Table of Contents
1. Introduction and disclaimers
3.1 About Gesso
3.2 Liquid White
4. Painting Process
5. Black Canvases
5.1 About Gesso... again
5.2 Substitution Bob's approach
6. Brush Care
6.1 Natural Brushes
6.2. Waste Water
7. About Primer
8. Additional tipps, experiences and notes
If you have watched a lot of Bob Ross’ "The Joy of Painting" you might have stumbled upon some of the times he answered the question “Can this technique be done in acrylics?”. Quite disappointingly, his answer would always be the same: Unfortunately not. Acrylics dry very fast and we rely on our paint staying wet for a long time.
But that was more than 30 years ago and here is what I am gonna tell you: A lot has changed and improved in the world of painting materials and there are wonderful mediums and special paints now that allow us to paint wet on wet using solely acrylics and acrylic mediums. In this article I want to share with you my method of acrylic wet on wet painting. With the preparation done right and the right materials at your disposal you should be able to follow almost any of Bob’s lessons with the same brush strokes and techniques using acrylics instead of oils!
Now before I take you down the path of acrylic wet on wet painting, here’s a bit of honest information about me, so you can decide for yourself if you want to regard me as a reliable source: I am not a painter with professional training. I started my painting journey, taught by myself and Bob’s videos, in autumn of 2021 and have always been painting wet on wet. And I have always used acrylics to do so. After some disappointing setbacks in the beginning, I have made a lot of experience through internet research and testing and by now have frequently been asked how I manage to do what I do using acrylics as a medium. If you want to know what results I produce with my method feel free and have a look at my paintings I post here on twoinchbrush or my Instagram (@hammipaints).
Note that throughout this article I might mention several brands of paints and materials I use. I am not affiliated with any of those brands in any other way than that I use them to paint my paintings. I am not trying to advertise but rather share my personal painting experiences with you.
In this section I will list all materials I use. Entries spelled in bold are essential to my technique. Entries underlined are recommended. Recommended entries with an asterisk (*) are highly recommended. An explanation for each product line is given below the respective entry. I also will list recommended uses for each kind of paint.
Golden Open Acrylics - Titanium White
Golden Open Acrylics – Phthalo Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Sap Green, Hansa Yellow medium (stand in for the expensive cadmium yellow, any yellow with similar hue and opacity should do)
Golden Open Acrylics – Burnt Umber, Bone Black, Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre, Indian Yellow, Burnt Sienna, basically any color you want, I usually use Bob’s palette
Recommended uses: Liquid Base Color (See 3.2), Sky, Water, Northern Lights
“Open” is a product line of the “Golden” brand. They are special in the fact that they stay wet way longer than normal acrylics paints. In my method I use those paints to mix liquid white equivalents and other liquid base colors. I also use them in my backgrounds and water, basically anything I want to blend easily and soft.
Liquitex Heavy Body – Titanium white(*)
Liquitex Heavy Body – Brown, Red, Blue, Yellow, Black (Any color you want to use heavily in mountains or clouds)
The “Heavy Body” paints from “Liquitex” are very thick acrylic paints which make them excellent for mountain highlights and clouds. Also, contrary to most acrylic paints, they keep their texture and structure and hold brush strokes even after drying. So for example: If you want to have “touchable” bark on a foreground tree you can do that using this paint. They are harder to clean off the palette and the brushes though.
Recommended uses: Clouds, Mountains, Elements that are supposed to keep texture
Amsterdam Standard Acrylics – Any color you want, I usually use Bob’s palette
You can use any other ordinary acrylic paint instead. I simply prefer this product line.
The “Standard” acrylic paints form Talens Amsterdam are my favourite paints since they are reasonably priced and of good quality. I use those for practically everything else except blending areas, clouds and mountains.
Recommended uses: Anything not stated before.
Amsterdam Expert - Any color you want, I usually use Bob’s palette
The “Expert” product line is of higher quality than the standard line. They are thicker and contain more pigment. Though they are not as thick as liquitex’ heavy body acrylics, they may be a less expensive substitute. The mountain highlights do not come off as easy as with the heavy body paints though and you’d need to be even more careful if you want the paint to break. By now I only use these paints for foreground elements where I want a bit more structure.
