Painting for Beginners: Discovering New Paint Mediums 101

by DTC Thrasio

When you start out painting, you might not realize how many mediums there are to choose from as a beginner. It might feel a little bit overwhelming trying to find what medium works best for you as an artist starting out. Don’t worry, because in our second installment of our “Painting for Beginners” series we are going to be talking about some paint mediums you can try as a beginner. Today we will be talking about the basics of acrylic paint, watercolor paint, and oil paint. Let’s get into it, artists!

Person dipping a paint brush into a palette of acrylic paint to paint a canvas.

The Basics of Color Mixing for Painting

When it comes to painting, you might not always have the color of paint that you want to use on your canvas. No fear, you can always mix the color you’re looking for with any paint medium that you need instead of having to make a last minute trip to the craft store. 

What colors do you mix to make different colors?

For color mixing, the fundamental rule is that you can’t make primary colors, including red, blue, and yellow. With the help of the primary colors, you can create the secondary colors, purple (blue and red), orange (red and yellow), and green (yellow and blue). When mixing you can use white paint to lighten your mix and black to darken your mix as needed. 

Warm Colors vs. Cool Colors

When you’re mixing colors, you might notice that your final product is not always the same every time. That is because there is no such thing as a “pure” primary pigment. The paint colors that you use are defined by warm or cool colors. Warm colors lean towards red pigments, whereas cool colors lean towards blue pigments. That’s why there are multiple versions of one color. You need to use a combination of warm and cool tones to balance your paint color mixes to create the color combination you want to use. 

What paint colors should you start with?

With any new paint medium, you’re going to want to start out with a set of the primary colors and secondary colors. This will allow you to practice mixing different colors and get a feel for it. You’re also going to want to get larger tubes of black and white. When mixing paint, you’re going to use a lot of white and black paint to create the tones you’re looking for. 

The Basics of Acrylic Paint 

Acrylic paint is a great medium for beginners as it is fast drying, easy to clean up, low odor, and is heavily pigmented. They are very easy to control because they do not spread, like watercolor paint. They can give every artist, beginner or expert, a great result. One important thing to remember is that they typically dry darker than when they are wet. 

What does a beginner acrylic painter need?

The essentials you’re going to need for acrylic paint are a palette, a palette knife for mixing, paintbrushes, a canvas, acrylic paint set of your choice, rag or paper towels, soap, and water for clean up. An easel isn’t completely necessary, but you may find that you enjoy painting at an angle when you begin practicing with acrylic paint. 

How to Paint with Acrylic Paint 

When working with this medium, it is important to practice before you get into your final art piece. Just like with watercolor, you can dilute acrylic paint with water.  

What should a beginner paint?

Nothing! First - experiment. You can get familiar with acrylic paint by feeling how it applies, seeing how quickly it dries, and how to blend other colors together. You can start by swatching your acrylic paints onto the canvas to see how they would look. Then you can work on mixing colors by making a linear gradient from black to white or two corresponding colors, like red to blue. This will help you to see how your acrylic paints blend. 

When painting with acrylics, here are three things to keep in mind: 

  • Progress from mid/light tones to dark tones. The mid-tone allows for your shapes to have a richness from the darker tones as the lighter color shows where the light falls. It all comes with balance when creating shadows. 
  • Create big shapes and then move to smaller details. It’s much easier to go back over your larger shapes to create fine details then the opposite. 
  • Keep in mind that acrylic paint dries quickly, so all your blending should be finished in the palette before it goes on the canvas. You can spray water onto the paint to keep it moist to give you more time to touch up on your masterpiece.  

Linear paint brush being dipped into watercolor paint

The Basics of Watercolor Paint 

Watercolor paint can be an extraordinary art medium to work with as you can create beautiful seascapes or whatever your heart desires. When starting out it can be a little intimidating, as pigment and water often do what they want to do. It’s an extremely visible pigment making every brushstroke on your paper seen. That can make watercolor pigments extremely intimidating as they can be difficult to control. The exciting part is that those accidental brushstrokes can turn into beautiful pieces of art without you planning for it.  

What is watercolor?

The basics of watercolors are within the name. Water carries the pigment from one place to another. The water evaporates and dries quickly leaving the pigment behind on the paper.

What supplies do I need for watercolor painting?

When painting with watercolors, you’re going to need paintbrushes, watercolor paper, two cups filled with water, a palette, and a watercolor paint set of your choice. The best paint brushes you can use for watercolors are ones that have a pointed tip, like round brushes or linear brushes, for accuracy. One of the water cups will be used for rinsing brushes and the other for clean water for mixing. 

