulsion, and is of a heavier viscosity that the Artist Acrylic. By adding this medium to your colour you will extend the colour, increase its transparency, and slow the drying time a little. Gel medium is particularly good for heavy impasto techniques. Golden also do a ‘Regular Gel’ in gloss, matte or semi-gloss, and this is of a similar consistency to Golden Heavy Body Acrylic but still may be thicker than some other acrylic colour ranges. (Please note that brands can be mixed).
Acrylic Flow Medium and Acrylic Fluid Medium
These mediums will thin heavy body acrylic paint, but are usually of a similar consistency to fluid colour. They extend the colour and increase the transparency. It is worth checking each individual brand with regard to how they affect the drying time – AV’s does not alter the drying time because it is made using the same acrylic emulsion as the paint itself. Golden, an employee owned company, did most of the research and development that has led to the ranges of flow and fluis mediums on the market today.
Golden offers retarders as part of their acrylic medium ranges. These slow the drying time right down, and also extend the colour and increase its transparency. It is advised not to mix more retarder than 10% of the colour you are mixing with as this will weaken the bonds between the acrylic polymer particles in the paint too much and cause instability in the dry acrylic paint film.
Other Acrylic Mediums
There are so many other mediums and gels to explore, so if you are interested in really making unique paintings then it is worth having a look. There are mediums to make paint appeared cracked and aged, mediums to make paint stringy, sandy, gritty, pearlescent, pasty…there are gels to alter consistency, reduce brush marks, increase brush marks, increase gloss and decrease gloss. Experiment where you can, you might even want to mix mediums and see what other possibilities there are.