What is an Acrylic Paint Wash? How to make and use them!


Acrylic paints are versatile and easy to use, making them perfect for beginners and experienced artists alike. They are water-soluble and dry quickly, allowing for colors to be mixed and blended easily. Many techniques can be used when painting with acrylics. Making an acrylic paint wash is one of these commonly used techniques!


An acrylic paint wash is a fluid, transparent mixture of acrylic paint and water. Often paint washes are used as “underpainting,” covering the whole surface in a single tone to unify your painting. But they are versatile and can create many effects such as giving an object more texture, adding shadows, adding “mist,” or adding depth.


Let’s dig in a little more to the whats, hows, and where’s of acrylic paint washes!

What Is An Acrylic Paint Wash?

An acrylic paint wash is a mixture of water and acrylic paint that results in highly diluted pigment making a thin, transparent medium.

In art, paint washes are applied to a prepped surface for various effects, but they are typically applied in very thin layers and built-up to create depth and variety in value in your painting. (“Value” is defined as how light or dark a color is.)

While adding variety and depth, it can also add consistency to your work by creating an even undertone to the painting. Think about a warm painting versus a cool one. Applying a wash that is blue/grey will help create a cool-toned final product versus using reds or browns, which will result in a warm tone.

How To Make An Acrylic Paint Wash

To make an acrylic paint wash, mix paint and water to create a dilute solution. You can use any ratio up to 1 part paint and 100 parts water! Add water until you have a consistency that will spread easily, is transparent (to your desire), and will blend easily onto your surface without brush strokes.

There is some debate on this technique, especially in online forums. It can get confusing. A lot of people will tell you that using water will degrade your paints and affect the bonding or adhesion. For this reason, I actually went to the research to try to find the answer. Like…scholarly articles type research. Yeah. I couldn’t find the answer at all. No wonder there is debate!

I did find an article published by GOLDEN Artist Colors, Inc. (GOLDEN is a very popular/famous brand of acrylic paints), which experimented on their own line of acrylics.

They found that their acrylic paints had no problem with adhesion even at a ratio of 1 part paint to 100 parts water! This is SUPER thin!. They also found very little water sensitivity even with the significantly thinned-down mixtures.

This being said, if you are going to be super hard on your paintings and worry about the durability, instead of adding pure water to your paint to thin it, you can add a mixture of water and “high flow” or “fluid matte” medium.

This article recommended creating a mixture that was 1 part medium to 10 or 20 parts water. After mixing, you would use that solution to dilute your paint again using that ratio of 1 part paint to anywhere up to 100 parts water/medium. At this ratio, the minimal issues they found with water sensitivity were addressed completely.

Feel free to completely “eyeball” these mixtures. It does not have to be precisely measured out. The main thing to know is that you can dilute your acrylic paints significantly before having any issues with durability.

Note that if you use a “student” paint or lower quality paint, it might act less favorably, but you can still dilute pretty significantly before having issues.

How To Use Acrylic Paint Washes

There are many different kinds of paint washes that can be used to achieve different looks, but probably the most common way is for underpainting.

Using a wash to create an underpainting provides a unified look to your painting, which is excellent for large or complex pieces. It can also be used to create texture in your artwork, depending on how you paint it.

For underpainting, pick a wide, flat brush, then dip the brush into the paint wash. Apply it in smooth strokes, either in the same direction or across, depending on how you want it to look.

To improve the blending, tilt your painting surface slightly to allow gravity to drag the mixture down some blending away any hard lines that may have formed from your paint strokes.

Using a wash to create an underpainting provides a unified look to your painting, which is excellent for large or complex pieces. It can also be used to create texture in your artwork, depending on how you paint it.

For underpainting, pick a wide, flat brush, then dip the brush into the paint wash. Apply it in smooth strokes, either in the same direction or across, depending on how you want it to look.

To improve the blending, tilt your painting surface slightly to allow gravity to drag the mixture down some blending away any hard lines that may have formed from your paint strokes.

Once that first layer is dry, you can add layers, either covering the whole surface again to make it darker or to only specific areas to help define the value of the painting. (To make it a darker value, add more layers in that area).

You can use this technique to “sketch” out the basics of your painting. This will add a lot of depth to your artwork!

Some other effects washes can be used for are as follows.

Color correcting

Laying a wash over another color will result in “optical color mixing.” Basically, the transparent color covers another color, making it appear like you mixed those two colors. So a yellow wash over blue will appear green. You can use this strategically to alter your paintings. You can also use this not strategically and end up with muddy colors! (not recommended! haha)

Adding shadows

Similarly, you can gradually add diffuse shadows by using a thin wash in those areas. This is an excellent technique because it is subtle, blends easily, and is layered slowly to prevent overdoing it.

Adding mist/fog

I would consider this kind of the opposite of adding shadow. You can create a misty look/feel to your painting by adding a golden or a white wash. If you do use a white wash, be careful and test it first because white acrylic paint is VERY opaque, meaning you can’t see through it when it is painted. You just have to make sure it is thinned down enough.

Acrylic Tutorial Using Paint Washes

Additional Considerations When Using An Acrylic Paint Wash

When using an acrylic paint wash, there are a couple of things to consider.

One, since they dry quickly and the pigments are lighter, they can be difficult to blend or mix if you don’t move quickly. If you are having trouble with this after practice, you can add a retardant medium to extend the “working time” or “wet time” of your paints. Basically, it won’t dry as fast!

Two, because acrylic paint is actually not dissolved, rather emulsified, once you dilute it significantly, you may find you get tiny “speckles” of pigment in areas. You can adjust the amount of water you added to address, but you can also utilize this tendency to alter the effect of your washes!


Acrylic paint washes are an easy way to create a beautiful, watercolor-like effect with your acrylic paints. Whether you want to use them as the primary color or just for accenting other colors on your canvas, they’re always worth exploring! How do YOU use them? I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this subject below in the comments section.


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