by Joelle Steele

As a child and teenager, I always worked in watercolor or ink. But when I started painting on canvas in my early 20s, I worked in oil. I liked the texture of oil paints and the way they stayed soft and flexible long enough for me to move and mold them. But, because I painted in my apartment, the smell and the clean-up were more than I wanted to deal with. Eventually, I turned to acrylics. This became a great vehicle for me because I could do so many things with acrylic paint that I had done previously with watercolors and oils. And there were also a few things I could do that I had simply never tried before. Here are a few tips I have discovered for painting with acrylics.


Over the years, I have used paints made by a wide variety of different manufacturers. I think it is important to experiment and see what you like, what works best for you and the type of art you create. In other words, there are no wrong or right choices. So don't get fooled into spending more and thinking that the price alone will dictate a superior result; it might, but then again it might not. I don't find much difference between paint brands — although I'm sure there are artists who would disagree with me. Because it works well and is so easily available to me, I rely on the professional grade of Liquitex, and I have also used their student grade paint with minimal difference in application and end result. And, if I can't find what I need in the Liquitex line because the art store is out of it and I need it NOW, I simply buy the Golden brand or some other brand instead. I have often used different brands together in the same piece with no problems whatsoever. I have also used other substitute brands when necessary, and I have no complaints about any of them. They all seem to work equally well for me.


How you apply paint to a canvas is a very personal choice. Your tool becomes an extension of you, and how you use it — and how well you use it — is what will determine its effectiveness in creating your art. The traditional tools are brushes and painting knives, and both come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

I am happiest when I have a brush in my hands. I am ambidextrous — I can paint with either hand. I generally ignore any labeling that indicates one size or type of brush should be used only for acrylics or oils or watercolors. I have more than 30 brushes of all sizes and descriptions, and I use them all, including three Purdy house-painting brushes and two very battered toothbrushes! I use riggers, brights, washers, rounds, etc. They range from 00 sizes up to one that's 4" wide. The handle lengths vary, and I usually cut the long ones down to a length I like. I use acrylic bristles and natural ones, mostly the sables. I use many of my brushes for doing other projects in watercolor and even painting cabinets and furniture in my house. I can do this because I maintain my brushes. This is critical because they are valuable tools of the trade for me. I clean them after every use and dry them carefully to keep the bristles from breaking or bending and the ferrule from being damaged. Because I am diligent with taking care of my tools, I have brushes that are more than 30 years old and still in excellent condition after being well-used.

As for painting knives, I have only three, and they are angled just right for my needs, regardless of which hand I hold them in. I paint with them and use them to create textured surfaces. Like my brushes, I keep my knives very clean and dry them thoroughly after each use.

Another great tool for applying (or removing) acrylic paint is the sponge. I like the sea sponges best, but I have also used plain old kitchen sponges cut up into smaller pieces. It just depends on the effect I am trying to achieve. The sea sponges last the longest and are the most flexible, so I find you can actually paint with them too, which is something I have yet to achieve with the denser and more rigid kitchen sponge. Also, the sea sponges come in many sizes and textures. I also buy the large ones in the bath department of drug stores and cut them up. If you don't scrub hard when using them, and if you also wash and rinse them thoroughly after each use, they pretty much last forever. You can vary the sponging effect according to how damp or wet the sponge is when you dip it into paint or use it to texture paint you have already applied by brush or palette knife.


You can get the transparency of watercolor in a wash if you dilute your paint with water or a gel medium. I like the effect that it brings to some of my paintings that have contrasting areas that are more heavily textured. You can achieve the transparency with water, which gives a very transparent look with little spots of pigment throughout. But for a more homogenous wash and to ensure that the paint holds together well, you will probably want to stick with a gel medium to dilute your paint.

As for texture, you can use paint straight out of the tube, you can add thickening gels to your paint, or you can add clean sands or other substances to your paint. Some gels make the paint "peak" more. In most cases, you will want to apply the paint (and whatever thickener you add to it) from a fully-loaded brush or painting knife. After you apply your thickened paint, you may want to maneuver it on the canvas to further structure it to meet the needs of your painting. You can do that with your palette knife, or you can try some saran wrap that can be blotted or rolled around on the paint until you arrive at a random pattern you like.

Sponging can create the illusion of texture on an otherwise smooth painted surface. You can moisten the sponge and load it with paint and then dab it in different ways to create a myriad of effects. Try to avoid scrubbing too much or too hard, as you may end up muddying other already-painted areas.

Embedding is yet another way to achieve texture for a more constructed effect. Jackson Pollack used small pebbles that he embedded in some of his works, and you can also use beads, leaves, bark, paper, fabric, etc. Just remember that some of these materials are not necessarily archival and may not stand the test of time.

Scratching is another texturing option, and you will probably want to do it when the paint is still very wet, but you can also do it when the paint is nearly dry. Just be careful when you work with dried paint because you might accidentally remove paint you don't want to lose. Also, acrylic paint has a tendency to "tear" and leave a ragged edge when you scratch it once it's dry. So, if that's not the look you're going for, scratch only when it's wet. You can scratch with just about anything, but try to avoid really sharp objects that might damage the canvas if you accidentally press too hard.

I also like to use a stippled or spattered gold or other color paint in many of my paintings. It's a texture of a sort since it can be applied in thick blobs or spatters if you want to get a three-dimensional effect from it. I have found that spattering last thing prior to varnishing usually produces the best results for me. If you want a specific area to be targeted for spattering, I suggest you cover the surrounding areas with a towel or some newspaper to protect the rest of the work and your surrounding areas. I have also used glitter for a gilt effect, but beware of this because it is really messy if you try to sprinkle it onto the canvas into wet paint. It won't necessarily adhere. I tried it that way and I ended up with glitter all over myself and my work area that I kept running into for weeks on end. Instead, you might want to mix your glitter in with some gel medium and apply it to the places where you want it — a much cleaner method.


I do a lot of glazing. I really like to finish a painting with one final coat of some color I want to enhance (or play down) in the work. I have learned the hard way — and it only took one time — that you don't glaze unless the painting is 100% dry through and through. If the surface is still the least bit moist you can end up with a very muddy looking painting.

Before you varnish your painting, photograph it. This is particularly important if you plan to use a gloss varnish because it is far easier to photograph a matte finish. You will end up with less unwanted reflections that way. Once your photos are taken and uploaded to your computer, examine them carefully and re-shoot if necessary. When you have a photo you're happy with, then you can apply your varnish.

No painting is ever really done until it has been varnished. If you paint the sides of your canvas as I do, do so before you apply your varnish, and be sure you varnish the sides too. If you are varnishing a painting that has a highly textured surface, you might want to consider using a spray varnish, as a brush does not always cover these three-dimensional surfaces as well. If you varnish with a brush, hold the painting at an angle into the light so that you can make sure you are getting full coverage and to remove any traces of puddling where the varnish is settling within the peaks and valleys of the painted surface. Those puddles can end up looking dull when the varnish dries.


There are probably a million other things that you can do when painting with acrylics on canvas. These are only a few things I've tried and worked with over the years, and I hope you find them helpful.

This article last updated: 10/13/2013.