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What is Acrylic Paint?

Acrylic paint is a versatile, water-based medium known for its vibrant colors and quick drying time. It's a favorite among artists for its ability to mimic watercolors or oil paints, and it adheres to a wide range of surfaces. Its durability and ease of use make it ideal for beginners and professionals alike. Ready to explore the creative possibilities of acrylics?
Margo Upson
Margo Upson
Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Acrylic paints are an art and commercial product that people put on different surfaces to add color or, in some cases, achieve a special effect. Essentially mixtures made with plastic and pigment, they are suitable for a variety of projects ranging from house painting to fine arts. Although their chemical properties can create problems, such as difficulty cleaning, many people like them for their positive qualities, such as their ability to resist water after drying. Experts are still examining how they hold up over time.


Acrylic paints dry quickly.
Acrylic paints dry quickly.

Manufacturers make these paints from emulsions, which are combinations of liquids that normally don’t blend well. At least one of the ingredients in the formula is an acrylic polymer, or set of plastic molecules with a repeating structure. Companies suspend pigments into these mixtures. In layman’s terms, these products are gel-like to runny liquids made up of plastic, other additives and color.

Additives and Adaptability

Acrylic paints produce a matte finish.
Acrylic paints produce a matte finish.

Using additives, manufacturers can make acrylic paints take on different characteristics. They can change the transparency level, for example, or they can provide either a gloss or matte finish. Some of the ingredients thin out the formulas, making them more like watercolors. Others thicken them up, which is good when a person wants to create an oil-like look. In some cases, companies put in specific substances to change what the final product can bond to.

Acrylic paints can be thinned or thickened using additives.
Acrylic paints can be thinned or thickened using additives.

The adaptable nature of acrylic paints makes them great options for projects outside of traditional canvas work. People sometimes use specialty versions on upholstery, clothes, glass and pottery, for instance. Certain types are even available for outside home and garden use.


Even though this product can vary a lot, in general, it tends to dry quickly, the exception being some of the “new” types designed especially to stay more workable. Some individuals see this as an advantage when compared to alternatives, such as oils, which can take days or even weeks to cure. It generally isn’t very easy to blend new colors into paint that already has been on the canvas or other surface for more than a few minutes, however, so a person has to work quickly and be confident in his initial application. Any spills have to be cleaned quickly, or they can set and stain. Toxicity also can be an issue, depending on the additives, although no additional chemicals usually are needed for mixing because an acrylic is typically water based.

Acrylic paint is sometimes used for painting houses.
Acrylic paint is sometimes used for painting houses.

Temperatures above 140° Fahrenheit (60° Celsius) usually soften acrylics. This can create problems with proper storage and preservation. Some techniques such as lining, for example, which is used to give a weak painting more support with fabric, require heat above this point. When the paint is warmer, people can damage it accidentally just by bumping it, and the likelihood of mold growth is higher.

Another major disadvantage of working with this medium is that it can be very difficult to clean. The chemical properties it has cause it to attract and hold dirt easily. At the same time, water and other solvents can alter the appearance of the colors or disturb the paint.


Adaptability aside, one of the major benefits of using acrylics is that they generally do not have a strong chemical smell. They usually are suitable to those who use the products often or who might be sensitive to fragrances. Additionally, most dry true, meaning that they don’t lighten much as they solidify, giving an artist, crafter or other worker a better idea of what his finished design will look like. These products also tend to resist water well after application, even though they can be diluted to work with. Yellowing and cracking is typically minimal over time, as well, although cold temperatures — particularly ones below 0° Fahrenheit (-17.8° Celsius) — make brittleness a bigger problem.


The three major grades of acrylics include scholastic, student and artist. The scholastic type typically is the cheapest and is safe for kids to use on their own or in school. Student versions are mid-level, being more expensive because they are of better quality. Artist products are meant for professionals and, as they are top-of-the-line, usually cost the most.


Over half a dozen types of these paints are available on the market. Some of the most popular include exterior, craft and interactive (open). Other kinds people buy frequently are heavy body, fluid and gouache. Interference, pearl or iridescent versions are good for creating special effects in a project.

Ways to Buy

High quality, professional-grade acrylic paint is available in tubes and is thicker than other types. Some people buy it in small plastic containers that hold just a few ounces. For those who need a lot all at once, such as schools, it comes in big plastic jugs.