Recommended uses: Foreground elements which are
supposed to keep more structure/texture
Golden Open Thinner
- Brushes with a lot of hair as Bob recommends it for his technique. If you don’t feel comfortable using BRI products due to the whole documentary controversy use whatever similar brushes you want.
- Some very soft brushes. I use soft goat hair brushes
- Some acrylic brushes come in handy sometimes
- Soft liner brushes. I for once have trouble using the BR
- Double Primed (No Gesso! Explanation in chapter 3) White Canvas
- I liked to use “Gerstaecker Basic” until I started building and priming my own canvases. Those canvases state to be primed with a “universal primer” (Universalgrundierung).
3.1 About Gesso
(More about this and a summary of Information see Chapter 8)
So this is the first and, in my opinion, most important lesson: Do not use canvases primed with gesso.
A lot of artists might tell you that it’s best to use canvases primed with gesso or, even better, to apply additional layers of gesso yourself. And while that may be true in a lot of cases, gesso is an absolute death sentence for my acrylic wet on wet method to work.
Now I am not familiar with the technicalities and physical or chemical background of why this is the case, but what happens when you apply the liquid white equivalent I use (see 3.2) to a gesso’d canvas is that the gesso will just suck the liquid white right up. It will get tacky and all around uncomfortable to use right away.
Now you might ask: “But what should I use then? Aren’t all pre stretched and primed canvases primed with gesso?”
Well, since I am insecure about what materials you guys have available where you live, I think the best approach is to simply tell you what I use:
The canvases I use state to be primed with a “universal primer” (Universalgrundierung). Unfortunately I have yet to understand what excactly that means. But if a Canvas you own or are about to buy says it’s primed with gesso better do not use it for this technique. For my own canvases I use the Gerstaecker White Acrylic Primer (Name as stated on their UK Website).
In my general experience cheap canvases tend not to be primed with gesso but some other cheap primer. If you are uncertain what canvases are primed with gesso or not it might be best to ask someone from the art store.
“But what about Black canvases? Bob says to coat them in Black Gesso!” I hear you ask. For an answer to that see chapter 5: Black Canvas paintings
3.2 Liquid White
The very base of my method lies in having an acrylic liquid white equivalent. When I started out painting and naively realized, that acrylics seemed not to be suited to paint wet on wet, I went on a little internet research trip were I stumbled upon a video on the “WildCreates” Youtube channel were the artist running the channel shares his recipe for acrylic liquid white which I have been using ever since. So credit were credit is due: Thank you very much Ryan, without you I would not paint what I do today!
You can check out the Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOZACe0v_Do. He also goes into a bit more depth than I do here.
I use the Formula of 50% Golden Open Titanium White, 40% Golden Retarder and 10% Golden Open Thinner.
You can use any Golden Open Color to mix any liquid base you like! We also will need those for black canvas paintings (see chapter 5.)
The Painting Process
In this chapter I want to guide you step by step through a typical white canvas painting using my method. Let’s use Bob’s “Towering Peaks” as an example. I will focus on what paints to use in my description. Brush/Knife techniques/strokes stay the same if not stated otherwise. Note that I do not exclusively include essential materials in this part. If you're on a budget see chapter 8.
Step 1: Apply a thin even coat of acrylic liquid white to the canvas. The rule of the “fingerprint test” is applicable.
Step 2: Apply background and water color using Golden Open Phthalo Blue.
Step 3: Blend
Step 4: Do the clouds using a Heavy Body Titanium white paint, I recommend Liquitex
Step 5: Blend. I prefer an especially soft brush to blend the clouds. I use soft goat hair brushes for that
Step 6: Do the mountain base using normal acrylic paint. Be sure to scrape off excess as Bob does it before blending
Step 7: For the mountain highlights use Heavy Body Titanium white paint, I recommend Liquitex. Mix with a bit of blue for the shadows. Since you don’t need much of the blue, normal acrylic paint should suffice without thinning down the heavy body paint too much. If you want to be sure use a heavy bodied blue paint to mix with the white.
Step 8: Follow Bob’s further instructions using your normal acrylic paint.
Step 9: Regarding reflections: Usually the canvas should still be wet enough so you can continue using normal acrylic paints. However, if you’re insecure you can use open acrylics for the reflections.
