June 10, 2012

Best Acrylic Glaze Painting Techniques

Nancy Reyner
What is a glaze

Glazing is an incredibly useful painting technique. If you are a painter and not familiar with glazes, you are in for a real treat. You can use it to create a variety of painting effects, fix issues, illuminate color and add the illusion of depth in an artwork. Glazing has been used throughout history by many artists including our beloved painting masters, and is still used today for contemporary styles ranging from realism to abstraction. Glazing can be used with most painting mediums including oil, acrylic and watercolor. It is my number one favorite tool.

So what IS a glaze? Simply, a glaze is a transparent color. It can also be an application of a transparent color on a painting already started. In this article I offer a variety of ways to use and create glazes for painting. 

When and how to use glazes

A glaze is often applied to a painting while it is still in process, to shift or change whatever colors are already there. It can be applied very subtly to just slightly shift an underlying color, or more strongly to dramatically change underlying colors. In general though, it is usually used OVER a previously applied and dry, layer of one or more colors.

The famous Old Master’s often used a glazing technique called a grisaille meaning grays. First an underpainting of grays or neutrals is applied that indicates where the darks and lights will be. This “gray” underpainting allows the artist to concentrate on patterns of dark and light and general composition concepts, without thinking of color just yet.

When this underpainting is dry, the artist then applies glazes of color over the grays. The color can be applied bright or light, letting the gray underneath shift the hue to be a bit more muted. In this way the gray underpainting turns into a colored painting containing a variety of values or tones.

There are many ways to create underpaintings, and the use of grisaille is a great way to add the look of an Old Master’s realism. As an abstract artist, I like to apply bright opaque areas of color as my underpainting and then use glazes over those to shift tone and hue. This contemporary use of glazing has many advantages. Glazing can create shadows under forms for the illusion of 3D. It can also allow for shifting lights and darks, which can change a flat colored form into the feeling of volume or 3D shape.


Why glaze

Painters often use whatever technique easily gets the desired result. If you want to completely cover over an area or drastically change a color, you would paint over it using an opaque paint application. If, however, you don’t need to substantially change something on your painting, but instead want to add some small shifts or nuance of color, then a glaze is your answer. For example, let’s say you are painting a realistic portrait for a client’s commission. After many hours of hard work the portrait looks good enough to show to your client for approval. Your client however, thinks the flesh tones are too yellow and wants you to fix it. What do you do? Argue with the client? Not a good idea. Return to your studio and repaint the entire face again? Wow that’s time consuming, so also not a good idea.

An easy solution is to apply a glaze over the flesh tones that diminishes the overall yellow cast. Make a glaze mixture using the opposite color of yellow — violet — along with a large amount of a clear medium. Apply this mixture thinly to create a transparent overlayer for an easy fix. See example below.

glazing with acrylic paint and layers
glazing with acrylic paint and layers
How to make a glaze

It’s easy to make a glaze with the right tools. First find something to use for mixing. You can use any type of nonporous surface as a mixing palette to make your glaze colors. Examples of mixing palettes are: sheets of glass or plexiglas, sheets of freezer paper (not waxed paper or parchment paper) taped onto a table surface, plastic disposable plates, and palette pads. Scroll down a bit for more palette ideas.

On your palette of choice, squeeze out about a tablespoon of a clear medium (more or less depending on the size of the job at hand). I’ll be using acrylic for the rest of this article however, the ideas and techniques of glazing are similar for other painting disciplines as well. Just substitute the appropriate medium depending on your choice of paint type. Oil painters will use an oil medium, encaustic painters use wax, just as acrylic painters use an acrylic medium. For acrylic painters, any gloss acrylic medium will work to make an acrylic glaze. I like to use a slow drying acrylic like Golden’s Acrylic Glazing Medium, which makes it easier to spread the glaze mixture out evenly. Tip: Acrylic mediums appear white when wet, but eventually dry clear.

Next to the medium you placed on your palette, and giving some space in between, add a small amount of the paint color you selected to make your glaze. In yet another area on your palette start your glaze mixture by doing the following. Using a knife, scoop up some medium and unload it. Then scoop up a much smaller amount of the paint color and unload that into the medium. Use a 1:10 ratio — 1 part paint to 10 parts medium. This is not an exact science. Play around with ratios and test the result to see if it is transparent enough for your use as a glaze. The most common mistake is to add too much paint color. You will be surprised at how small amount of paint color you really need for a glaze. Mix it really well with a knife so it’s all homogenized.

Tip: In general, mix with a knife, and apply with a brush. This allows a well mixed color you can dip your brush into and then apply onto your painting surface wherever you want the glaze.

