Tips for Color Control with Acrylic Painting

by | Mar 22, 2008 | Blog | 6 comments

Perhaps you have noticed that as your acrylic painting dries, the colors change. They get darker. Actually what is happening is the acrylic paint appears lighter while it is wet. All paints are made of two basic components, pigment (which looks like colored dirt before it is used in the paint) and binder, which holds the pigment particles together and turns them into a usable paint form. Other terms for binder are vehicle or medium.

Polymer or acrylic is the medium/vehicle/binder for acrylic paint. It is white when wet, but dries totally clear and glossy. There are no white additives in the binder, but the white appearance is due to a microscopic bubbling that disappears when dry. So when you paint with acrylic it is lighter when wet, due to this whitish phenomenon. Then when the paint is dry, this binder turns clear and the color turns into its true hue. Here is an interesting comparison from music that helps me when I paint. Musical scales consist of the same note patterns, but they change in octaves. So just like I would transpose one octave into another, I paint about 10-15% lighter then what I want it to look like when dry. In other words, I go up one octave in value when I paint. The more gels or mediums you add to your paint color the greater the difference between it’s hue when wet as opposed to dry.

If this is bothersome to you here are some other options. If you don’t mind working with the paint a bit thick, then try adding at least 50% Golden’s Light Molding Paste to your paints. The paste is white when wet, and stays white when dry, so there is no change (or at least very slight) in color between wet and dry.

Another option if you don’t like the hue change, and don’t want to work with pastes, is to use the acrylic in washes like watercolor. This technique is best accomplished using an absorbent surface such as watercolor paper, or some of the unusual acrylic grounds that are available (like Pumice Gel, Light Molding Paste, and Absorbent Ground). Add at least 50% water to your paint. After painting with these diluted washes, the color stays pretty much the same hue when dry. This is because most of the acrylic binder has been diminished with the addition of water.

Pictured here is one of my paintings that uses all three techniques (1) acrylic painted lighter while wet, (2) washes on absorbent surfaces and (3) adding Light Molding Paste to the paint)


My new book, Acrylic Revolution, North Light Books, contains over 100 techniques including step by step detailed descriptions of the above methods. Please click here for purchase information.

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Hand painting pink wall with sponge.

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  1. Sylvio Gagnon

    Does acrylic Golden Open Titanium White paint dry darker ? Do all acrylic colours dry darker at the same level ? Thank you for a response.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Sylvio,
      This is a good question. Let’s start with the idea that acrylic does not actually change the color of the pigment in acrylic paint. Instead what is happening is that paint is made of acrylic binder plus pigment. The acrylic binder is white when it’s wet, and then the white disappears once the acrylic is dry. For acrylic paint colors, the small amount of binder in them makes the color appear momentarily lighter when it’s wet, but once dry it takes on the accurate color of the pigment.

      So for white, theoretically the white will get “whiter” then dry back to it’s normal white. With other colors there will be a more noticeable difference between the color when wet, and the color when dry. But actually in the case of white it should look the same wet or dry.

      With OPEN paints I have noticed that this shift between wet and dry, where it gets lighter when wet, then dries to it’s natural (appearing darker) color, is a bigger shift than with other acrylic paint lines. The OPEN takes a few days to dry so the actual finished state of the color won’t be discernable until this time.

      Another aspect of OPEN that I noticed, is that in some cases colors shift due to the colors that were applied under it. For instance, if I am applying Titanium White over a dark color, when the paint dries, it loses some of its volume (happens with all acrylic paints, but more so with OPEN) so then some of the darker color under the white can visually peek through the white. When I apply white over darker colors and need the white to stay as white as possible, I may need to apply several coats waiting for each coat to dry a few days between coats.

      To fully answer your question, colors will shift between the illusion of a tint while wet, to the real color when dry, and this shift appears differently according to the color. This does get tricky while painting with it, but after awhile you can get used to it.

  2. Anonymous

    I just bought your book yesterday and it is FULL of great ideas! Everything looks like so much fun! It's probably the best art book I ever bought! Thank you!

  3. steve urwin

    Thanks Nancy
    I am about to start an experiment on a portrait using the molding paste idea.
    Should be fun!!

  4. Gayle

    I never thought of modeling paste to get more accurate dry color. Thanks for the tip. I can’t wait to get your book.


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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