Step 10: Continue to the foreground until finished using normal acrylics. For bush-highlights I like to use Amsterdam Expert for a bit more structure but only if the base color is already relatively dry. Otherwise I’d be mixing mud.
5. Black Canvas Paintings
5.1 About Gesso... again
As already stated in Chapter 3, Gesso is some mean stuff regarding this method. Instead, if you need to make a black canvas for nighttime or deep forest paintings you can simply apply a thin (but still dark enough) coat of black acrylic paint. Thicker coats have a similar effect as gesso on the liquid base. You can even thin the black paint down or spray the canvas with water, which not only thins the paint down but allows for a fast and slick application of color. You will have that canvas covered in no time!
5.2. Differences to Bob's approach
As most of you will have noticed, Bob Ross approaches black canvases a bit differently than white canvases. Usually what he would do is to first cover the canvas with a very thin even coat of liquid clear, before applying a base coat of one or more colors (e.g. a lavender mix for “Waterfall in the woods”).
Now how do we tackle the challenge of applying this method to acrylics? There probably are more solutions to this but the most reliable is the following:
Instead of looking for a liquid clear equivalent, we instead apply our liquid white formula to other colors. So for Waterfall in the woods we would mix 50% Open Lavender Paint(mixed), 40% Retarder and 10% open thinner and apply it just like we would with the liquid white. Basically we use a liquid base color instead of any color Bob puts on for a first layer.
This way we do not even need liquid clear!
We can now go about our painting as with the white canvas ones: Use open Paints for Backgrounds, Water and reflections, ordinary acrylics for most of everything else and heavy body for clouds, mountain highlights and wherever we want a lot of structure.
6. Brush Care
6.1 Natural Brushes and Water
As you probably have heard, natural brushes usually are not recommended to work with acrylics, water based paints or to be washed using water in general. Most mentioned issues being the fraying of the bristles and damage done to the hair by using soap and water to wash the brushes.
However in my experience we can absolutely work with natural brushes and wash them with soap and water, if we do it correctly.
One basic rule of thumb for washing natural brushes with soap is, to not use products you would not want to use on your own hair. So dish soap for example is a big no-no. The product I use is “The Masters’ Brush Cleaner and Preserver”. Though expensive, this is the best brush cleaner I have come across yet.
Personally I have been using natural brushes since I have started painting and I have started using Bob Ross natural brushes shortly after. The most annoying issue I had was how extremely the bristles spread out already after the first wash. For an hour or so I was devastated until I stumbled upon one very helpful video from “Painting with Yovette”. Unfortunately she set that video to private due to reasons unknown to me so I can not share it with you. But based on her video, here is what I have done ever since:
1) Thoroughly but gently wash my brushes using The Masters Brush Cleaner right after painting. There are mats you can rub the brush against to get rid of semi-dried chunks of paint. Be sure to not let too much water into the ferrule since it can (over time and in the worst case) damage the glue that keeps the bristles in.
2) For brushes prone to fraying (e.g. 1inch, 2 inch, etc…): Fold and wrap the bristles in paper towel. This will keep the bristles from spreading out.
3) Hang the brush bristleside down so water can escape the ferrule and leave hanged and wrapped until dry for (1 to 2 days)
Brushes you don’t wrap can be simply layed on paper towel. You can position them in an angle so water can escape the ferrule.
I’ve had my Bob Ross brushes since Christmas 2021 and I have yet to encounter problems with this technique.
6.2 Waste Water
When washing brushes with soap and water naturally we will have at least some waste water. Now while I am not looking to be patronizing I’d like to point out, that, depending on where you live, spilling acrylic paint down the drain (thinned down or not) might not be allowed, discouraged or downright illegal, due to the environmental impact and possible impact to the ground water. And unregarding of where you live it certainly is harmful for your pipes since it can accumulate and clog them. Since I am suggesting here to wash your brushes this way I feel responsible to offer a solution.
Thankfully the solution is easy: Cat litter. Simply keep your washing water in a container and use cat litter to thicken that stuff up until almost solid. At that point you can just throw it in the trash.
Another Method would be to keep the water in a flat container and simply let it evaporate over time. The paint will be left at the bottom as residue once the water is gone. However, if you paint regularly, this method takes long and takes up quite some space.
