Acrylic is one of the most versatile medium, ready to serve you with any creative ideas. We all think, okay, painting means paint on big canvases like real artists. In fact, it is not true, we can use almost everything to show the world our creativity and paint on, even if nobody did it before.
The most common surface for acrylic painting is primed and stretched canvas. You can use a variety of painting surfaces for acrylics: canvas panels, different types of paper, wooden panels, MDF, glass, ceramics, fabric, and some more options! Please, do not use acrylics on your skin!
Which surface is best and how to paint on each of them – read below!
Painting surfaces for acrylic paint:
- Canvas panels or pads
- Fabric (silk, denim, leather)
- Wood (hardwood, hardboard panels, MDF)
- Glass and Mirrors
- Skin – why not?
The best painting surface for acrylic paint for artists who just start is a primed canvas – great results which will last longer and easier to protect. The cheapest option is paper or canvas pad.
What Do You Use Acrylic Paint on?
What materials can acrylic paint be used on? For acrylics it is ideal to have primed, porous surface which has a good paint adhesion properties. A good painting support is the first important among all art supplies.
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Acrylic paint on Canvas
Canvas is a perfect surface for acrylic paints – you can buy anywhere (online, at art stores) a pre-primed and pre-stretched canvas and just directly paint on it without any complex preparation.
In general, canvases are made from cotton or linen and come in stretched and primed, or raw and non-stretched format. Canvas is one of the oldest and most popular painting support.
Cotton canvas is cheaper than linen, flexible, great for small and medium scale painting. Linen is more expensive, more durable and has tougher surface texture. As linen is firm and very stable, it is a great choice for larger scale. Most of canvas sold online or at art store is cotton canvas.
For a beginner, I would recommend to use primed and stretched surfaces as learning stretching and priming takes time and knowledge, but a lot of professional acrylic artists paint on raw canvas.
If you buy a stretched canvas, check stretcher bars, canvas texture, stretching quality to make sure the paint application will not make it saggy.
If you want to learn how to prime a canvas, use this guide.
Acrylic paint on Canvas panels and pads
Canvas panels and pads are great for practicing and painting. They are leightweighted, ready-to-use and portable.
Normally, galleries and museums don’t showcase painting on canvas pads, but nowadays everything is possible.
A canvas panel or pad still use the same fabrics: cotton, mostly, and linen. Panels and pads use primed fabric glued to the board or pad.
Always choose a good-quality surface – edges are wrapped around and glued with high-quality archival glue.
My best pick for canvas panel is Mont Martre Canvas Panel – affordable ($13.95 for 12 panels), great both for painting and acrylic pouring, variety of sizes available, triple primed panels.
Canvas pads may not last as long as real canvas, but they are a cheaper option for learning for every beginner. I like using canvas pads for small works. Canvas pads are made from canvas or paper.
The best Canvas Pad is Canson XL Paper Pad – very cheap ($9.42 for 24 sheets), extremely popular and has great reviews, easy to buy and use, excellent quality!
Acrylic paint on Paper
Paper is the easiest and cheapest way to start painting for a beginner. You don’t have to choose canvas material, prime it, stretch it – you can immediately start painting!
Basically, you can use any paper, but note, that with big amount of water or thick layers fine paper will warp or even dissolve and tears up. High quality archival paper will last longer. Experiment with papers, paint absorption and you find a lot of new effects and textures.
Paper for Acrylics
To tolerate water, thicker application and last longer, some brands create special paper for acrylics. This paper is heavy to prevent warping, it is primed to assure good paint adhesion and absorption. Finally, it is way cheaper than real canvas.
“Heavy” paper means a paper with a weight of 290g/m² or higher.
Canson XL Paper Pad I mentioned above is exactly one of this special paper. Strathnore, Canson, Grumbacher make good papers for acrylics.
Acrylic paint can imitate watercolor with due amount of water. Artists grade watercolor paper is suitable for acrylics too with or without gesso.
The main advantage of watercolor paper is that it deals well with water – it will not warp, tear apart or loosen. The upside is that watercolor paper can be more expensive than acrylic paper.
Yupo watercolor paper can not be the perfect paper for acrylics as it is not really absorbent. But it still can be one of your experiments.
Watercolor paper comes individually, in blocks, pads or even on boards. The best way to go is to buy a block, e.i. Arches Watercolor Blocks of 10 Sheets can cost around $35, it is a good brand with great reviews.
Acrylic paint on Fabric
Fabric loves acrylic and it is such a great way to create custom clothes or installations!