First available in the 1950s for work on houses, acrylic paints are newer than many other types. Bocour Artist Colors sold one of the first versions, a mineral spirit blend called Magna. The modern forms became readily available starting in the 1960s, made initially by Liquitex.


Despite the fact that these products show some promise in areas such as durability, as of 2013, people still consider them to be “young.” It isn’t known whether their positive properties will hold up over the next 100 years, 200 years and so on. Furthermore, the quality varies enormously, with cheaper types losing their color to sunlight. People who choose to use this kind of paint, therefore, take a certain amount of risk when they apply it to a surface. It is generally best to go with the highest quality ones available when someone wants his project to last, even if doing this is more expensive.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is acrylic paint made of?

Acrylic paint is composed of pigment particles dispersed in an acrylic polymer emulsion. This synthetic resin provides a fast-drying, flexible, and water-resistant finish once cured. Acrylics can be diluted with water but become water-resistant when dry. The versatility of acrylic paint stems from its composition, allowing it to mimic the properties of oil or watercolor paints depending on its application and the artist's technique.

How long does acrylic paint take to dry?

Acrylic paint is known for its quick drying time, which can range from a few minutes to about an hour for thin layers. However, thicker applications, known as "impasto" techniques, may take longer to fully cure, potentially up to several days. Environmental factors like humidity and temperature can also affect drying times. This rapid drying feature is advantageous for artists who wish to work quickly or build up layers without long waits.

Can acrylic paint be used on any surface?

Acrylic paint is highly adaptable and can be applied to a wide variety of surfaces, including canvas, paper, wood, glass, and ceramics. Some surfaces may require preparation with a primer or gesso to ensure proper adhesion and to provide a smooth painting surface. Its flexibility and adhesive qualities make acrylics a popular choice for both traditional canvas art and experimental mixed media projects.

Is acrylic paint toxic?

Most acrylic paints are non-toxic and safe for general use. However, some pigments may contain harmful chemicals that can pose health risks if ingested or inhaled as dust. It's important to use acrylic paints in a well-ventilated area and to follow the manufacturer's safety guidelines. Artists should also avoid eating or drinking near their work area to prevent accidental ingestion of paint.

How can you preserve acrylic paintings?

To preserve acrylic paintings, it's essential to protect them from dust, UV light, and physical damage. Using a varnish can provide a protective coating that resists dirt and light damage. UV-protective varnishes are particularly beneficial for preventing fading and color shifts caused by exposure to sunlight. Proper framing under UV-protected glass can also help to extend the life of an acrylic painting significantly.

Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Margo has a varied academic background, which has involved everything from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education. These wide-ranging interests make her an ideal MusicalExpert writer, as she always enjoys becoming an expert on new and unfamiliar topics.

Learn more...
Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Margo has a varied academic background, which has involved everything from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education. These wide-ranging interests make her an ideal MusicalExpert writer, as she always enjoys becoming an expert on new and unfamiliar topics.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


Thanks for all the advice. I need to find good commercial paint around here. What are good ways to test colors to make sure you're picking the right one?


Just go to walmart go to the arts and crafts section and you can buy acrylic paint.


beachgirl05- I don't ever recommend buying paint supplies over the Internet. They can often be damaged during the shipping process. Also, there is no way to know what you are actually purchasing. Most craft stores will have samples of the paint displayed so you can see what the color looks like. When buying paint online, you risk buying a color that you are not completely happy with.

I recommend only buying paints at reputable craft and paint stores.


beachgirl05- Acrylic paint supplies can be purchased at many different locations. They can usually be purchased relatively inexpensively at retail stores like Walmart and Kmart. However, keep in mind that their selection will likely be very limited.

You can always buy acrylic supplies at craft stores. Check your phone book and you will likely find at least a couple of craft stores in your local area.

Supplies can also be purchased online. They are often sold on eBay and Amazon. Be careful when buying paint from someone over the Internet. There is no way to guarantee the quality of the product until after you receive it in the mail.


What are some good places to buy acrylic paint supplies? Can they be purchased online?

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    • Acrylic paints dry quickly.
      By: Sergii Moscaliuk
      Acrylic paints dry quickly.
    • Acrylic paints produce a matte finish.
      By: Hemeroskopion
      Acrylic paints produce a matte finish.
    • Acrylic paints can be thinned or thickened using additives.
      By: captblack76
      Acrylic paints can be thinned or thickened using additives.
    • Acrylic paint is sometimes used for painting houses.
      By: sima
      Acrylic paint is sometimes used for painting houses.