Brush Techniques for Watercolor 

In the last Painting for Beginners installment, we highlighted some different brush strokes you can try out with your brand new paint brushes. We talked about the Wet on Wet technique, which you can check out here, but we are going to talk about two more beginner techniques you can use specifically for watercolor paints.  

Feathering 

What is feathering when painting?

Feathering refers to the process of creating a taper along a hard edge in your painting. This technique softens the lines. 


How to feather edges when painting:

Clean off your paint brushes with any pigment that is left behind. Begin painting with a linear paintbrush by painting 4 or 5 parallel lines onto watercolor paper leaving a gap between each line. Make sure that the lines aren’t soaking wet, they should just be damp. Once the paper has been wetted by the linear brushstrokes, put some paint on your brush. Apply the color at right angles to your damp lines. Repeatedly paint a pattern of lines and you will see the pigment disperse sideways creating a feather-like texture. 

Glazing 

What is Glazing?

Glazing is a technique where you apply a thin, transparent, layer of paint over a dry painting.

How to glaze over a painting:

For doing this technique, it is best to pick three primary colors that are close to each other on the color wheel, like a warm red, warm yellow, and cool yellow. This will give you a better chance of achieving harmonious results. 

  1. Dilute your colors with a little bit of water. 
  2. With your three colors, you’re going to be painting a series of oval shapes in alternating orientations to add variety. 
  3. When layering, make sure you wait for your ovals to dry in between layers so they don’t smudge. 
  4. Repeat the process until you’re happy with the results. 
  5. Your pattern can turn into abstract watercolor flowers. 

How to Paint with Oil Paint 

When working with oil paint, it’s important to work in a ventilated area that has safe places for disposal away from children and pets. 

Is oil paint toxic?

Oil paint often contains hazardous chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin. So, when working with oil paint you should wear protective gloves and clothing. If you are working with loose pigments, make sure that you are wearing a respirator. Although these steps are small, they will protect you from possible lifelong health concerns. 


With all of the safety precautions out of the way, it’s time to grab your materials. 


What materials are needed for oil painting?

You’re going to need a variety of paint brushes, rags, a palette, primer, turpentine, a canvas, palette knife, and an oil paint set of your choice. High-quality oil paint can get a little pricey. So, while you’re practicing, invest in cheaper options to see if you like painting with oil paint before investing in nicer tubes of oil paint. Oil paint also dries extremely slowly. Even if the surface on top feels dry the underneath layers might still be wet. You’re going to want to use turpentine to thin your paint out to help your art piece dry faster. 


How do you start oil painting?

When using oil paint there are two rules

  1. Paint “lean to thick” 
  2. Never layer acrylics over oil 

To paint “lean to thick” means you should begin your art pieces with thin washes after you put the primer down. As you progressively layer, you should add less turpentine and more oil-based medium. If you don’t do this process when painting with oil paint, the layers will dry unevenly and over time the surface of your painting will crack. That’s the same with the second rule. If you don’t want your painting to crack, put oils on top of acrylic. You can create these paint layers with a paint brush, or you can try shaping the paint with a palette knife.  

Man with a paint palette in his hand painting on a canvas held by an easelHow to Prevent Brush Strokes in Paint

When using acrylic paint or oil paint, you might be seeing imprints of your brush strokes that you don’t want to have as an element of your painting. One of the key causes of brush stroke imprints is that the paint might be drying too fast before the paint has time to settle into the canvas. Painting in excessive heat speeds up the drying time, which increases the possibility of your brush strokes being visible. Another culprit could be that your paint is too thick. For acrylic, you can thin it out with water. Oil paint can be thinned out using a thinner, called turpentine. 

The Best Medium for Beginners

We have just gone through three paint mediums, acrylic paint, watercolor paint, and oil paint. Now you might be wondering which one is the best paint medium to start out with. All of them are great starting points, but it might be best for you to start with acrylic paint. It will allow you to focus on the brush strokes without worrying about the movement of the pigment and water, like with watercolor. It also has a quicker drying time and you don’t have to worry about layering, like you do with oil paint. 

Final Thoughts 

When it comes to working with new paint mediums for the first time, it is important to be easy on yourself as an artist. As you’re trying out new mediums, it will take some time to learn their specific qualities and techniques that work best for you. It’s best to alleviate yourself of high expectations, and give yourself space to be creative and enjoy yourself while trying something new! Just remember that the Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted in a day. It took four years. So, if Michelangelo needed to take time to practice his brush strokes with new mediums, you do too. 


Contributing Writer: Madeline Collins