Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Hand painting with craft acrylics

NaMoPaiMo is almost here so I'm bringing back Tutorial Tuesday. Every Tuesday, from now until this the end February, this space will be dedicated to sharing tips and tricks designed to help new and established artists improve their work. Since we already have twenty one first time painters signed up to paint, this year's first tutorial focuses on a "starter" medium. Thank you to Bobbie Allen of Horse Tender Studios for sharing her words of wisdom!

Hand Painting with Craft Acrylics

by Bobbie Allen

Disclaimer: The pictures in this post do not show me creating a LSQ horse or anything considered good quality.  I grabbed an unprepped blank stablemate as my model, and skipped several steps that would be done in my regular work (in addition to prep).  I wanted to focus on technique and tips and get this tutorial out ASAP for anyone who might want to use some of these ideas for their NaMoPaiMo project.


Way back when I first put paint on a horse, I used cheap craft acrylics. I think it was most likely Apple Barrel brand.

I've come a long way since then. I've learned a lot, won lots of NAN cards and even a small handful of live show championships and reserves... 

... and I am still hand painting, with cheap craft acrylics.

One of these days I'd like to be brave and try other mediums (airbrush, pastels, maybe even oils), but for now, craft acrylics are my jam.

It can be hard to find tips on how to work with them. It seems they are something a lot of people start with and then move on to other things. I never did.

Here's a quick list of pros and cons about using them:

  • Fast drying - you can finish an entire horse in one session, if you want to. 
  • Cheap - usually around $1-$1.50 per color
  • Easy to find - about any place that sells craft supplies: a dedicated craft store, or even WalMart.
  • Easy clean up - soap and water clean up, no need for potentially harsh chemicals
  • Thin with water - again, no need for chemicals
  • Fast drying - Yes, I listed this as a Pro as well, but the drying time makes it hard/impossible to blend colors together on the model.  There are products such as drying extenders that can slow the drying time and allow for more blending, but I have not used any of them.
  • Can't really be sanded, can be hard to touch up smoothly if nicked
  • Delicate finish, easily scratched - however, a good coat or two of spray sealer fixes this and they are actually quite durable with a good clear coat over the top
Here are the tools that I use to paint a model:
  • Brushes
  • Makeup sponges
  • A pallet or something to mix paint on/in
  • Flat toothpicks to mix paint
  • Paper towels, for cleaning brushes
  • A cup of water to rinse brushes
  • And of course: paint.  I haven't found any issue with mixing various brands of craft acrylic together - ceramacoat, americana, folkart, apple barrel, they all seem to work together just fine.
Also helpful: instructional material, be it physical or digital (I prefer real books).
For color mixes, I use the color cards from Carol Williams' Color Formulas and Techniques book. They were written for use with oil paints, but I've found that most can transfer over to acrylics, or at least offer a good starting point.  Some colors don't exist in craft acrylics - like the cadmiums and so on -  but that's where improvising and experimentation comes in. 
It's worth noting that I also have a bajillion reference pictures, both physical and digital.  Good references are crucial!
I use the makeup sponges to apply my (thin) base coats for the first time.  I also use them to do dark shading over the body color, and to apply white over large areas, such as on an appaloosa.  I use the triangular makeup sponges, cut down into smaller pieces, since I tend to do mostly minis.  Even on larger horses, I want to work with smaller amounts of paint, so I'd still use small sponge pieces.
I cut them in half, then cut each half cut in half, lengthwise.
After cutting the pieces down, I like to round the corners on the widest end - the one I'll be using.  This helps prevent harsh edges when applying the paint, and also keeps paint from building up in the corners of the sponge and being applied where you don't want it.
I don't really have any tips on brushes.  I, uh, use cheap ones there too.  I still have the same set of brushes that I started with a long time ago.  They are nothing fancy, but they work.  Every now and then a hair may come out, but overall, they've held up great over the years.  Though I've added more (cheap) brushes to the collection, this is still my go to set.
Along the way I've created a couple of "specialty" brushes (haha).  The one on the left is a 000 that has had probably half of its bristles pulled out.  It is my dedicated tiny detail brush, most often used for eyes on the mini models.  On the right is a 1 that has had its bristles cut off.  I use that for dry brushing, "scrubbing" paint into some areas.
One more note on brushes: you want to use a flat brush on larger areas (such as the body).  Round brushes can work on legs, manes and tails, and for dry brushing the shading into nooks and crannies, but it is hard to get the paint smooth and even over a broad area with a round brush.  
Other notes on technique: Less is more. I try to work with small amounts on paint on the model at any time.

The lighter the color of acrylic, the thicker it is. White is the thickest; it can't be used without thinning it down - I use water. Black can usually be used straight from the bottle. Keep this in mind with your mixes too, a lighter colored mix may need thinning, darker mixes may not.

