【Art Tips】How to make acrylic paint to be more watercolour-like?

Started out as a watercolour artist, I am recently painting more acrylic works. Acrylic is a better medium for creating the luminescent effect of neon lights, and it's easier to depict darkness in night scenes. Does that mean that I have to compromise and let go of the precious translucent quality of watercolour? My answer is...no, you don't have to!


In this article, I will be demonstrating:

How do I make my acrylic look more like watercolour?

How to express both watercolour and acrylic qualities in my acrylic painting?


Before I start showing you my progress how, differentiating the qualities of the two medium would be helpful for our understanding. Both acrylic paint and watercolour paint are water-soluble, meaning that they could both be thinned and washed by water, they dry up way quicker than oil-based pigment such as oil paint. During the pigment-making course I joined earlier in NYC by Kremer Pigment Inc., the tutor said that you can actually make acrylic and watercolour out of the same pigment powders. Ok so, what makes them different, is the binder being used to mix the pigments. While watercolour uses arabic gum, acrylic is suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. Acrylic paints are water-soluble when wet/unused, but once it becomes dry it is water-resistant.


My palette with really thin and watery acrylic


Because of the difference in binder, they could affect the painting outcome, as well as the painting techniques associated with them. Watercolour is a transparent medium, which means lighter colour cannot cover up the darker colour, and you are advised to start from the light tones. Acrylic is opague, and you could easily cover up, make layers, and make highlights at the very end.


For long, we artists are told to paint "according to the quality of the material", opague media, is meant for thick layers and details.


I would like to challenge that.


To paint my favourite subject, neon lights, I need the two, extremly opposite qualities of the two medium: both thickness, and thinness; both translusency, fluridity and stablility as well as firmness.


To acheive that, I am going to apply directly the watercolour techniques, on acrylic medium.

Painting step-by-step of "Kabukicho First Street", acrylic on canvas, 30x23cm

Step 1: draft


To start with, I make a few guildlines with light brown as my draft, for the sake of compositional planning. Make sure that your line and colour is as minimal as possible.


Step 2: finished draft


Remeber to keep the tonal relations (light and dark) correct in your strokes, that will help you progress with the right intended focus in the later steps.


Step 3: under-layering using cerulean blue


Paint the undertone with watery acrylic, paint as if you are painting watercolour. Let the paint flow and drip. Reserve the white area. Keep your paint really thin, do not stack up paints.


Step 4: Start adding in purple


When adding a second layer, make sure that the proportion of water to pigment is similar, so that they could flow together in the same layer.


Step 4: Start adding in red


When adding saturated colours like red, you want it to pop out a little bit. To acheive this, make the paint a little bit thicker than the blue and purple.


Step 6: Middle tones


After painting the wet layer of blue, purple and red, which is our light tone, we should now proceed to second layer of middle tone. Middle tone should be darker (but not the darkest) in the picture. I am using ultramarine blue and sepia. You mix them to fill in the surrounding areas and the gaps between light tones.


Step 7: Darker tones

From this step onwards, your paint can get thicker and paint more like acrylic: feel free to stack, cover up, and paint firmly. We have quite a good amount of "wet" and "fluridic" qualities in our painting now, and we want to have something "dry" and "firm" to counterbalance the picture.


Step 8: Continue stacking up the darkest tone


It is a strength of acrylic paint to be able to acheive such darkness. Make good use of the contrast and create good sense of depth. Don't be afriad to get really dark, as long as you have enough white reserved, your picture is balanced.

Step 9: Add the signboard detail and sign


Signboard is our main focus, you want it to be sharp and clear: your brush has to be dry and fine. Sign your picture too!


Finished look:

You can see through the top layers the dripping watery bottom layers. Unlike most acrylic painting, my white parts are "reserved": it is the white of the canvas cloth. I like how the combination of techniques can preserve the freshness of watercolour effect, and express extreme potential of detail, darkness and light (chiaroscuro).


Next, it's you turn to try!


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All Image Copyright @ Elaine Chiu (the artist)

Hong Kong, 2020

elainechiu48@hotmail.com