Blending colours with acrylic paints

The seamless blending of colours in realistic portraits, making it impossible to distinguish individual strokes, can leave no one unimpressed. I’ve stared and stared paintings so close that guards had to tell me off in museums, trying to understand the master’s secret.

Self Portrait, 1669, Rembrandt, © National Gallery, London
Self Portrait, 1669, Rembrandt, © National Gallery, London

The technique behind this is blending and even though most tutorials show examples of beautiful sunsets, it can be used for anything, from portraits such as the striking on by Rembrandt above, to abstract.

I started trying out blending following  googling (or youtubing) and finding quick guides that made it seem super easy. Let me tell you, unless you’re using two tones of the same colour, blending is not quick and cannot be done within three steps if you want a smooth result! It needs lots and lots of mixing and layering.

In these videos I recorded my first attempts, including everything I didn’t manage to find online: all the mistakes a beginner does (they were plenty and repetitive 🙈).

I tried two ways of blending: wet on wet and wet on dry. These are my top tips to avoid wasting time and paint.

Wet on wet

(meaning wet paint on wet paper)

Basic steps:
Tip: Speed is vital for this technique
1. Wet the paper
• Use a large brush for speed
• The brush should not drip but should be generously wet at the same time
2. Paint the first layer finishing at the middle of the paper
• The paint should be thick enough so that you can’t see the paper underneath
3. Paint with the second colour you want to use
Major tip (I kept getting this wrong):
• Start from the bottom of the page meeting the other colour gradually
4. Smooth the blending by brushing the middle of the page only with water

Wet on dry

(meaning wet paint on dry paper)

Basic steps:

1.  Paint the page with a generous amount of paint in the darker shade you intend to use.
2. Wait for the paint to dry
The paint needs to dry completely
3. Paint with the lighter colour
Start painting from the bottom upwards
4. What causes the blending effect here is the fading of the lighter colour as there is less paint on the brush gradually. This is why you need to make sure that the first layer is thick enough and completely dry as it needs to remain on the paper while the other colour fades.
5. Fade the lighter colour further by using a wet, clean brush

Blending different colours

If you use colours that are not similar (eg blue and yellow) you will need to do some additional mixing while the paint is still wet using a wet, clean brush for a longer time.

The reason is pretty obvious (well, obvious now that I already failed); if you use pink and blend it with light pink there are only a few tones to cover while to go from blue to yellow you would need to cover other colours (tones from blue to green to yellow) in between to achieve a smooth effect.

Dry or wet?

I found using wet on dry easier because there is no need to hurry up so that the paint won’t dry. Wet on wet needed really fast strokes and cleaning the brushes while layering can be tricky, especially when working with different colours. The disadvantage of working on dry is that you need to wait, which is not ideal either.

I think that if I used oils or added glazing so that acrylics do not dry fast, dry on wet would be better as the colours blend together instead of fading gradually.


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