How to Stop Acrylic Paint from Drying

Hi friends! Hope you’re all having an awesome Monday.  It’s a holiday here in Canada so I’m looking forward to spending time working on a few projects I have on the go, and of course family time (that includes Luna!).  So today I wanted to address a common problem newcomers (and experienced artist alike) have with acrylic paint…the drying time.

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Acrylic paint’s quick drying time is one of its many benefits.  It lets us apply many layers of paint on top of one another very quickly, and without having to worry about stirring up previous layers that we want to stay the way they are.  Finished paintings need only about a week of drying time before they can be varnished,and a varnished painting can be ready to hang on your wall within 2-3 weeks of drying time (contrary to oils, which can take around 6 months to be fully cured!). This fast drying time is perfect for those of us who love instant gratification, like me, because we can see our pieces come together quickly.

acrylic paint dry time

Unfortunately, acrylic paint’s biggest benefit is also it’s biggest flaw.  The Achilles Heel of acrylic paint is the fact that is dries so darn fast, it can seize up on us on our palettes, or dry so fast on the canvas that we don’t get enough time to blend our colours properly, leaving us with ugly streaks.  However, fear not, because there are many methods we can use to slow the drying time of our paints, letting us play and blend them as we like, and then leaving them alone to do their curing thing.  Let’s take a look at the two areas of acrylic painting that need slower drying times:

On Your Canvas

We don’t want streaks and unblendable blobs of paint all over our canvases, so slowing the drying process is crucial to a professional-looking painting.  The simplest method to doing this is to use a misting bottle, and gently misting all over the paint on your canvas to give it moisture and slow down it’s drying time.  I use empty body mist bottles to do this, as the water comes out in a nice even mist (we don’t want a sprayed stream of water hitting our canvas!).  The bonus to this method is that the water smells good!

The next method is to use an acrylic medium.  Many mediums exist for acrylic paint, allowing us to manipulate our paints in all kinds of cool ways.  The benefit to these mediums is that no matter which one we pick, it will extend the drying time of our paint.  That being said, there are specific mediums created for the purpose of extending the drying time of acrylic paints, like glazing medium (also called blending medium), or any OPEN medium from Golden’s line (other brands also have similar products call slow-dry or something similar).

These mediums can be mixed directly into your paint on the palette, or they can be applied all over to a blank canvas for wet-on-wet painting techniques, or they can be applied in small amounts to ares of paint on the canvas that you plan on blending.  However you choose to use them, these mediums are your best friends.  They can be mixed with one another as well to create a unique texture, thinned with a little water for more watery applications, or used straight out of the tub as a glaze to blend two paint colours together.

Golden paint retarder for acrylics

The final method is to use retarder, which is NOT a medium but an acrylic paint additive. I am talking about retarder separately because it must be used in very small amounts.  Additives disrupt the chemical composition of acrylic paints, this is how they work.  The problem is that if we use too much, the chemical composition of your paint can be so disrupted that it becomes unable to work the way it should.  This can lead to our paint losing it’s flexiblitly when dry, resulting in cracking.  Retarder does a good job of slowing the drying process, however, so it’s good to have.  Just make sure you’re following the directions on the bottle, or better yet, mix the retarder in with whatever other medium you’re using, as the glue from the medium will counteract the retarder, letting you use the retarder in larger amounts without worrying about wrecking you paint’s mojo.

On Your Palette

All of the methods I previously discussed above apply equally well to your palette.  You can mist your palette periodically with a mister, you can mix mediums and additives into your little pools of paint right on the palette, so they will be extended no only while sitting on your palette but when you paint with them as well (just remember that most time-extending mediums are glossy and transparent, so you will lose some opacity of your paint).  I like to keep my paints “pure” on my palette, and only mix in mediums when I want to in separate pools, or only directly on the canvas.  So I stick to using my mister with my palette….and using a special palette entirely.

Your best method to slowing the drying time on your palette is to change your entire palette.  Using a covered palette is really the way to go when using acrylics.  They don’t look as artsy-fartsy as those artist palettes with the thumb hole, but they do a much better job at keeping your paints wet (and at least you can still wear your stereotypical beret!).

Covered palettes consist of a plastic-based tub with a sealed lid.  Once closed, the palette is air-tight and your paint is protected from the drying environment around it.  These palettes also contain a sponge in the bottom of them that you dampen with water, and let it expand to cover the whole bottom of the palette.  A sheet of special paper is then moistened and placed over this sponge, which we lay our paint on.  The water from the sponge is slowly drawn through the paper, keeping our paints always wet, and also creating a humid environment around the paint, slowing it’s drying time. Here’s what the one I use looks like, the brand is called Sta-Wet:

A covered palette. Photo from DickBlick

The Sta-Wet palette I use for all my acrylic painting sessions.

When the palette is sealed, this humid environment is locked in, resulting in paint that stays useable for days on end.  If you know you’re not going to come back to your palette for a week or so, you can also put the whole thing in your fridge for an even longer drying time, and also periodically coming back and misting the sponge and the top of your paint to keep the humidity up.  Using this method, your paint can stay wet for weeks.

So there you have it, guys.  I hope this post was helpful in exposing you to the various options we have to keep our paint from drying.  I personally use paper plates as my palette for things like my ground and my underpainting, misting the paint to keep it dry.  Once I’m ready to start the real painting, I switch to my Sta-Wet covered palette for the long haul, using my mediums directly on the canvas when I need them.

What is your personal method for keeping your paints wet?? Let me know in a comment!  As always, thanks for stopping by, and till next time,keep creating!

-Ashley <3

Leave a Comment :)

  1. Ashley, Thank you for all the great tips. I truely was having a hard time blending my acrylics. I appreciate all your help. Beverly

  2. Dear Ashley,
    I have sent you email. As I said in it thank you. You are truly helpful

  3. Dear Ashley, I really enjoy your page. Your painting tips are great! I’m so glad you put the word out about using mediums. Years ago I tried acrylics, but they dried so fast I put them away. Since that time I discovered the Golden mediums which allowed me much more time before drying. There should be a rule about never buying an acrylic paint without also buying the medium!!

    A word about the stay wet pallette…..since I live in a rural area I only had catalogs to buy supplies, and out of necessity I found that several layers of paper toweling will substitute for the sponge layer in the palette, and freezer paper is a good substitute for the paint layer. Now I have an art store nearby, but I still use my paper towels and freezer paper. Call me the Queen of Cheap!!!