Is Using Water with Acrylic – Good or Bad?

by | Oct 12, 2010 | Blog | 17 comments

There seems to be a myth that you aren’t supposed to use water with acrylic, and then there’s another one that you should always use water. This issue about water was something that really intriqued me when I first starting using acrylic paints.

I address this issue in the video above, as well as in my book, Acrylic Revolution. The book has lots of recipes and techniques and the idea of when to use water and when not to use water becomes more clear. But here I’ll write about it more specifically and in depth.

Basically water is not a bad thing to add to acrylic. However, there are some basic issues that when understood will help you decide when to use it and when not to use it – when it helps your work and when it works against the effects you are trying to achieve.

First, lets look at what makes paint. Generally, all paint is made of 2 basic components: pigment (for color) and binder (to make the pigment usable as a paint). The binder is what identifies the paint. For instance, take some pigment and add oil – now you have oil paint. That same pigment mixed with milk makes casein, with gum Arabic makes watercolor, and with polymer (or plastic or acrylic) you get acrylic paint.

So there’s pigment and binder, and then there’s the solvent. Each medium has a solvent that will break it down. For acrylic the solvent is water. Acrylic without water (just pigment and polymer binder only) will produce a paint film layer that looks juicy, glossy and substantial when applied over any surface. The surface could be absorbent or non-absorbent, colored or white. It doesn’t matter, because once you apply the undiluted acrylic on top the paint film will all look the same. You can add up to 20% water to acrylic paint and it will still have that glossy paint film, it will just get a bit thinner.

However, it’s a very different story when you add A LOT of water to the paint. When you make a 1:1 ratio (equal parts of paint and water) or even more water that that (I like 80% water to 20% paint color), we can call this “overdiluted” paint. Once acrylic paint gets overdiluted with water it will look totally different depending on the surface absorbency that it is applied to. For instance, a diluted acrylic paint applied on an absorbent surface like watercolor paper will have a matte, soft, muted evenly applied layer of color. This same diluted paint on a non-absorbent surface will look very crazy, puddling up in places with some interesting effects. (All this is in my book). So it’s TWO things that work together to create the interesting water effects – overdiluting the paint with water along with changing the absorbency of your surface. To change the surface you first apply some type of paste, gel or ground that makes it more or less absorbent than just the plain old gesso primer usually found on store-bought panels and canvases.

So, here are some key ideas: (1) use acrylic without any water at all for a rich, glossy, plastic, high coverage layer. (2) Use up to 20% water in acrylic paint to slightly loosen the paint, make it a bit more fluid to get evenly applied linear effects and decrease texture (3) Combine 80% water to 20% paint to get an “overdiluted wash” – and now use this on a selected surface (absorbent, non-absorbent, textural or smooth, colored or uncolored) to get a specific effect. (4) Use retarders and glazing liquid or the new “Open” slow drying acrylic to keep the acrylic from drying fast. Do not use water all over your palette to slow the drying or you won’t be able to control how much water is going into your paint.

I do think the whole water issue with acrylic is a bit confusing. Adding water is not bad. Its just that when water is used haphazardly and uncontrollably (spraying palettes with water to keep it wet, or not blotting the brush after washing it) this reduces the range of possible effects you could otherwise obtain. Again, the most important thing to remember is determining how much water you want in your paint depending on the type of effect you are looking for. The more water you add, the more important your choice of surface is to get certain effects.

Additional Resources

Article from Golden: How Much Water Can you Safely Add to Acrylic Paint?

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  1. Kerry Klaassen

    I am really enjoying your book, Acrylic Revolution. Before reading the book, I used glazes a lot with gloss medium. Your explanation about adding water has begun a wonderful exploration for me, experimenting with applying different mediums (paint, gloss medium, gesso, etc.) to a canvas substrate, and then painting over those with the overdiluted acrylic paint. I’ve also gotten interesting results with adding a bit of gesso to the overdiluted paint, too. In your Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting, you give an incredible number of techniques to try, and you give such great explanations of the science behind what you are doing. Thank you so much!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Kerry,
      Thank you so much for your note. I am happy to hear the article gave you helpful insights for your work. I really appreciate your comments.

  2. Alyssa

    Hi. I’m trying to apply finer details on my canvas painting, and I put coverage over the canvas for a protected surface, but I’m not sure how much water I can put into the paint so that I have enough control for small details, or if it will just run and drip down my canvas.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Alyssa,
      I’m happy to help! I’m not sure what you added for “coverage” on your canvas painting. The product you use and the amount you applied would make a big difference in how I would answer your question.