Acrylic paint is permanent on fabric which is good when you paint on it and quite a bad news if you accidentially poured some paint on clothing (hey, turn it into a custom piece!), as acrylics are very hard to wash off.
You can paint on denim, leather, silk – almost any kind of fabric.
Tips for painting on fabric:
- To make the painted area protected and last longer, especially if you will wear it, use fabric medium as GAC 900 by Golden Acrylics or Liquitex Fabric medium – both brands have well-known authority and produce high-quality paint and acrylic mediums.
Otherwise, paint can eventually peel off.
- Put a piece of cardboard in between or under fabric to protect underneath surface or other side of clothes from paint
- To paint on silk, use fluid acrylics. Purchase fluid acrylics or thin acrylic paint with fluid medium. Golden Fluid Acrylics come in set of 10.
- Acrylics are super great for painting on leather items, which means you can customize your jackets, wallets and shoes. Please, paint only on clean surface – you will definitely need Isopropyl alcohol to de-grease or even leather deglazer if your leather item was covered with silicone coat. And, finally, if you really want to use this leather item after painting on it, you need to protect it with Paint Finisher like Angelus Brand Acrylic Leather Paint Finisher
- Acrylic paint for leather – Angelus Leather Paint (set of 12)
Acrylic paint on Wood
Wood is the most stable and solid surface to paint on. You can paint on natural wood or on composite boards, but always remember that you need to prime your wooden surface to make sure all natural elements in wood and impurities will not destroy your painting.
Composites are masonite, HDFB high-density fiber board, medium-density fiber board (MDF). Their main advantages are that they don’t have natural elements in them which can cause stains or yellowing, and they are very smooth to paint onto. They also don’t have natural wood texture.
The main disadvantage of wooden panels is the option of swelling or molding in case you neglected the proper priming and preparation process. Not to forget about the weight too – wood is much heavier than paper or canvas.
The whole prep process needs another article, which is this post. Feel free to read it before painting on wood.
Can you paint acrylic directly on wood? Well, yes and no. You can paint directly on wood, but unprimed wood soaks a lot of paint, it means you will need more paint, it will dry faster and natural wood elements can affect the painting later. It is better to prime wood.
Painting on hardwood needs good priming, some space and some strength, as it will be a heavy piece. But it is also a freedom – you can choose size, thickness of wood, type of wood.
3 main types of wood which work great for acrylic painting are mahogany, birch and maple.
Mahogany is resistant to rot which is why it is the Number 1 choice, but with proper priming and indoor storage birch or maple will be good too.
We don’t use softwoods for painting as they are very likely to warping.
There are quite a lot of wooden panels types: plywood, hardboard, masonite, MDF. etc. Normally they come unprimed and with option of being cradled.
Plywood panels are the most common for acrylics and they are usually made from Baltic birch or maple wood. They have smooth surface and normally come unprimed which means you need to san it, if you want smoother surface and prime them with gesso.
Some artists say it may warp, I don’t use plywood neither.
Hardwood panels are usually made from oak, birch, mahogany and walnut. They are very durable and make a great alternative to canvas.
However, for acrylic painting they may be too heavy and expensive.
Masonite or hardboard panels are very durable, cheap and smooth surfaces to paint on.
Masonite is a mixture of wood fibers that have been broken down and molded into a board using heat, pressure and the natural adhesion of lignin.
It comes in tempered or untempered form. Tempered masonite will not work with acrylic paint as tempering means the board was covered with linseed oil after hot press. That means the paint cannot stick to it, as it is oily now. Untempered masonite is softer and more absorbent.
Insider tip: sand the masonite before priming or buy a pre-primed masonite to paint on very smooth and absorbent surface.
Masonite is a good and more affordable alternative of canvas, but it has some inconveniences too: large panels can warp or bend over time.
The most loved hardboard is Ampersand Gessobord – affordable, pre-primed, archival hardboard. Great quality, smooth surface and variety of sizes and thicknesses available. This boards are also cradled.
On Blick store pack of 4 boards 4×4 will cost you only $5.86.
Medium-Density Fibreboard (MDF)
Medium-Density Fibreboard, MDF, is a cheap, smooth, strong enough and dense surface for acrylic painting. MDF is made from pressed wood fibers, but it also contains resin binder (can be dangerous as it includes carcinogenic formaldehyde) and wax. MDF is less dense and strong than hardboard.
Unprimed MDF cannot be used for painting as it is not water resistant, but also will soak more paint than you may need to use with primed surface. To avoid it, make sure you will properly prime the surface before painting and seal the painting after. I will repeat it again – prime all sides of MDF and never sand or saw it without a respirator. On Amazon you can buy 30 MDF board 6×8″ for $14.
