A glossary of acrylic painting terms is a comprehensive compilation of key words and phrases used in the world of acrylic painting. It serves as a valuable resource for both beginners and experienced artists, providing clear definitions and explanations of various concepts, techniques, materials, and tools specific to acrylic painting.
From terms like "underpainting" and "glazing" to "gesso" and "impasto," the glossary covers a wide range of subjects to help artists enhance their understanding and fluency in the medium of acrylics. Whether you're seeking to expand your artistic vocabulary or looking for clarification on specific terms, the glossary of acrylic painting terms is an indispensable tool for artists seeking to express themselves through this versatile and vibrant medium.
Get to know common acrylic painting terms, techniques and jargon
Artist – that’s you
Atelier – an artist run studio school where students study the style and techniques of one artist. Atelier means ‘workshop’ in French, it is pronounced atel-yay.
Artist quality – the best quality (and highest priced) paints you can buy. They have a higher pigment load (amount of dry colored pigment) compared to student quality paints.
Acrylic Gesso – an alternative to traditional Oil Gesso, using modern materials. It is a combination of chalk (Calcium Carbonate) and an acrylic polymer medium latex. Most ‘pre-stretched’ canvas’s bought from art supply shops have had a few layers of Acrylic Gesso applied in the factory.
Binder – this is the substance that ‘binds’ a dry pigment together. For acrylic paints, Acrylic Polymer is the binder.
Blending – this describes a gradual transition between two colors, it is usually created when both paint colors are wet. As soon as one paint dries, creating a smooth transition can be impossible! This is often a problem with acrylics because it dries so quickly.
Big picture – observing the subject or painting as a whole. This involves stepping back to so you can view the relationship of the whole image working together.
Blocking in – when you are first establishing the basics of a painting, you ‘block in’ the general colors or tones. Much of the blocking in will be painted over in later stages. This is very helpful because once all areas are blocked-in, your eyes can start judging colors and adjust to the scene.
Canvas – Canvas is a broadly split into two main areas, Cotton and Linen.
The most common used is Cotton duck canvas and is suitable for acrylics. It is a reasonable price to buy and is available in large sections from the roll.
The cotton canvas absorbs water, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The pros are the ability to paint with watery washes, or to soak the canvas surface and apply staining effects. The cons are because it absorbs moisture, it can stretch and shrink depending on humidity.
This is why on the back of stretcher bars (the wooden frames than the canvas is stretched upon) you’ll find expandable corner joints and wooden keys. These are used to adjust the tightness of the canvas surface if it begins to sag due to a change in atmosphere or humidity.
Linen is more resilient to changes in humidity and the fibers used in the manufacturing process are also longer lasting than cotton. This is why it is often a preferred surface for portrait painters due to the longevity of the material. It is more expensive than cotton.
When you buy a ‘canvas’ from the art store, it will usually be a pre-primed, cotton duck canvas. This means the surface has had an Acrylic Gesso applied in the factory and is ready to paint straight onto.
Cotton duck – is a name for the type of textile used, the ‘duck’ comes from Dutch doek, which means cloth.
Canvas weight – this refers to how thick the canvas is, usually labelled in ounces, 8oz, 10oz, 12oz.
The choice of the weight of the canvas depends on the size of the painting and each artists personal preference. When a painting gets any larger than 6ft a 12oz weight is best – why? Because when stretching the canvas you need to apply strong pressure to the cloth to get a tight drum like finish and the danger is with a lighter weight canvas it can rip – see: How to choose a bespoke canvas.
Canvas tooth – the ‘tooth’ of the canvas describes the coarseness of the weave on the canvas surface. It is this jagged surface that helps to pull the paint from the brush onto the painting.
Curing – this is when the acrylic is drying, but not fully dry. OPEN acrylics have a longer curing period than standard acrylics.
Colored ground – a solid, opaque color applied to the canvas, or paper, prior to starting painting. It helps you to establish a tonal range to your paintings by allowing you to judge the lightest light and darkest dark as opposed to working with the glare of a white canvas.
