top of page

Acrylic Painting Cheat Sheet

Updated: Nov 11, 2021



Acrylic paints dry quickly, which is a problem if you squeeze them out onto a conventional oils-type palette. Commercial acrylic palettes that keep the paints moist are expensive but you can quickly and at almost no cost make your own with a few household items.

Materials you need are:

Greaseproof or baking paper

Kitchen towel

White shallow tray or a plain white plate


Step 1: Cut or tear the greaseproof paper so it fits the plate. Take two or three sheets of kitchen towel and place on the plate so it covers as much as possible of it.

Step 2: Add the water to the kitchen towel so it becomes wet, but not flooded.

Step 3: Place the greaseproof paper on top of this and smooth down.

Step 4: Add your paints to the palette in your preferred layout. White greaseproof paper allows you to judge your colours as they come out of the tube. Brown baking paper can be helpful if you pre-paint your painting surface with a pale tint to create a mid-tone base colour, as it replicates this quite well. Use whatever works best for you. If you need to keep your paints moist to continue a painting session the following day, carefully lift the greaseproof paper and add a little more water to the kitchen towels. Then stretch cling film across the plate and store in a cool place.


Here are 5 common blues and 5 common yellows mixed, in most cases in roughly equal quantities to produce 25 greens. The left half of each green is a strong mix of the two colours.

The right half is a lighter mix with approximately 50% titanium white added to create a tint. Simply adjusting the ratios of blue, yellow and white will give you literally hundreds more greens.


Here are 5 blues and 5 common reds/browns mixed in roughly equal quantities to produce 25 greys. The left half of each grey is a strong mix of the two colours. The right half is a lighter mix with approximately 50% titanium white added to create a tint. Adjusting the ratios of blue, reds/browns and white will give you literally hundreds more greys.


Just by using three primary colours and white, many different shades and tints of skin colour can be created.

On this page, two sets of three primaries have been used to create eight different skin tones. With the addition of titanium white these can be lightened to create potentially an infinite number of variations.

The proportions of red, blue and yellow have been adjusted in each one to provide a bias towards red, blue or yellow. Each colour swatch shows roughly the proportions of each primary used for each tone before white is added.

Here are some further variations using common colours and are used by many top portrait painters.

These 6 mixes, plus the ones on the previous page, can create the vast majority of skin tones you’ll ever need.


All primary colour paints (reds, blues and yellows) have a ‘leaning’ or ‘bias’ towards one of the other two primaries. For example, Alizarin Crimson is a red with a blue bias, whereas Cadmium Red is a red with a yellow bias.

Knowing the bias of the colours in your palette will help you mix the secondary and tertiary colours you want. It will also help you avoid mixing muddy and dull colours

If you want a vibrant purple for example, mix a red with a blue bias and blue with a red bias. That way you are only mixing two of the primaries (red and blue).

If you want a dull purple, then mix a red with a blue bias and a blue with a yellow bias. Now you are mixing all three primaries (red + blue + yellow). Mixing all three primaries results in a more neutral tone.

NB: The lists here though extensive, are not exhaustive, as manufacturers introduce or delete colours on a continuous basis.


All paint colours, regardless of the medium used, have varying degrees of transparency. Knowing how transparent or opaque a colour is can help you when painting layers or glazes.

Bear in mind though that some colours may be classed as transparent by one manufacturer and semi-opaque by another and you can check this on the side of the paint tube.

The lists here are colours that are generally considered transparent, semi transparent, opaque or semi opaque across the majority of brands.


The transparency of a colour can easily be tested by creating a chart such as this.

On white paper, canvas or board, paint a black stripe down the centre, about 1/2” (1cm) wide. The precise width isn’t critical. If you don’t have black, you can create one with a strong mix of a blue and a brown. Let the stripe dry, then paint a streak of each of your colours across the stripe as shown. Use the paint straight out of the tube, undiluted.

Once the paint has dried, those that are transparent will be barely visible on the black stripe, such as here with ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson. Others like yellow ochre and cerulean blue will almost obliterate the black stripe, indicating they are much more opaque.


Too many leisure artists worry about having the ‘right’ colours, or the same ones they see being used by instructors.

It’s far better (and cheaper!) to use the one’s you have already - at least for now. This way you will learn to exploit the colours at your disposal and it will allow you to go out and select new colours only if it becomes really obvious that you need them. For this exercise you are going to gather all of your existing colours and mix any two of them. The results of some mixes may surprise you and open up your eyes to possibilities you didn’t realise were there. It’s a very therapeutic exercise as well.


In the chart on the previous page I’ve used 20 colours I had at my disposal. You may have less and different ones and that’s fine. Gather them together now.

This chart was produced on a sheet of acrylic paper about 22” x 16” (40cm x 28cm or A2 size). The first thing to do is to draw a series of boxes in pencil about 2cm x 1cm. The actual size sin’t critical as long as all the boxes fit on the sheet!

