Today I’m sharing some of the most common mistakes I see for beginner acrylic painters. While I’ve listed these as “mistakes”, I want to be clear that there is no one right or wrong way to create art. If you are making one of these so called mistakes, but you like the results you’re getting, then there is nothing wrong with that at all! These would only be considered mistakes if you are not happy with your work.
#1 Being afraid to make a mistake.
Guess what! You’re learning…you’re going to make mistakes. These mistakes play a very important role in learning to paint. If you don’t make them, you won’t learn. It is really that simple. Experiment with the paint, don’t worry so much about rules and doing things “correctly” to start with. Just make a mess and get a feel for the paint and brushes. I don’t care how many books you read about the subject, or how many videos you watch. Until you start experiencing the medium and making mistakes, those books and videos won’t make that much sense. Once you’ve made a bunch of these mistakes then you read in a book how to avoid that specific thing, it’s going to make SO much more sense to you!! If you worry too much about everything being perfect to start with, you won’t learn as fast as you otherwise could.
#2 Choosing the wrong canvas.
Not all canvases are created equally. If you are trying to get fine detail and smooth blending in your work, then you’re going to want to go with a very smooth canvas. I like the Fredrix Blue Label Ultra Smooth, the Fredrix Pro Series Linen, Watercolor Canvas boards, or the Naturecore Paint boards (also by Fredrix).**
That’s not to say that the rougher texture means that the canvas is bad, it all has to do with what techniques and style you’re going for. If you like to paint with heavier brush strokes or a palette knife, then a canvas with more texture, more for the paint to grip to, would be a better choice. This comes down to choosing the right type of canvas for the techniques you use. For me, I generally want a canvas that is as smooth as I can find. Trying to blend a smooth sky or background on a rough canvas is difficult on a rough canvas.
As a general rule, avoid cheap canvas that you find at costco or walmart. I’ve had students show up to class with these thinking “I’m just starting off, I don’t want to spend a lot”. The problem is that these canvases do not show the student what it’s like to paint with acrylics. They instead show them what it’s like to fight with a canvas that absorbs the paint weirdly and they can’t blend well on. Many students give up on different mediums all because of the frustration that cheap supplies can cause. If you want a low-cost alternative for learning to paint, try a Fredrix Canvas Pad. These aren’t quite as smooth as what I like, but they do give you a decent surface to learn on at a very low cost.
#3 Choosing the wrong paint.
Some acrylic paints have so much binder in them that you can’t get nice opaque colors blended without horrible streaking. Some are created in such a way that you really can’t glaze them without lifting the previous layer. Stick with a paint that has a good reputation. Liquitex basics are my favorites for most techniques I use. Liquitex soft bodied acrylics will also work nicely for my techniques in realism.
When I want to paint in a looser style, then I prefer a heavier weight paint like the Liquitex heavy bodied paints. These dry a bit faster than the liquitex basics, but they are great for creating heavier brush strokes when you want those brush strokes to really show.
#4 Color Mixing
New acrylic painters tend to overthink color mixing. In part because they use too many colors to start, and in part, because they’re afraid of making a mistake. I have no problems mixing color. Not because I read every color theory book I could get my hands on. Not because I watched every color theory video available (well there were no videos when I was learning so there’s that). Because I experimented. I started with about 11 colors (red, yellow, magenta, purple, two shades of green, two shades of blue, brown, black and white). I didn’t worry about a cool red vs a warm red, I just used what I had and mixed what I needed through trial and error. Yes, now I’m a color hoarder, in the beginning, I kept it simple (out of necessity because I couldn’t afford more colors). I had no idea at the time that this was going to work in my favor! It forced me to mix colors I needed instead of just reaching for a premixed tube. The biggest thing was that I had zero fear of choosing the wrong color. I’ve always kept the “let’s see what happens when I do this” mantra when it comes to painting or drawing. Try something, if you don’t like the results, try something else until you do!
Learning to paint in acrylics can be a challenge. You’re learning to mix color, learning to blend, learning to layer and glaze, learning control of your paint brush and so much more. Make it easier on yourself as you learn, limit your color palette! You don’t need to use every color ever created in a single painting! Choose a small handful, or even just black and white to start. Learn to blend those few colors well. Learn how they interact with each other before jumping into a color palette with 20 different shades! You want a pale blue, so you start with a glob of blue and a glob of white and stir right? NO! That is how you get a ton of the wrong color!! It is much easier to make a color darker than it is to lighten it up as you mix. Start with white and slowly add a bit of blue. Let it darken bit by bit until you get the color you want. If you just start stirring two colors together, more often than not you end up with a color that is WAY darker than you intended. Now you need to add more white. A tube of white later and you STILL don’t have it light enough. Instead, you have a giant pile of a color you don’t need. If you find you mixed a color way too dark, start from scratch. Don’t keep trying to add white to that color because you will just waste SO much instead!
When mixing, don’t mix too much! You want a pale blue, so you start with a glob of blue and a glob of white and stir right? NO! That is how you get a ton of the wrong color!! It is much easier to make a color darker than it is to lighten it up as you mix. Start with white and slowly add a bit of blue. Let it darken bit by bit until you get the color you want. If you just start stirring two colors together, more often than not you end up with a color that is WAY darker than you intended. Now you need to add more white. A tube of white later and you STILL don’t have it light enough. Instead, you have a giant pile of a color you don’t need. If you find you mixed a color way too dark, start from scratch. Don’t keep trying to add white to that color because you will just waste SO much instead!