To apply an acrylic glaze evenly without streaks, you need to slow down the drying time, to give more time to brush it out smoothly before it dries. Oil painters don’t need to do this step because oil is already slow drying enough to blend an even application of glaze.

For acrylic, there are several options to slow down the drying of the glaze mixture. (1) as mentioned above you can use a slow drying medium to make your mixture. If you don’t have a slow drying medium you can (2) add up to 15% retarder to the paint with a regular acrylic medium. (3) Use a slow drying acrylic paint. I like to use Golden’s slow drying line of acrylics called OPEN. With OPEN use the OPEN medium along with either regular acrylic paint colors, or the OPEN paint colors for your glaze.

Once you’ve made sure your mixture will dry slow enough for your purposes, pick up a small amount of the glaze mixture with a smooth square wash brush. Apply the glaze thinly to your surface then lightly blend it to obtain an evenly applied transparent layer of color. If getting a smooth application with a brush is difficult for you, use a soft lint free rag instead of the brush. Move the rag in circular motions until smooth.


What is the difference between a glaze and a wash?

A glaze and a wash are very different techniques yet both are used to create transparent layers of color. This may be why they are often mistaken for the same thing. Let’s clear this up!

The term “glaze” refers to a transparent layer made with a mixture using substantial amounts of a clear medium, along with small amounts of paint color, as described above. A “wash” is a transparent layer made with substantial amounts of water along with small amounts of paint color. Washes are also called stains.

For washes I almost always use modern colors instead of mineral colors. This is because modern paint colors are stronger and will still hold their color when heavily diluted with water. For glazes I use both types of colors. If the idea of mineral and modern paint colors are new to you, you can read more about them here.

Since glazes are made primarily with medium and washes with water, these both need different surfaces to get good results. A wash is like watercolor and often requires an absorbent surface, like paper, to soak up the color and allow for an even spreading of color. This is very different for a glaze, which often requires a non-absorbent surface, that is glossy or satin finish, to allow the glaze to move on the top of the surface without absorbing into it.

At any point in a painting’s process, when you feel the need to apply a transparent layer, take a moment to look at the surface absorbency. If it is matte then you will get best results with a wash, if it is glossy then use a glaze. If it is matte and you would rather use a glaze, then first apply a coat of a gloss medium onto the surface. Let it dry. Since you’ve sealed the surface it has turned it into a non-absorbent one. Now you can easily apply the glaze. The reverse is true too. If your surface is glossy and you want to apply a wash, then use some product that gives a transparent grit. My favorite is Golden’s Pastel Ground, diluted at least 1:1 with water. If you don’t dilute it, it will be opaque, very gray, and may slightly veil or obscure the paint layers underneath.


Key Glazing Tips

Use enough medium. The amount of medium you use in your glaze mixtures makes a big difference. Large amounts are required to make it transparent.

Use the right order when making mixtures. Always START with the medium on your palette, then add very small amounts of paint into it. If you do the reverse – starting with the paint color, and then adding medium into the paint – the mixture may remain stubbornly opaque causing you to go through large quantities of medium to get it transparent enough to your liking.

Fixing a glaze that is too opaque. If your painting becomes too opaque in feel because you covered the underlying layers too heavily, you can sand off some of the upper paint layers once they are dry. Work by hand with pieces of waterproof sandpaper (I like grit 220) and lots of water. For large areas or heavy layers use an electric sander.

Best color intensity is achieved by using a gloss medium instead of a matte for your glaze mixtures. If you use any medium that is satin, semi-gloss or matte, then the product will contain a matting agent — a white powder that creates the matte sheen. This will definitely change the color of your glaze.

Don’t overbrush a glaze. If you continue brushing over the glaze area while it starts to dry and is tacky, it will create a “dirty” appearance. The glaze won’t appear smooth, but will gunk up and look badly applied.

Be frugal adding water. Adding too much water to your glaze mixture, over 15%, can create a hybrid wash-glaze. I rarely add water to my glaze mixtures. Washes use water as I mentioned before, while glazes rely more on mediums. Water can decrease the gloss of the glaze and therefore decrease the color intensity.

Use lint free rags. If you use a rag to apply your glaze, and it is not lint-free, then small particles of the rag may get onto your surface causing a cloudy effect. 


Ideas for mixing palettes
  • A sheet of glass
  • A palette pad (pads you can purchase from art supply stores or online, are made of gray or white sheets of coated paper)
  • disposable plastic plates (you can keep and reuse once the paint has dried)
  • sheets of freezer paper (not wax paper or parchment paper) taped to a table or piece of wood
  • shellac coated wood available in art stores as traditional painting palettes
A Step-by-step Glazing example
There are many ways to use glazes as mentioned above. Here is one example using glazes to create what’s called a vignette to a painting. Vignette is a term used in painting to describe a treatment of a painting close to the edges of the painting surface. Vignettes are used to keep the focus on the center of the image, or to create an intimate feeling.