Since acrylic dries so fast (a plus, I think), it's good to work fast - "get in and get out." I do my best to smooth an area as fast as I can, and then leave it alone to dry. If you keep messing with it as it dries and gets tacky, you will get brush marks. If you do end up with a blob of paint (too much), just do your best to spread it out smoothly, quickly, and let it dry.

When using a brush, I try and go in the direction that hair grows on a real horse, it's just something that makes sense to me. If there is a tiny brush mark or something, it could be "hair." I don't know if that makes any sense, but it's what I've always done.

Okay, enough blabbering - let's (sort of) paint a horse!

To apply all of that, I work in "zones". For example: left side - head, neck, shoulder, front leg (outside), barrel (feathering into the back and belly), hip, rump, back leg (outside), and so on.

I try to feather the paint at the borders between zones; don't stop abruptly and leave a blob of paint - that can leave bumps or ridge lines when everything is dry. I do the left side first, then the right. By that time, the left side is dry and ready for another coat, and around you go. 

I usually do each side and then do a pass down the back, then the chest, belly, and inside of the legs. If more is needed, then I repeat the process: left, right, top, bottom.

Here's a quick series of photos, showing the zones:
As you might have noticed, I don't worry about getting into the creases with my sponge. I'll get to them when I use a brush.   like to do my base coat with a sponge, then I switch to a brush and repeat the whole zone process, until the horse is covered.

Your piece of sponge will get soaked with paint, I like to switch out fairly often, when it seems like it's holding too much paint (even after dabbing some off). Another way to check is when the pores of the sponge are getting larger. Then it's time to use a new one.
The good news is, you can actually use the same little wedge of sponge a few times. Just cut off the end...
and round the corners, and you're good to keep going. I generally use each piece two to three times this way.
Here's something I forgot to mention in my preferred tools list. I believe they are french fry trays? I bought a whole bag of them at a restaurant supply store a looong time ago. They make great disposable pallets. 
The main reason I use them is below.  Here I'm getting ready to do some shading.  I put a bit of my paint in the corner, dab in my sponge, then dab most of the paint off.  I'm sure there are many other items you can use this way, but these trays are what I like to use.
 I tend to do darker shading with a sponge again,  Here's a picture of some quick and dirty sponge shading on our tutorial model.  Again, I'm certainly not trying to make a nice horse here, ha!
If I could reiterate one piece of advice, over and over: use SMALL amounts of paint in anything that you do.  You can always add more, to make it darker or cover more of the horse.  However, if you use too much, you're kind of stuck.  Acrylic is not forgiving that way.  Once it's on there, it's on there and there's really no way to get it back off, without messing up more of your work (I know, I've tried).  If you do end up with too much paint, the best thing to do is spread it out as smooth as you can, let it dry, then paint back over it with your body color and try again.

To do the lighter shading, usually in tighter areas like the flank, behind the elbow, chest, muzzle, etc., I prefer to use a small brush, because it offers much more control in tight places.  I'll dab a (tiny!) bit on and work it in.
 A particular challenge (since you can't really blend acrylics on the model) is the black or dark legs on a bay or buckskin horse, particularly where the black or dark brown color fades into the body color.  I have a two brush technique for doing that and it works well.
 These are the brushes I use,  The first one really isn't all that important, anything will do, though I do prefer a small round brush for this.  The real hero of my technique is the stiff-bristled brush on the right.  This is pretty much the only thing I use it for.
 If I'm using straight black, I'll just work from the cap.
Here's how I hold the brushes.  You don't have to do it this way, you could apply the paint with one and pick up the other, but in the interest of working fast and doing this before the paint starts to set up, this is how I do it:
What I do is dab the tip of my small round brush into the paint (small amounts, people!  I know, I sound like a broken record...)
Then dab some paint onto the leg, I usually put it on the hoof to start.  I don't have an actual picture of that, because as soon as it's dabbed on, I start spreading it up the leg.
Once the paint is dabbed on, I use the stiff brush to dab and work it up the leg, sort of brushing backwards.
 I'll keep at this, until I have the dark color as high as I want it and (hopefully) well faded into the body color.  That's not so much the case here, trying to work over a rough sponged base layer.  ;)
The potential of the technique is probably much better shown off here.  This is a closeup of Crown Royale, my old G1 ASB custom who still does okay in the shows.  ;)
I hope all of this helps!  If you have any questions on working with craft acrylics or anything I've talked about here, please let me know.


  1. I just finished a practice pony for Namopaimo and she looks okay, but I'm having trouble getting that nice orangey chestnut color. I would
    really want to buy the carol williams formulas and techniques book, but it's no longer available as they redoing it. Pointers would be greatly appreciated! :) Horsegirl275

  2. SUPER painting tips from Bobbie Allen! A thousand thanks.

  3. People often say these paints are a poor choice because they won't hold up over time, but I used to paint and sell customs, using mostly these paints (with an artist-grade sealer). That was some 18 years ago, and the colors have held and the whites are still clear.