Because I used 20 colours, I drew 10 boxes along the top and 10 boxes down the side. If you have 15 colours, you could do 8 along the top and 7 down the side, for example. Once you have your boxes drawn, paint a colour in the top row and in left hand column as I have done here. This chart is reproduced at a bigger size than the one previously, so only the first five boxes across the top and five from top to bottom are in view. It doesn’t matter which colours go where, just place a unique colour in each box.

I filled in half of each box with pure colour and the other half mixed with roughly 50% titanium white, to create a tint.


In the top left hand empty box, mix the colour directly above it and to the left of it. Mix them in roughly equal quantities. You can see that I’ve already filled in several boxes with cadmium red mixed with yellow ochre, burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, in this case.

Paint the left hand side of the box a strong colour and add about 50% white to your mix to create a tint on the right hand side. This will show you how the colour changes across different strengths, which can change it quite a lot.


Limiting your palette can really improve your acrylic painting. Not only does help to improve colour harmony it also makes the decision making process easier - and that helps you stay in the flow.

These two palettes are nicely balanced with a combination of cool and warm primaries. You can mix almost any colour you want from these limited selections and it will save you a lot of money on exotic paints that your rarely use after you’ve bought them.


For many years acrylic artists have used bristle brushes similar to those used by oil painters. However, over the past few years a number of excellent synthetic alternatives have been developed - softer than hogshair but firmer than the natural hair and synthetic brushes used for watercolour. This allows the artist to move the paint around, but also paint with relatively smooth layers, or to use the coarser properties of hogshair to leave bush marks in the paint. Compare the brush marks of the two types of filbert brush here.

In addition, painting knives give the artist in both acrylics and oils the ability to spread paint thickly in an impasto style and many paintings have been created using only a series of knives. They can be obtained with metal or plastic blades and in a variety of shapes to allow many different strokes to be achieved.

The photos on this and the following page highlight just some of the brush/knife strokes that can be crafted by the artist. You can see from the doodles that some of the brushes (e.g. the round and the filbert) make quite similar marks. In some cases colours have been applied over a dried layer such as the snow-capped mountains using the knife, or one colour has been applied on one side of a filbert and a different colour on the other side. When the brush stroke is made, a satisfying natural blend of the two colours takes place.


This is a very basic starter set, which can easily be adjusted, depending upon whether you prefer additional horsehair brushes or more of the synthetic variety.

NB: Don’t rely exclusively on the numbering of brushes as an indication of size as each manufacturer will apply different standards. So a No. 8 Round in one range could be the same as a No.5 Round in another.

Wherever possible, check sizes yourself in an art store or, where this isn’t possible, see if the website provides information as to the actual size of the brush head; e.g.. 1/2” across the metal ferrule or 3/4” from the end of the ferrule to the tip of the brush, etc. The above have all been given a general indication of size for this reason, rather than the number being quoted.

In this group, I’ve eliminated the Hog brushes for an even more basic starter set. The Hog brushes could be added later or you may prefer to start with the Hog equivalents of the Synthetics I’ve listed.

I’ll leave you to choose your brushes and enjoy finding out what effects you can achieve. But do have a doodle! This is never time wasted. It allows you to understand how your brushes perform and what marks can be achieved, before you spend money on new ones and set to on your next minor masterpiece.


There are a large number of mediums available to make acrylic paint thicker, thinner, more translucent or for special effects such as crackle or pearlescent. We’ve concentrated on just three to help you get started.


Acrylic paint is a versatile medium that will adhere to many surfaces, including paper, canvas, other cloth surfaces, various boards and most other porous and semi-porous surfaces. It’s important that the surface is first primed with a covering of gesso, which is effectively a very pigment-rich thick, (usually) white acrylic paint.


Acrylic paint dries fast so you can progress quickly through your painting without waiting for hours or even days, as with oils,for layers to dry. However, this makes it more difficult to blend smoothly on the paint surface. Various additives are available, such as Flow Improver or Retarder Gel, which keep the paint ‘open’ and workable for longer.


Glazing Medium is effectively colourless acrylic paint and allows translucent glazes to be created using with just a small amount of the desired colour added, to create mood and atmosphere, such as an evening glow. Avoid simply thinning the paint with water to create a glaze, as more than about 25%/30% added to the paint makes it lose its adhesive properties and it will dry almost instantly, making it difficult to avoid tide-marks. These photos show the effect of applying, (A) a raw sienna glaze over an ultramarine blue background and (B) creating smoke, steam or clouds using increasing amounts of the glaze-to-paint.


Traditionally, acrylics is painted on pre-primed acrylic paper, canvas panels or stretched canvas, as mentioned on the previous page.

However most wooden boards such as hardboard (masonite), MDF, plywood and chipboard can be used, preferably primed with gesso as described on the previous page. Apart from canvas, other cloth too can be used and even wrapping paper or newspaper, if it’s first primed.


By Artist Bob Davies - Artist & Instructor at Art

38 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page