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How to Make a Successful Acrylic Painting

by Jonty Hawkins

Before the Barbizon School and the Impressionists promoted the idea of painting on location or 'En plein air' most artists would work in the studio. While initial sketches and even some painting was done outside, the majority of the work was completed in-doors. Using acrylics in a hot climate necessitates a return to this method of working, and thanks to the technology that is now at our disposal contemporary artists can avoid prolonged spells in an inhospitable climate and work in the relative comfort of the studio.

While some purists may argue that an artist should only work from their own sketches and drawings, those who are willing to embrace the digital camera will find that the opportunities to capture scenes and images are limitless. Spending seconds rather than long minutes making detailed sketches, a 21st century artist can capture the essence of the scene before them and return to the studio with an album of photographs upon which they can base their next painting. If necessary these photographs can be manipulated with appropriate software until exactly the right image is found, and at this point you are ready to make a painting.

1. Measure your stretched canvas and square it up. You will not want too many lines across your work so it is probably advisable to limit the squares to about 6cm (about 2.5 inches).

2. Re-size your image to match the proportions of the canvas, and either square it up on the screen or print it out and use a pencil to do the same.

3. Using charcoal or a soft pencil, sketch the image onto the canvas. The squares will help you to get the proportions right. It is the broad shapes that you want to capture so don't worry about the detail at this stage.

4. Give the whole canvas a quick spray of fixative (or perfume-free hairspray) to prevent image loss as you go into the next stage.

5. Study your image carefully and decide on the over-all color (this will be provide the mid-tones in your painting).

6. Using plenty of water and your chosen colors make a wash. Apply to the whole canvas with a large brush. The wash needs to be thin enough to see your sketch showing through.

7. As soon as the wash has been applied you need to quickly work over the whole canvas with a damp cloth, removing the paint from all highlighted areas. Use your sketch and the photograph as guides, and ensure that this has been done within 5 to 10 minutes; otherwise the wash will have dried too much.

8. It is now time to apply the shadow to the canvas. Using a thinned mixture of ultramarine and burnt umber apply the paint with either a thick brush or, if you have the confidence, another rag. Again you need to work quickly and over the whole canvas. Don't be tempted to concentrate on details and don't worry if you make mistakes (quickly rub the paint away with a damp cloth). When you stand back from the canvas at this stage you will see an impressive image before you, even though you have only applied two colors with the crudest of brushes and rags.

9. Once the shadow has dried (a matter of minutes) you can start to consider the mid-tones. The wash will have provided this on the whole, but you now need to think about a bit more detail. Using a slightly thicker mix of the same colors (as the wash) apply some more detail with a mid to large brush. The size of brush is important as it prevents you from concerning yourself with too much detail.

10. At this point you will probably be able to see the squares still showing through so it is now time to think about the next layer of the painting. It is only now that you need to lay out your palette (acrylic paint dries so fast that it would be a wasteful mistake to put your colors out before this point). Your palette needs to be fairly limited as you will be concentrating on a few colors at a time.

11. Note all the places where you need to block in this color and work over the whole canvas at once. This is important as it ensures that you keep the painting unified. Don't feel tempted to start working on the detail in one particular area at this stage. Your brush should still be mid-sized.

12. Repeat with new colors until you have covered the whole canvas with a new layer. Your wash will still show through in places but the overall impression will be getting closer to the final painting you may have imagined at the start.

13. Now you can start on the detail. With a finer brush work over the whole painting, sharpening edges and tightening the drawing. It is very much up to the individual as to how much detail they may want to include. For a more impressionist style you may consider the painting to be close to completion. Alternatively you might want to achieve a more 'super-realist' finish to the work, in which case you work over the painting several times, with ever increasing detail.

Main points to remember:

1. At each stage work over the whole canvas at once.

2. Avoid starting in one corner and working across the space, as the painting will not have a unified feel.

3. Don't worry if you feel you've made a mistake - you can use a damp cloth to wipe wet acrylic paint away without removing the under-painting. Alternatively you can paint over it within minutes once it is dry.

4. You can use tape and masks to protect areas where you don't want paint to go (this will help with straight lines and sharp edges).

This article makes the assumption that you already have an eye for composition and some basic painting skills; if this isn't the case, I will be writing articles on these things in the near future.

Links to images to follow in the near future. (site down?)

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