7. About Primer
Incidentally as I was writing this guide I received questions from another painter who tried painting using my approach. And while it mostly went well, said painter encountered problems with the liquid white drying up too fast. In our conversation we narrowed down the problem: The canvas was primed with Gesso. Now as stated before, I don’t know why this is the case from a technical standpoint but from experience I know that Gesso and thick layers of acrylic paint suck up the acrylic liquid white real fast.
The solution is seemingly simple: Get a primer with low absorbancy. But here is where we stumbled upon the next issue: While I have no problem obtaining such a primer where I live (I get mine from Gerstaecker, they sell their own product as “White Acrylic Primer”), the person I was chatting with lives in America and seems to struggle finding a primer that does the job.
Because I want my approach to work for you regardless of where you live, here is all the information I know about the topic.
- Low absorbency
- Not too thick of a coat
- Chunks of dried primer in my bucket kind of feel similar dried house paint
- “Schmincke” products seem to be available in the USA. They have an acrylic primer that claims to be only “slightly absorbent”. I have no experience with the productbut it might be a lead.
- Cheap Canvases where I live claim to be primed with “Universal Primer (Universalgrundierung)”. Those Canvases worked well for me before I started making my own canvases.
- Another painter on Reddit suggested using house paint. I asked them about cracks forming over time and his answer was, that he had not observed that. The paintings he primed with house paint he has had for ~25 years now.
I will add to this when I find new Information. Also it would be awesome if you people have more insight and are willing to share your knowledge!
8. Additional tipps, experiences and notes
- I am aware that quite a few of the materials I use are relatively expensive. However, absolute the minimum you need can get you quite far already. Assuming you already have a canvas and some run of the mill acrylic paints, the absolute minimum is the liquid white equivalent, so you will need:
- Golden Open Titanium White
- Golden Open Thinner
- Golden Retarder
Which should cost you about 30 to 40 bucks judging from what I pay where I live but last relatively long, depending on what canvas size you use.
Everything else special that I list will likely improve your results.
- If you don’t want to invest in additional open colors: You can absolutely paint your backgrounds (and reflections) using normal acrylics if you don’t need much blending work or work fast. However, depending on how much blending work you do, you might want to pay attention to how much your paint dries up. Once normal acrylics are added to the wet canvas, drying time of the wet base is reduced significantly and using a dry brush (for example for blending) will reduce drying time as well.
- If you don’t want to invest in Liquitex heavy body paint: You can spread your acrylic paint on you pallet. It will thicken up quite fast. Don’t wait to long though, since it may also dry up completely
- If you don’t want to invest in the Masters Brush cleaner: You can most probably use any other brush friendly soap. I simply prefer the Masters because of it works as a preserver as well and because of how cautious I am with my more expensive brushes.
- Liner brushes with “less spring” tend to work better for this technique. I have had stiffer liner brushes leave unwanted stroke marks even though the paint had the right consistency.
- Do your blending areas and reflexion as soon as your composition allows it
- You can use water to thin your paint down, you don’t have to use thinner. BUT:
- Do not use water on areas you still want to be able to blend. For some reason, the water seems to react with the thinner/retarder mix and drastically reduces drying time
- to leave my brushes hanging to dry I simply stuck a peace of thread to the handle using duckt tape
- Acrylics are an excellent medium to paint a little background design for ovals and other silhouette paintings, regardless if you paint in oil or acrylics. Here’s how I do it:
- spray the canvas with water, spread with the brush
- play around with colors of my choice, often thinned down with water (dabs, streaks, whatever floats my boat in that moment)
- blend while still wet
- Reuse undried leftover paint to make black canvases! You can just mix all your undiluted leftover colors together to achieve a nice, at least black-enough color.
9. Wrap Up
If you made it down here: Thank you so much for reading! This article was more work than I expected and I really appriciate you taking your time to read it. If you have further questions don't hesitate to ask, I'll gladly answer anything you guys come up with. Also if you have anything to add feel free to leave a comment as well! Let's use our collective knowledge to perfect acrylic wet on wet painting!
Also if you liked this guide: I would be so glad if you followed me on instagram @hammipaints. I am really trying to build a following there to get my art out into the world. Every follow counts.
Now have a good day, night, week, month, year and happy painting to you all!