Acrylic Painting Glossary for Beginners

Hi friends! Today I have what I hope is a great resource for those of you who are new to painting with acrylics, or painting in general, and are confused by some of the terms thrown around out there.  The following is my list of acrylic painting related terms and definitions for the beginner!

Additive – A substance added to acrylic paint to change it’s chemical properties. They must be used within limits as altering the chemical makeup of the paint can affect the paint’s ability to form a final film layer.  Too much additive can create paint that is prone to cracking instead of remaining flexible. An example is retarder.

Artist quality   Professional quality paint. The best quality you can buy, with high pigment concentrations and no fillers.  Prices range based on the cost of acquiring the pigments themselves, with the natural earth-derived mineral pigments being the most expensive, like the Cadmium and Cobalt lines (unlike student quality paints, in which all colours are the same price).

Gesso – A primer used to prep surfaces to accept acrylic paint.  Gesso increases the tooth of the surface, giving the paint something to grab onto and stick. Usually white in colour, as Titanium White is included in the mixture. (This is why all stretched, primed canvases are usually pure white).

Binder – A substance that holds paint together. Acrylic polymer is the binder in all acrylic paints, and it is this binder that adding too much additive can upset.

Blending – The act of blurring the lines between paint colours, allowing one to gradually flow into the other with no clear separation between the two.  Creates a smooth, even transition that is nice on the eyes to see. Keeping both colours wet is the key to successful blending in acrylics (and is also the biggest challenge).

Colour Blocking – The act of laying out all main colours in a painting in a flat colour wash. Most of this layer will be painted over, it is just to give the artist a good idea of how the overall painting will come together.

Complimentary Colour – The colour that is directly across from a colour on the colour wheel.  Complimentary colours make each other seem more saturated and bright when placed side by side.  They can also be mixed together in various amounts to unsaturate each other. (eg. red and green, purple and yellow, orange and blue).

Curing (or Cure Time) – The act of the acrylic paint fully drying, or the time it takes for the acrylic paint to be fully set and permanent.  This is different that the drying time, acrylic paint will feel dry to the touch long before it is finally cured.  All paintings must be fully cured before proceeding to the sealing/varnishing steps to avoid painting degradation in the future.

Dry Brush Technique – The proces of using a dry paint brush, or barely wet paint brush, to apply small amounts of paint to the surface.  This must be done in a scrubby-type motion.

Flat Colour – Paint applied in a solid motion, with no variation in colour.  This is how we paint our walls in our homes.

Flow Release – An additive used to increase the watery quality of the paint, allowing for
thinner applications.painting for beginners tutorial

Gel Medium – A variety of gel-like mediums used to increase or decrease the constancy of the paint, allowing the paint to go farther while also increasing the working time of the paint before it starts to dry.

Glazing – The process of applying thin, transparent layers of colour over existing dry paint colours, allowing some of the original layer to shine through the new glaze layer.  The result is vivid colour that cannot be reproduced by any other technique. Also useful to blend and hide hard edges.

Ground – An opaque, flat colour applied to a blank canvas to set the tone of the painting and to allow more accurate colour decisions to be made. (Never start painting over bright white!)

Highlight – The lightest parts of the painting. It is generally recommended to paint your absolute highlights (especially parts that are pure white) at the very end of your painting.

Hue – The colour of the paint (red, blue,orange, orange-red, etc.)

Impasto – A painting technique using thick paint applications and hard lines, either with paint brushes that show brush strokes, or with palette knives that leave various textures. Acrylic paints and their mediums are great for this style of painting, as the thick layers will dry much faster than oil paints, allowing the artist to start work on new layers much sooner.

Masstone – The percieved colour of the paint as it looks coming directly out of the tube.

Medium– A substance used with acrylic paints for various effects, including increasing or decreasing the thickness of the paint, or adding special effects like grainy, rough textures, or the ability to stand up high off the canvas without falling over.  Unlike additives, mediums can be used in unlimited amounts with acrylic paint, as mediums contain binder themselves, and thus will not reduce the paint’s ability to cure properly.  Hint: Using a bit of medium with an additive will allow you to use more of the additive, as you are adding more binder into the mix.

Open Time – The period of time in which the acrylic paint remains workable and wet, leaving no hard edges and still possessing the ability to blend.  Using certain additives and mediums can extend the open time of acrylic paint (examples include retarder and Golden’s OPEN medium).