      My best advice is to try out using different amounts of water to give you that control you need.

      The amount of water you decide to use to thin your paints for more control will vary depending on (1) if you use thick paints or the fluid paints or even thinner paints like the airbrush or high flow paints, (2) if your surface is more absorbent or less absorbent. If the surface is glossy it is less absorbent and will require less water dilutions. If the surface is matte it is more absorbent and since it will absorb your paint faster, you will need to add more water in your dilutions. (3) Each paint color has different qualities depending on the pigment used. Some pigments will need more water to spread evenly and give you more control then others. (4) Your climate. The warmer the temperature and the dryer your climate, the more water you will need to add to your paints for control and fluidity.

      ​Another tip – use a small pointed brush that has good bristles that create a point, and aren’t splayed out. You can wet your brush with water and move it around on a bar of hand soap. Then shape the bristles into the point and let it dry without washing it again. When you are ready to use the brush, gently rinse out the soap and the bristles should hold their nicely pointed shape.

      In summary, because of all the​ variable, you will find the best use of water with paint by experimenting with your particular surfaces and paints.

      Hope this helps!


  3. Paul Bartlett

    I was taught that adding more than 20% water can cause peeling over just a few years and a thinning medium should be used.

    • Nancy Reyner

      You were taught wrong information. Check out Golden’s website where they have similar articles letting people know that it is safe. Watch the video because I do mention that using low grade quality acrylic paints is not a good idea when diluting with water. Use filtered water (it is the chemicals in some water systems that can cause issues) along with good brands of acrylic paint and you should have no problem. If you use a thin medium you will be missing out on the wonderful effects acrylic can produce when imitating watercolor.

  4. Teresa Cash

    Thank You for the information. This was just what I was looking for.

  5. Rebecca

    Thank you for this info and the helpful video. I have seen the YouTube video you mention… and it has worried me so much as I love to use washes by using tons of water w/ acrylic. Thank you!!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Glad it was helpful! That’s why I wrote it. I wanted to make sure artists knew that adding water was very much OK!

  6. Gill

    What about the archival quality when using over-diluted paint? Would MSA varnish be needed to completely redeem any lack of adhesion, or would simple water-based varnish be enough?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Gill,
      I think I mention this in the article, but if you over-dilute acrylic paint, it will not have any adhesion issues if applied onto a surface with tooth – like watercolor paper, or if it is applied over a surface that has been customized, such as applying an absorbent product as a ground onto it (like an absorbent paste). Adhesion issues cannot be improved by applying something OVER the layer. The issue is UNDER the layer. No matter what you apply over a layer, if one layer has not adhered well to its underlying layer, it can delaminate when stressed as is the case during extreme changes in climate. Acrylic sticks really well to acrylic. This means that an over-diluted acrylic, when applied over another layer of acrylic, will still have good adhesion, as the water will dry, leaving the acrylic residue, which should still stick to an acrylic under-layer. If I was applying over-diluted acrylic to a glossy surface, and that was the final paint layer, then yes, I would apply a varnish (either the MSA in brush apply, or its equivalent in spray called Archival Varnish, or Polymer Varnish) over it, and that would help seal that last layer. I varnish all my paintings as a last layer anyway, as archival painting varnishes contain UV protection and the ability to remove that layer for cleaning.

    • Irene Chval

      Thank you so much. It’s refreshing to find an easy understandabe explanation to my questions.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you Irene! Glad you liked the article.

    • Jane

      Is it ok to varnish an acrylic painting where water diluted paints have been applied and if so is there a preferred varnish?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Jane,
      Diluting acrylic paint is totally OK. There is always a small amount of acrylic in the diluted mixtures to create good adhesion. Varnishing over the diluted paint is fine as long as the paint is dry to the touch. You can use a water-based varnish which is non-toxic, such as Golden’s Polymer Varnish, or you can use a clear varnish spray such as Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss. For this you would need a mask and ventilation as safety precautions with sprays. You can also use a brush applied solvent-based (so this is toxic and also requires a mask and ventilation) such as Golden’s MSA Varnish.

  7. PaintingLover

    haven't tried it yet. but your explanation is great

  8. Miriam

    thanks for explaining this Nancy, its one of those things you think about, but are not always aware of the impact on one's painting.

    take care,



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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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