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The theory, as far as I am told, is that paper is too absorbent for acrylic paint, so it makes it dry too fast and prevents blending.
But is it so?
I'll explain how this question came up.
Anyone who's already got the answer, please feel free to skip the explanation and go to the last paragraph.

Complete beginner in acrylic painting, I bought some acrylic paper (290 gsm), some student-grade paint and paintbrushes from an arts & crafts shop, and gave it a go.

This may make you laugh, but what I attempted first thing was blending (I know...), with a fairly large (probably 1 cm or so) flat hog bristles brush (yep), using ultramarine blue and lemon yellow.
You can imagine the streak-fest that ensued, with no indication of blending whatsoever. The paintbrush is now permanently stained blue.
Even just trying to paint normally, I couldn't go over a previously made brushstroke without stripping parts of it off. And I wasn't really applying any crazy pressure.
So I was wondering: how would one be able to blend by drawing the paintbrush over paint that is already there, if it lifts it off instead of mixing the colours?

So, back to the drawing board :), I watched many YouTube videos on acrylic painting, e.g. those by Art Sherpa + others, and learned a lot, including the fact that I needed possibly even heavier paper, and that my paper needed to be primed, despite being marked as 'for acrylic'.

I tried two priming techniques I found: A) acrylic medium with 3 coats of gesso on top, B) 3 coats of white acrylic straight on paper.
This was fairly painful, to be honest. Not only it took ages, but despite taping down the paper, it also really warped a lot, and only after several days it flattened a bit, still bumpy though.
I would not be very motivated to paint if I had to go through this each time.

In the meantime I also bought (what I am told is) better paint (among others, some Talens Amsterdam, not the Expert one, just the basic one for now; some Winsor & Newton Galeria is on its way today).

Not sure if it was thanks to the better paint or to the priming, or a combination of the two, but at least I was now able to dilute the colours more and paint smoother, longer strokes without seeing much lifting of previously made ones.
Still no joy with blending though. It just was not possible to drag the paintbrush in the area between two colours and have them mix on the canvas (what I now know is called 'wet on wet blending').

I still made a few paintings just to try (e.g. this one, this one and this one).
Yes, I know I am crazy, I went for paintings with the highest possible amount of blending required, and two of them were even meant for oil in the first place. Pushing myself? Or just plain silly?
Unsurprisingly, the choppy, blocky look of the sky and sea really ruins them, so I would still be able to find a way to blend.

And here's the big surprise. I spotted this video where the painter shows she makes preparatory sketches in a simple light paper sketchbook. I thought, hold on, I have a sketchbook, a 120 gsm with nothing special to it. Had some leftover primary blue and titanium white from a session I had just finished. Took a flat 7 mm synthetic flat brush, put down some blue next to some white, and: 1) absolutely smooth brushstrokes, no sign of paint lifting off or breaking; 2) when I tried blending horizontally, I got the smoothest, most seamless gradient of blue; 3) no taping, just clamped the paper down, and it almost did not warp at all!
I then went on to paint a dawn sky on another page of the sketchbook, same story, absolutely smooth and much more effective than any heavier paper, primed or not.

I saw this thread where priming is mentioned, and it seems to me that it is assumed that priming is necessary.

So I am now left with some doubts: do I need to prime paper at all? As it's apparently not helping me blend acrylics better, am I doing it wrong? If I gave up priming paper and painted straight on acrylic/watercolour 290+ gsm, or lighter, would my paintings deteriorate with time?
I'm obviously no Caravaggio, but I'd still like them to last a while.

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    The first thing you need to internalize is that acrylics behave completely different from oil paints, so trying to follow a tutorial for an oil painting with acrylic paints is guaranteed to give you a very different result. Acrylics dry quick, no matter if you primed your medium or not, and they require softer brushes than oil paints. A hog bristle brush will always leave a distinct texture in the paint. If that's not what you want, you should use a softer synthetic brush.
    – Elmy
    Mar 6, 2023 at 8:57
  • Thank you @Elmy ; yes, I know oil and acrylic behave very differently. I was hoping that at least some blending would be possible with the latter too. The tests I did with simple light paper were encouraging in that sense. Mar 6, 2023 at 9:56
  • My main surprise was that, after making the effort of priming heavy paper, I got actually better results with light, unprimed paper. So I just wanted to check that I was not wasting time with that. BTW I had also bought a small selection of oil paint (12 x 12 mL), plus some odourless white spirit to thin it and clean the brushes, but I wanted to try my hand at a more beginner-friendly option first. And I must say that apart from the blending issue, I do really like acrylics. Vibrant colours, almost odourless, they don't even seem to darken or fade when dry... a beginner couldn't ask for more. Mar 6, 2023 at 11:52
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    I don't view oil paints as more advanced or complicated than acrylics, because different people could find working with them easier, depending on their personal style. I also have difficulties blending acrylics wet-in-wet, so I either blend several steps between both colors in my palette before applying them to the medium or I add a special retarder medium that keeps the paint from drying too quickly. The disadvantage of retarder is that it dilutes the pigments and makes the paint less opaque.
    – Elmy
    Mar 6, 2023 at 15:28
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    @rebusB, "there are a few here that like to espouse to the extreme"--yeah, I think I may know one of those. :-)
    – fixer1234
    Mar 6, 2023 at 21:35

1 Answer 1

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No. The paper has little to nothing to do with the blend-ability of acrylic paint, though the "tooth" or surface texture of the ground may be a factor. Think gessoed panel vs burlap or cold press watercolor paper, the former may make blends appear smoother because it is a smoother surface. Counter to that a very smooth surface will not hold on to the paint and it will just smear around instead of blending.

What you are encountering here is just a quality of acrylics in general. They dry fast naturally, much faster than oils. Some ways of working around that is to:

  • slow the drying time using a retarder and/or acrylic medium
  • premix intermediate colors for the blend so you are making smaller jumps between blended colors
  • make the paints more "wet" so they are looser and can mix more easily
  • use overlapping textured application of the steps of the blend so that though they remain discrete colors they appear to blend to the eye
  • use soft bristle brushes like sable, real or synthetic, since stiffer bristles are going to show more brush stroke and less blending. (This would be the case with any medium btw.)

Priming is usually done to protect the ground from the solvents in the paint as well as make a better more permanent surface to paint on. A nice thing about acrylics is they they don't destroy the paper so can be used on unprimed grounds unlike oil based paints which will break down the fibers over time.

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  • Thank you! Lots of very useful insights. The acrylic medium I had already tried, it made the paint smoother to apply, but also less opaque. The 'in between colours' method I had also tried, but the additional time it took me to mix them on the palette made the paint drier by the time I wanted to blend. Yesterday evening I gave another go to 120 gsm unprimed acid-free paper, light blue to light orange/pink blending (for a dawn sky), with pure white in the middle, and frankly, for my current level and expectations, I am not dissatisfied at all. Very interesting stuff! Mar 7, 2023 at 18:45
  • FYI - the retarder should just be added in small amounts to the paint, not enough to thin it much, certainly not so much as to make the pigment less opaque. The medium yes, but that is used in much more bulk. The retarder should just be a few drops for each dollop of paint.
    – rebusB
    May 16, 2023 at 18:13

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