For this example I will use the painting pictured here, applying glazes on the areas of the painting closest to the edges, to create a vignette feeling.

Step 1. The glaze will go all the way around the sides and top. I want the glaze color to vary. If I use only one glaze color all the way around, it may look like a mistake or a weird frame around the painting. For this I will make several glaze mixtures ahead of time. To vary the glaze even more, I use a trick of not mixing the glaze colors too much, and instead keeping them slightly unmixed, to make what I call a dirty mix glaze.
Here is my palette set up. I have placed a nice amount of Golden’s Acrylic Glazing Medium in the center. Then I placed several earth tone colors in an arc around it. The colors pictured here (from left to right) are: Sap Green, Burnt Sienna, Payne’s Gray, Raw Umber and Carbon Black.

Dip a brush or rag (pictured here) into the medium first, picking up about ¼ teaspoon of the medium, then dip the same rag with the medium into a small amount of one or more of the paint colors. Both medium and paint will be on your rag or brush simultaneously but not mixed together. Now you can see why I call it a dirty mix glaze.

Step 2. Apply what’s on the rag onto the edges of the painting, using another clean rag to soften or blend the edges as the glazing moves towards the center of the image. I use small circular motions instead of wiping lines parallel to the edges to avoid creating the illusion of a frame, and instead getting what I want – a subtle darkening at the edges.

Work in small areas while the paint is still wet. Switch to a clean brush or dry rag to remove some of the excess glaze to allow this newly applied glaze color to subtly blend into the image. As you finish one area, move along the edge using different combinations of color every 1″ – 2″ (25 – 51 mm). Avoid using the same color too frequently or applying the color too opaquely by not including enough medium.

Compare this finished painting with the original to see how a vignette can change the whole feeling of the painting. The dark glazing around the edges, and especially at the very top, created a romantic mood and cozier feeling.

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  1. L Firth

    Thanks so much for this. I tried it and it worked like a charm! I had an acrylic seascape and I was mostly happy with it but the water colour was too light and too intensely blue. I made a glaze with burnt sienna and applied two thin coats. Much easier to tweak this way than repaint a large area with opaque paint. Plus it does give it an interesting effect of depth.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Leslie,

      I’m so glad to hear the glazing technique helped you revise your painting easily. Thanks for posting!


  2. J S Franklin

    All of your articles are so incredibly helpful. Even though I’m a new artist, I can envision how useful this information is going to be – once I get to the point that I paint well. Thank you so much.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi JS,
      Glad you are finding my blog helpful with your new journey into painting.
      Thanks for posting your comment.

  3. David Dean

    Thanks Nancy. Very timely – I just tried glazing for the first time yesterday evening – only on a small space. I needed your advice.


    • Nancy Reyner

      Glad the information was helpful!

  4. Julia A Walsh

    I have recently taken an interest in a more smooth quality to my acrylic paintings. Acrylic Glazing Liquid is is something I, too, am learning to incorporate into my art supply repertoire. Thank you for your definition and information.

  5. nancy reyner

    Hi Corrine,
    That is not a foolish question at all – it's a good one. A glaze can be used over an entire painting, or a selected area. Sometimes a glaze over a whole painting can help to integrate the colors more. If the entire painting has the overall too yellow problem I mentioned then the violet glaze will work over the whole thing. You can also glaze over an entire painting and then while still wet wipe it off in selected areas. Whatever works to help the painting.

  6. Corinne Murphy

    I'm so happy to have read this article about glazing that I can't wait to try it! I have never used this technique and my question is: Once you have your glaze perfectly mixed, do you apply it JUST to the area in question, in this case the face, or do you apply the glaze over the entire painting for unity? I apologize if this question sounds foolish, but I honestly don't know proper application techniques. Thank you for taking my message.

  7. Sharon L Hicks

    Great Post … it appears this was written about painting with Acrylics … but the same principle applies to other mediums as well. I've used the same technique with Oils, though instead of the polymer medium one would use oil, and there is no worry about it drying too quickly. Much of my work these days is with Coloured Pencils, and I use the same technique with the pencils. A very thinly applied layer of a colour over other colours can serve various purposes – to unify the entire colour scheme, to adjust existing tones which are not quite right, to neutralize passages which might be too strong colourwise, or to create a 'whole colour' by applying a glaze of the complement so the eye perceives it as 'complete'. It's really interesting how a single technique or approach can apply right across the board to whatever medium the artist happens to be using. 🙂

  8. Mary Manning

    This post is extremely helpful, Nancy. I have been experimenting with glazes not just on portraits, but landscapes and skies, to a much deeper, richer effect. Thanks for explaining this.


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