Consistency – the thickness or thinness of paint, basically how the paint ‘feels’ on the brush or canvas.
Cool – There are 2 things to consider in painting when using the word cool.
The position of the color on the color wheel. For example, red is warm on the color wheel, blue is cool.
The coolness of the color in relationship to another color. For example, Alizarin crimson is described as a cool red in comparison to Cadmium red – but Alizarin crimson is warm in comparison to Ultramarine blue, which is cooler – but not as cool as you if you’ve understood this!
Dry Brush – an effect when you have very little moisture on your brush, to apply the paint you need more of a scrubbing motion and the result is called a scumble.
Flat color – paint applied in a solid, flat color, like the paint on your wall at home. There are no variations, or color vibrations, within the color.
Flow medium – a liquid medium you can add to acrylic paint to increase the flow consistency whilst maintaining a solid paint film, this results in a more liquid paint with color particles that ‘hold together.
Glaze – a thin layer of paint used to optically affect the color underneath. The underlying color is already dry when the glaze is applied to add depth of color and help fuse hard edges. The best paints to use for glazes are pigments that have a translucent quality.
Ground – this is another name for the surface you are painting onto, if you just apply a white primer to your canvas, it can be described as a white ground.
Gel – a semi-solid material that you can mix in with your acrylics to drastically change the texture, consistency and can make your paint go a lot further.
Grisaille – using shades of grey in an under-painting to establish the tonal values of a painting. Traditionally used in portrait painting before applying colored glazes.
Glazing Liquid – a medium that you can mix in with your acrylic paints to extend the working time and blending qualities of the paint.
Highlight – this is the lightest ares of a painting. It is best to apply the highlight towards the end of your painting once you have modeled the form underneath, have a look at the final parts of the cherry painting to see how this works.
Impasto – A thick application of paint, with textured marks or brush marks still visible.
Impasto suits Acrylics very well due to the quick drying nature of the paint and the texture gels you can add in with your mix. Impasto can be applied with a palette knife but usually refers to a brush application. Van Gogh is a great example.
Limited palette – When you deliberately restrict the number of colors that you are using in a painting. Instead of using 20 colors a limited palette would be 5.
Load – this refers to how strong the pigment is. It can also describes the amount of paint you have on a brush.
Medium – is anything you mix in with the paint to change its consistency, for example, water is a medium, Glazing Liquid is a medium.
Opaque – a pigment that doesn’t allow light through, as opposed to “Transparent” which is the opposite, and does let light through. Every paint pigment varies in its opacity due to its ingredients. You can find this information on the labels.
Palette – the surface that you mix colors onto, this can vary from wooden palettes, to glass, to tear-off paper palette.
Palette Knife – A flexible, metal blade used to mix your colors. Handy to stop the quick deterioration of your brushes.
Pigment – this describes the raw material that all paints are made from. Natural or synthetic materials are finely ground and mixed with a liquid binder into a paste to make paint.
Permanence – How permanent the paint will be overtime, for example, Permanent Alizarin crimson is more resilient to changes in atmosphere, exposure to light etc, than standard Alizarin crimson.
Retarder – a medium you can add to your acrylics to extend the drying time slightly.
Stretcher Bar – the wooden frames than raw canvas is stretched around.
Support – this describes the surface that you paint onto. It can be canvas, paper, board, all can be described as a ‘support’.
Scumble – A thin application of paint, similar to a glaze, but using semi-opaque and opaque pigments to alter the effect of the underlying paint. Usually applied with quite a dry brush effect.
Tinting Strength – this is a measure of much or how little paint you need to alter white. So for example, Phthalo blue has a high tinting strength and you need only a tiny amount otherwise you overpower the other colors.
Undertone – this is how the paint appears when a very thin coat of paint is used.
Vehicle – the liquid part of the paint, in which the dry pigment is dispersed.
Wash – a thin watery consistency of paint diluted just with water. It is most commonly used in the first blocking in stages of the painting, to gain an overall sense of the color scheme.