Acrylic Paint, What Is It? Uses, Ingredients, Differences, and Surfaces

Acrylic paint is easy to use and one of the most popular painting mediums. It can be used on many different surfaces including canvases, papers, metal, fabric, ceramic, wood and walls.

Acrylic paint brings joy around the world – It helps people to express their creativity regardless of their skill level.

Benefits of Acrylic Paint

  • Solid, reliable colour
  • Fast drying
  • Water based – so you can use it with just water, no need for chemicals!

So, What is Acrylic Paint?

The most important ingredient in paint is pigment [1]. A dry powder that gives paint its signature colour.

what is acrylic paint pigment colours of blue green orange with close up image of acrylic pigment

The other ingredient is what gives paint its name – acrylic polymer.

Acrylic paint is almost entirely pigment, mixed with an acrylic polymer

This polymer is a synthetic glue-like substance that gives acrylic paint some of it’s unique properties.

To compare it with other paints, oil paint is simply pigment and oil. Tempera paint is pigment and egg yolk.

Who uses Acrylic Paint?

Acrylic paint who uses acrylic paint what is it used for pouring paint to paint house acrylic polymer and pigment close up of pink paint and renovation

Acrylic paint is used widely for projects, in schools, building and by artists.

It is a modern form of paint

It has only been around for 70 years, it is also a synthetic type of paint.  

So many of those famous artists you know never used it e.g. Van Gogh, Bob Ross – They used oil paints.

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Many new pop artists use acrylic paint e.g. Andy Warhole [1].

They love the solid colour easily achieved with acrylic and it’s fast drying nature. 

This will no doubt change in decades to come as many of us are starting to discover its many benefits.

Properties of Acrylic Paint

Water soluble

  • You can paint with acrylic straight out the tube, resulting in a thick “impasto” effect.
  • You can mix it with a small amount of water which allows it to be smoothly applied.
  • Or mix with a larger amount of water giving it a transparent watercolour property.

Fast Drying

  • The polymer in acrylic is very fast drying [1] compared to its closest relative (oil paint).
  • Depending on how thick you apply paint with a brush, it can take just 1 minute to dry or over 30 minutes for thick paint in cold and humid settings.
  • You can add mediums (additives) to acrylic to make it dry slower. Then you can take your time to mix more paint and blend different colours together. 


  • Watercolour and oil paints can be quite transparent. When you paint many layers on top of each other you can actually see the under layers through the top later.
  • Acrylic paint is one of the most opaque type of paints. When you paint one layer of paint on top of another it almost completely blocks out the under layer. This can be adjusted by diluting with water or with an acrylic medium. 

Reliable Colour

  • All paints change at least a little once dried. 
  • Oil paint becomes slightly yellow a few days later. Since acrylic dries within minutes it is easy to tell if the colours you have mixed are suitable.
  • Acrylic paint tends to darken very slightly once dried, through the colour changes much less than other other types of paint.

Why use Acrylic Paint?

It’s easy

All you need to begin painting with acrylics are the tubes of paint, a surface to apply paint onto and brushes to apply the paint with.

If you make mistakes with acrylic, as long as the paint is not very thick, you can simply apply another layer on top.

This is not as easy with water colours since they are very transparent.

When it comes to oil paints, besides the paint, surface and brushes, you also need oils and chemicals like turpentine to mix the paint.

It sticks to nearly everything

Acrylics can easily adhere to most things without even priming the surface.

Some of the most popular surfaces are canvas, wood, and linen.

Even most house paints are a type of acrylic paint, showing how durable the polymer is.

It dries fast

If you like to work fast and to paint layers of paint on the same day or next day acrylic is for you.

Some types of paint require you to wait up to a week before painting a new layer of paint on.

However, fast drying paint can be difficult if you want to take your time to mix colours as the paint can dry before you have a chance to apply them.

Also, if you want to achieve smooth gradients or blending, you will need to work extremely quickly.


The only toxic element [1] of acrylic paint is the paint itself, and that’s only if you ingest it.

So simply don’t eat your paint! Or eat while painting in case you have paint on your fingers.

With oils, the turpentine and odourless solvents can damage your throat and lungs if not used in a well ventilated environment.

Also, some of the more traditional paints still use heavy metals and other toxic ingredients. 

We’ve discussed some of the most popular properties and benefits of acrylic paint, but all of these properties differ from brand to brand. 

They can all also be adjusted by adding different mediums to the paint. You can slow down or speed up drying time.

  • Make paint more transparent
  • Make it thicker, smoother or rougher.
  • Being aware of the above can reduce some very unpleasant surprises.

The most important thing is to experiment for yourself!

By doing so you will no doubt discover some techniques that will work best for what you’re trying to achieve. And bring you and others joy from your creations.

Frequently asked questions

What is acrylic paint used for?

Acrylic paint is extremely versatile and can be used for painting any subjects (abstract / portraits / landscapes / still life / etc.).

It can be used on many different surfaces (canvas / linen / wood / walls / etc.). It is suitable for anyone from beginners and students all the way up to professional visual artists.

What is the difference between oil and acrylic paint?

Acrylic paint is pigment suspended in (mixed with) a synthetic glue-like substance. Oil paint is pigment suspended in oil, usually linseed oil.

Do you use water with acrylic paint?

Yes. Acrylic paint water soluble. You can use water to either dilute acrylic paint, or wash it off surfaces before it dries.

What does acrylic paint look like?

Acrylic could look no different to oil or watercolour depending on how thick you apply it.

Acrylic does dry with a slight plastic like finish due to the acrylic polymer. Mediums can be used to make the finish more matt / gloss / transparent.

Does acrylic paint wash off?

Yes, Acrylic paint does easily wash off any surface with water when wet. But when dry it is very difficult to wash acrylic from porous surfaces and it can be permanent in some cases.

Soap often will get rid of most of it. A single thick layer of acrylic paint can be easily peeled off very smooth surfaces like primed wood and plastic. 

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