Acrylic paint on Glass
You might have seen some workshops where people paint on wineglasses or plates. This is it! You can use any acrylic paint on glass and then bake your piece in your oven – done!
It is true that glass is not a perfect surface for acrylic painting – it is non-absorbent and glossy.
Without priming, the paint will peel off some day.
You can also not only paint on your kitchenware but purchase float or window glass for your painting experiments. It is cheap, smooth and clear surface, but, as you can guess, fragile.
To paint on the glass, you must wipe it with rubbing alcohol, then you can sand it, you apply gesso, you paint and either you apply protective finish, or you just bake your piece.
To paint on glass you can use Golden Heavy Body Artist Acrylic Paints or Folk Art Enamel Acrylic paints – they both are non-toxic and durable. Folk art are specifically made for glass and ceramics and is good for dishwashing too.
As glass is extremely fragile, here is a less breakable alternative – plexiglass. The process to follow is the same – prepare the surface before painting, paint, protect and frame the painting.
Acrylic paint will stick to mirror too, as well as enamel acrylic paint. Be aware, that acrylics are easy to peel and scrap off from glass and mirrors, so be careful or seal the finished painting with protective spray.
Acrylic paint on Ceramics
IT is so much fun to paint on ceramics: you can paint on your favorite mug and bake it in the oven. It makes sense, as clay is a porous surface.
Even during pottery workshops, you will have time to paint on your pieces with fluid paint. To paint on ceramics, use Golden Heavy Body Artist Acrylic Paints or Folk Art Enamel Acrylic paints – they both are non-toxic, high-quality and durable. Folk art paints are specifically made for glass and ceramics and are good for dishwashing too.
Make sure you will prime clay before painting, otherwise it will soak all paint, and seal the finished painting too to make it last longer.
Please note, that colors will dry darker on clay during glazing and drying process. Look at my piece:
Acrylic paint on Plastic
In general, plastic is not supposed to be used with acrylics. As it is a non-porous and shiny surface, paint can easily peel off. Some types of matte plastic can accept acrylic paint, though.
To paint on plastic, you need to prime it with special primer, like Krylon spray primer or a base coat for plastic. To make sure you will be able to touch painted plastic piece, seal the surface when the painting is done (use special sealer).
Acrylic paint on Metal
Metal is a rare surface for acrylic painting. First of all, as glass and plastic, metal is not providing enough paint adhesion, second, there is one more dangerous factor – rust.
As with other surfaces, metal should be properly primed, you need to assure rustproofness and protective coat.
A good paint for metal surface is Rust-Oleum High-Performance Enamel Spray Paint.
Acrylic paint on Wall
Acrylic paint was initially created for indoor and outdoor painting. It is today 2 completely different type of paint, and when we talk about acrylic paint used for painting, it can be definitely used on wall inside the house.
For outside, please use the paint made for it to make sure it will last longer and you will not have any issues of repainting. Acrylics used by artists can fade when exposed to direct sunlight, or yellow when varnished over time.
I need to mention, however, that I know a lot of abstract painters who use Dulux for their large scale projects.
Acrylic paint on Stone
Acrylics work on stone and rocks too. You may need to find smooth rocks to make sure the surface is good enough for painting. Depending on the size of chosen rock, e.i. if you paint on small rocks, you may need round brushes for detail work.
Basically, you find a rock, you clean it (without soap or solvents!), let it dry, apply gesso, and paint on it. If you paint with kids or just having fun, you can skip gesso.
Acrylic painting on stone needs to be sealed, e.i. with a spray sealer.
Here is an example of how you can paint your rocks, thanks to Cindy Tomas for this amazing designs!
Acrylic paint on Skin
Only non-toxic acrylics can be used on skin. Technically, nowadays all acrylic brands produce non-toxic paint, but still it contains a lot of chemicals and you will never know what effect it can cause.
Definitely never use it on sensitive skin.
In fact, acrylic paint will quickly peel off from your skin when it dries.
Do not use acrylics paint on your skin or your children’s skin. Instead, purchase paint kit where it is mentioned “face paint” or “body painting”.
No matter what surface you will choose, except for your skin, remember of protection – how well you protect your painting affect how long it will last.
The traditional way to seal and protect an acrylic painting is to apply an isolation coat, and then a varnish or protective finish. I know, it may sound difficult, but here are 2 practical how-to guides: one about isolation coat, and one about varnishing.