Opaque – A paint or medium application that doesn’t allow light through, meaning that when applied over other paint layers, it covers the layer completely, showing nothing of the previous layer below it.

Palette – The surface you use to mix your paint colours on, or the overall colour scheme of a painting.

Pigment – The actual raw material that paints are made from. They can be synthetic and man-made, or they can be found naturally in the earth. The pigment is what the paint colour is named after (eg. Cadmium Red).

Permanence – The ability of the paint to retain it’s original colours through time. Most acrylic paint colours have high permanence except for wild synthetic colours like neons. The perfect example of an exception to this is Alizarin Crimson, a beautiful red that is known for being rogue. It will fade and lose it’s brilliance over time.  Luckily for use, however, it is also sold with synthetic properties that increase the permanence of the paint colour, so always make sure you buy Alizarin Crimson Permanent when you’re at the paint store (also called Permanent Alizarin Crimson by some brands).

Retarder – An additive used to increase the open, workable time of acrylic paint.

Support – Your family and friends who say they like your paintings while you think they suck.  No, no, I’m kidding!!  A support is the surface on which you are painting, like a canvas, canvas panel, wooden board, clay board, or a simple piece of paper.

Scumble – A painting technique used with a dry brush.  The paint is applied in  small amounts and scrubbed onto the surface.  Used widely in creating underpaintings.

Tint – The various colour variations that occur when a hue is mixed with white.

Tinting Strength – The strength of the colour, measured by how much is needed to change Titanium White. Colours with high tinting strengths, like Pthalo Blue, must be used in very small amounts when mixing, as they can easily overpower other colours.

Tone – The colour variations that occur when a hue is mixed with grey.  This is also the saturation of a colour, with the colour straight from the tube being full saturation, and the resulting tones being less and less saturated.  A similar effect can also be chieved by mixing the complimentary colour into the colour instead of neutral grey.

Transparent – The colour is slightly see-through, allowing light to penetrate it.  When applied over other layers, some of the layers underneath will show though, and will be visually mixed by our eyes with the transparent layer on top. (Eg. laying transparent yellow over a blue layer will visually read as green to us).  This is the opposite of an opaque colour.

Underpainting – A completed painting, usually in one thin tone or colour, showing the location of all shadows and highlights, with the intention of being fully painted over.  An underpainting sets up our tonal values and allows us to paint overtop with our full colour palette in confidence.

Undertone – How a paint colour looks when applied thinly, especially over a white background, or with a touch of white mixed into it.  It is different than the masstone in that it shows the colour bias of the paint, allowing us to have a better idea of how it will react when mixed with other paint colours. (Eg. a paint colour may have a masstone of blue, but an undertone that leans towards purple.  This colour is then best to mix with reds to make bright purples, as mixing it with yellows will result in muddy-looking greens).

Tooth – The texture of the painting surface.  A very smooth surface like wood has little tooth, while a canvas has more tooth.  Gesso is added to surfaces to increase the tooth, thus giving the paint something to stick to.

Shade – The colour variations that occur when black is added to a hue. This term is often misapplied to tones, as actual shades are not often used.  Black is a strong colour, so be sure to use is sparingly when creating a true shade.

Wash- A very thin, watery application of paint that results in a transparent layer.  Usually used in underpaintings with the intention of being painted over.

paint glossary for beginners
“Paint me like one of your French girls”

 Zebra – A really cute black and white horse-like animal.  Oh you’re still here?! Well congrats, you made it to the end because I can’t think of a Z-word that applies to painting!

So there you are, guys!  If you have any more terms that you’d like defined, let me know and i will add it to this list! I’d like to keep this list growing with more and more terms, so everyone who’s not sure what some terms mean can understand and feel more confident in painting!

I hope this helps, and thanks for stopping by!

-Ashley <3

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  1. Very good, Thank you Ashley. I love how you explain things; you’re very thorough and said in a way that we can understand exactly what you are teaching. Thanks again,

    • Thank you Debra! Sorry for the delay in replying to you, I’m just coming back to this blog after a hiatus from having my second baby, so I am slowly working my way through comments and trying to reply to as many as I can. I’m happy that you find the info I share here useful to you! Happy painting!

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