#5 Leaving Paintbrushes in the Water
If you want your paint brushes damaged in a matter of minutes, leave them sitting in the cup/water well that you use to rinse them. While it may seem like this will somehow soak the paint out of the brush and clean them better, you’re actually just fraying the tips of the bristles. The damage can start to occur in a handful of minutes. Instead, rinse your brushes then lay them flat to dry.
#6 Dry Brushing Everything
Dry brushing is a technique where you have a very small amount of paint on your brush. It’s almost dry as you scrape the brush across the canvas. You end up with the paint catching the surface of your canvas with holes of the underlying color showing through. The amount of these holes depends on the weave of the canvas. This is a technique that is widely taught in many acrylic painting books. In most cases it’s lazy. It’s an easy way to create rays of light, blend shadows/highlights and such, but more often than not it’s a big red flag that someone doesn’t know how to use the medium well. We see it more in acrylics than most other mediums because acrylic dries so quickly it can be hard to blend. You can get a transition in colors easily this way without needing to learn wet into wet blending that in most cases would look more professional. I do think there is a time for dry brushing, but beginners tend to dry brush everything.
One thing I often hear buyers complain about when looking at acrylic paintings is that they just don’t look the same as an oil. This is because they’re looking at work created by an artist who hasn’t yet learned to blend acrylics well. If an artist is experienced with acrylics and takes the time to learn how to blend well, you won’t be able to tell the difference between an oil or an acrylic painting. When you go to a gallery that features newer artists though, you will usually be able to pinpoint who has worked in the medium for any length of time vs those who have not, all based on dry brushing.
#7 Not using enough paint on your brush.
Wait, wasn’t that the last tip? Not exactly. Here I’m talking about artists being afraid to make a mess, or afraid to waste paint so they use such a tiny amount on their brush and end up dry brushing unintentionally. This is probably one of the most common issues beginner acrylic painters make. Get that paint on the brush!
#8 Starting off too large.
There are a couple of problems here. First, acrylic paint dries very fast. When you paint large there are to ways I manage to blend a smooth background. One is by painting very fast, the second is by using an airbrush to mist water. Both of these things can be difficult for someone very new to acrylic painting. It is much easier to blend on a smaller canvas. The largest I recommend starting off with is a 16×20″. Get comfortable with the smaller sizes before you jump into the larger canvases. Not only are they easier to work on, you will finish a smaller piece faster, which means you aren’t as likely to get frustrated and give up!
The second problem is that larger canvases are quite expensive and take up a lot of storage space. Let’s be realistic, your first few paintings aren’t likely going to find buyers. What do you plan to do with a 30×40″ painting you can’t sell and your family doesn’t really want on their walls? Even the most supportive family member probably isn’t going to want your first painting to take up half their wall. What exactly are you going to do with those larger paintings now? I love large paintings, but save those canvases for when you have a better feel for the medium!
#9 Over Blending
When blending wet into wet, you only need to make a couple of swipes with your mop brush then move on. I often see newer artist’s get excited with the results that they get with a couple of brush strokes…so they think they need to add more…and more. In the end, they have one of two things happen;
- All the paint gets pushed to the outer edge of the blending zone, creating an ugly ring.
- All the paint gets mixed together into a muddy mess.
When blending wet into wet, less blending is better!!
#10 Limiting yourself to beginner techniques and tutorials.
Beginner tutorials are great to get your feet wet, but after a few paintings, start looking at more advanced techniques and lessons. Wait? But I’m still a beginner!! Yes, and if you continuously stick to beginner lessons you will always BE a beginner. Whenever you’re copying a tutorial, your work is not generally going to be quite as good as the teachers. This is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. The problem is when you stay at that level. If you start working towards more advanced techniques, your work is still not going to start off as good as the advanced teacher…but it’s going to be far above what the beginner lesson’s work was. Let’s say you started off with Bob Ross lessons. Now I love Bob Ross and what he did to get artist’s started. I’m in no way bashing what he did. I have a TON of respect for him and what he accomplished, but his lessons are intended for the beginner. They are a GREAT starting point. When you paint
Let’s say you started off with Bob Ross lessons. Now I love Bob Ross and what he did to get artist’s started. I’m in no way bashing what he did. I have a TON of respect for him and what he accomplished, but his lessons are intended for the beginner. They are a GREAT starting point. When you paint one of his paintings you’re probably not going to be quite as good as his painting was. Now let’s say you follow the lesson from an artist creating something closer to Thomas Kinkaid. He used more advanced techniques and focused more on his lighting and perspective. Your copy of one of these lessons is not going to start off as good as the teacher, but your skills will quickly become greater than anything you would have produced had you limited yourself to Bob Ross or a similar beginner teacher. If your goals are to become as advanced as you can, then start working on advanced lessons now, even if you feel your work isn’t ready for it. You will learn MUCH faster that way!
**Just to be clear, this is not a sponsored video/post, although I do work with Fredrix on occasion. My love of Fredrix canvases has nothing to do with any work I’ve done with them.