How to paint with acrylic washes

Fine artist Craww demonstrates his technique for building colour and depth using multiple layers of acrylic wash.

How to paint with acrylic washes

Learning how to draw and paint takes time, knowledge and patience. But, there are a number of drawing and painting techniques you can adopt to help you along the way. While I work in a variety of mediums including just about everything from graphite and ink to charcoal and oils, I enjoy the flexibility of acrylics: they can be used direct from the tube to create thick dense colour or, as we'll do here, watered down and layered to give depth and an almost ethereal quality to light.

As a self-taught artist, my style of painting has developed over the years, and I've learned a few tricks and techniques that make it work for me. My process is very much a stream-of-consciousness flow. I seldom start with a clear idea but really enjoy seeing how my work almost takes on a life of its own, growing from absent-minded doodles, through development in my sketchbook to painting the finished piece.

I try to embrace a spontaneity in my work, and the drips and splashes of watered-down acrylic lend themselves well to that process – even accidents that seem disastrous at the time. Let me take you through my process of painting when working with acrylic paints.

01. Start with sketchbooks and ideas

How to paint with acryclic washes

Sketching allows room to explore your idea as it progresses

My work always starts in the sketchbook. It's a risk-free environment to explore ideas and hopefully surprise yourself. I'm a constant doodler and I try and keep things as loose as possible throughout this stage, allowing for room to explore the idea as it progresses.

02. Transfer the drawing

How to paint with acrylic washes

Really get a feel for the piece as you transfer the drawing

I prefer to redraw rather than transfer my sketch using a light box or projector. It takes longer but retains the spontaneity, and again enable the idea to develop. I probably spend too long on this stage, but it does help me get a feel for the piece and also acts as an underpainting.

03. Prepare for the initial wash

How to paint with acrylic washes

Using a mop brush, cover the entire surface with clean water

Using a mop brush, I cover the entire surface with clean water, preparing it for the initial wash. Then I mix up the initial colour. I mix a lot of paint – in this case Prussian blue, Hookers green and a touch of Phthalo turquoise – which gives the colour a little more depth, using a lot of water to thin it down.

04. Apply the first wash

How to paint with acrylic washes

Things can look a little messy at this stage – but I enjoy the spontaneity!

Again using my mop brush, I load it with a lot of paint and wash it onto the wet paper, working across the paper and allowing the water to carry the paint down the painting. Things can look a little messy at this stage, but I enjoy the spontaneity, seeing how the paint goes down, and it will be worked on and refined later.

05. Work with the wash

How to paint with acrylic washes

While it's still wet, get a feel for highlights by lifting paint off with a clean/dry mop brush

While it's still wet, I start to work into it, getting a feel for highlights by lifting paint off with a clean/dry mop brush. I also use a water spray from a garden centre to wash areas if I want to blend paint or remove it altogether. I repeat this process, gradually building layers of colour.

06. Build colour and tone

How to paint with acrylic washes

Each layer is a very slight development on the last, creating denser colour and tone

Each layer is a very slight development on the last, creating denser colour and tone. As the process continues I can refine areas more. When I want to create a harder edge I will paint an area with water first and then apply the wash, letting the paint run into the water and along the edge.

07. Blending colour

How to paint with acrylic washes

Working wet on wet produces subtle blends

Working wet on wet produces subtle blends. I enjoy the softness this gives, but if I want to stop the paint running into an area I'll use a hair dryer to dry areas as I'm working. I don't worry about the drips – they're part of the fun – but if they do interfere with something I will lift them with the brush or wash them off with the water spray.

08. Add detail

How to paint with acrylic washes

Use a selection of long-handled brushes to start to establish darker areas, enhance contrast and bring out key forms and shapes

I now want to give the painting some form. I've aimed for an overall mid-tone at this stage and now I'll work with a denser mix of paint, using a selection of long-handled brushes to start to establish darker areas, enhance contrast and bring out key forms and shapes.

09. Add colour

How to paint with acrylic washes

Don't worry about final hues at this stage, just lay down a ground colour

Up until this point I've been working on tone and form. Now I want to add colour. Still working with thin washes, first I add a mix of Yellow ochre, muted with Buff titanium, to the figures. At this stage I'm not worried about the final hues – I'm just laying down a ground colour.

10. Keep it loose

How to paint with acrylic washes

It's worth noting that colour looks strong when first applied, it'll be much paler when it dries

I then add a wash of Alizarin crimson mixed with Quinacridone burnt orange to the flowers area. I'm not painting the flowers as such, rather adding colour areas that I can play with later. It's also worth noting that however strong the colour looks when you first apply it, it'll be a lot paler once it dries.

11. Layer washes

How to paint with acrylic washes

It's at this stage that the painting starts to gain its depth

From now on it's really a matter of repeating the process, alternating between gradually building colour and tone with additional washes and working on areas of detail. It's at this stage that the painting starts to gain its depth. Colours become deeper, shadows grow darker, and detail and form are more defined.

12. Evaluate the painting

How to paint with acrylic washes

A long-handled flat brush helps shape the painting

I continue to step back and evaluate. I aim to create a flow through the piece, but the composition seems to be missing something to lead the eye out, so I'm adding detail to the bottom corner. I shape it with a long-handled flat brush but purposefully keep it looser than the more defined flowers – this will create depth, helping to foreground detail.

13. Work on detail

How to paint with acrylic washes

Now you are able to focus on detail

Now I'm able to focus on the detail. I tend to move from my easel to a flat surface. I like to be 'over' my painting at this stage. It's now that the painting starts to come to life, as I'm able to focus on the fine details that create character.

14. Refine the work

How to paint with acrylic washes

It's time to revisit the areas to which rough colour was previously applied

It's time to revisit areas to which I've previously applied rough colour. I'm now able to go in and work on them, adding refinement, detail and depth.

15. Appraise and finalise

How to paint with acrylic washes

The final stage is to step back again and look for any areas that need tightening up

The final stage is to step back again and look for any areas that need tightening up and any opportunities for additional detail to add narrative to the painting. Here I feel that some thin bones would add context to the bird skull.

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX bookazine How to Paint & Draw.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Craww is a fine artist and illustrator working in Sheffield, England. A habitual doodler, his work embraces a variety of mediums including graphite, acrylics and oil painting. He has enjoyed successful shows in London, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Art