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Painting Primer

by Jane Guthrie

As a beginner painter, you will want to learn about the properties, performances, and possibilities of acrylic painting. This you will do gradually by studying magazines, books, and videos and by taking classes. In the meantime, here is a quick guide to a few basic techniques you can apply now.

Painting Preparation

Old wood: You can paint over old wood even if it has already been painted as long as the piece and the paint are in good condition. If the paint is chipped or peeling, remove all paint with sandpaper. Start with a medium-grit paper and finish with a fine-grit paper. Complete the sanding with grade #0000 steel wool. If the piece has been varnished, the varnish will have to be removed by stripping. Many stripping products are available and easy to use—just follow the manufacturer’s directions. Once the varnish has been removed, wipe the wood with denatured alcohol, let dry, and then sand lightly with steel wool. If the piece has been stained, apply a brush-on or spray-on wood primer that will prevent the stain from bleeding through your painted basecoat.

New wood: Sand the piece thoroughly with fine sand-paper, finishing with very fine paper. Remove all dust and sanding residue with a damp paper towel.

Metal: Remove any rust from an old piece of metal with a light sanding. More stubborn rust can be removed with naval jelly or by stripping. Once all rust has been removed, wash the metal piece in a bath of equal parts vinegar and water to remove any oil. (You will need to do this for new metal too.) Let dry. Apply a rust inhibiting primer (such as Rust-Oleum) and dry thoroughly.

Basecoating: A basecoat is paint applied as a background color for your design. You can apply your basecoat with a synthetic bristle brush or sponge brush. The basecoat applied to raw wood will raise the grain of the wood, creating a burr. Once the first basecoat has dried, sand lightly (with the grain) using fine-grit sandpaper to remove the burr. Wipe to remove dust. Apply a second coat of paint and let dry. Once this has dried thoroughly, you can transfer your pattern.

Pattern transfer: The easiest way to transfer a pattern is to use graphite paper or transfer paper. After tracing your design onto tracing paper with a pencil, position the tracing paper on your surface. Slip the transfer paper under your tracing paper, graphite or chalky side down, on the surface of the piece. Using a stylus or sharp pencil, press lightly, using even pressure, to transfer your design onto the surface.

Brush Care/Brush Loading Techniques

Brush care: Quality brushes can represent a significant investment. Proper care of your brushes will extend their life and provide greater painting ability. Be sure to clean brushes thoroughly after each use with mild soap and warm water. Stroke the bristles over a bar of mild soap and gently work the bristles into a lather. Squeeze the bristles gently between your thumb and forefinger, removing all paint. Rinse with warm water and repeat washing until all paint has been removed. Reshape the brush into its original shape. When dry, store all brushes upright in a container or use a brush holder. If acrylic paint has hardened in the bristles, soak the brush for about twenty minutes in a small amount of acetone nail polish remover, then wash and reshape.

Sideloading: For this brush loading technique, dampen the brush with water, dip only the corner of the bristles into paint and blend repeatedly in one area on the palette to achieve a transition from strong color to clear water. Good distribution of the paint throughout the brush is achieved if you blend in an area no larger than the width of the brush. Equally important is to move your brush into the blending area, not away from it. This action will enable the paint and moisture to wick approximately halfway across the width of the bristle and supply sufficient paint and moisture with which to float paint across your surface.

Basic Brushstrokes

Curved comma stroke
The curved comma stroke can be formed with a round or flat brush. For a round brush, pick up a small amount of paint thinned with water to the consistency of cream and blend thoroughly into the bristles. Hold the brush perpendicular to your surface, place the tip on the surface and press the brush down (step 1), drag and slightly twist the brush upward in a curve (step 2), and then lift off at the tip (step 3). The brush should snap back to its original point.

curved comma stroke curved comma stroke curved comma stroke


Straight comma stroke
Follow the directions for the curved comma stroke, but instead of curving the brush upward in step 2, continue with a straight stroke.

straight comma stroke straight comma stroke straight comma stroke


The S-stroke can be formed with a round or flat brush. For a round brush, pick up a small amount of paint thinned to the consistency of cream and blend thoroughly into the bristles. Holding the brush perpendicular to the surface, place the tip of the brush down, then drag and twist, curving upward and lifting slightly; increase pressure, dragging and curving down, and then lift again.

stroke stroke stroke


Brush Shapes


Simple Painting Methods


Apply color that is sideloaded in the brush. This applies a graduated color to an area and is usually used to apply highlights and shading. The size of the brush, the amount of water in the bristles, the amount of paint loaded and blended into the bristles, and the transparency or opacity of the pigment all contribute to the finished result. The goal is to float color over a portion of the design without leaving a harsh transition line between floated color and basecoat color.

Dampen a sponge with water. Pick up a small amount of paint thinned to the consistency of cream and repeatedly dab the paint-loaded sponge onto the surface. A paint-loaded sponge applied to a dry surface produces a well-defined pattern; on a wet surface, it creates a more subtle design.

Thin your paint to the consistency of ink, then dip the soft bristles of an old toothbrush into the paint. Being careful to cover yourself and your work area to avoid a mess, run your finger swiftly across the bristles to bend them and flick the paint onto the surface for a spattered effect.

Stippling, dotting, and drybrushing
Pouncing the bristle tips of an old brush up and down will create a nice stippled or textured effect for your design (this works especially well to suggest the look of mottled color on fruit). Dabbing the handle end of your brush into a paint puddle and then touching it to your surface can create a wide array of dotting effects (especially useful in creating folk-art flowers). To drybrush, load a dry stiff-bristle brush with paint, then stroke on a paper towel until only a residue of color remains on the bristles. Sweep or lightly rub the brush across the painted surface to apply just a hint of color.