One of the questions I get most frequently asked is how to keep acrylic paints wet for a longer time. Acrylics have an inherent property of drying very quickly. Being the impatient person I am, this is actually one of the reasons I love working in acrylics so much. I also live in a hot dry country, which makes the paints dry even quicker!
I work fairly fast, so I don't have much of a problem with fast drying paints. If you are a beginner, learning and experimenting with acrylics, chances are that you are working on small canvases. The fast drying property of acrylics will be great for you then. You want to quickly progress and move to new paintings to develop your skills. But sometimes even I want to slow down the process, specially when working on a huge canvas. Over the years, I've found that there are a few things that help keep the paints moist and moving. Some of these are as follows.
1. Mist your Canvas and Paints
I always keep a little spray bottle handy in my studio. Even a simple misting spray that they use in hair salons works perfectly. I periodically lightly mist my canvas, and my painting palette with water, just enough to keep them cool and moist, and not over wet them. If you spray too much water, the paints will dilute and drip down.
Remember that spraying water would not mobilise paint that is fully dried up. It will only make it chip and scrape off. Acrylics once dried are permanent, and cannot be reactivated (unlike watercolors). So, if you want to keep them moving, mist them before they dry off. You'll get a hang of the amount of water and how often to mist with practice, but this surely helps!
2. Use a fluid retarder
I personally don't use this often, but there are products available in the market which extend the drying time of acrylic paints. These are called fluid retarders/ acrylic retarders. They make acrylic paints act more like oil paints and keep them fluid for longer. Since I personally am not that comfortable with oil paints, retarders take the fluidity of acrylics a bit too far for my taste. Only when working on a 3ft by 4ft canvas have I used a retarder and really liked it.
If you like to work slow, this could be a life saver. Also, it keeps your paints wet on the palette for much longer. Just mix a few drops of retarder with your paint, and you're ready to go!
3. Take larger amounts of paint out on the palette
Sometimes we tend to be too precious with our paints. I know paints are expensive, but I would argue that by being stingy, we end up wasting more paint than if we used generous amounts. When you take a little dot of paint out on your palette, it dries up much quicker. Again, if you spread that tiny bit of paint across a larger area on the palette, it will dry up and form a skin very quickly. So I always recommend that you take a nice big squeeze of paint out, specially if you are working on a larger canvas and know the paint is gonna be used up. This keeps most of the paint moist as you're not spreading it too thin on the palette and wasting it. I promise you will eventually waste much lesser paint if you do this.
4. Don't keep lids/tubes open
The sure way to dry up a paint is by leaving the caps off of tubes. Specially when you buy big jars of paint, they're prone to getting dried up much faster. The more contact the unused paint will have with air, the thicker it will become. Once the paint becomes thick inside the tube or the jar, it dries much quicker when you take it out on the palette to use. This is why I always prefer tubes over jars, and I always make sure to tightly close the lids and place the caps once done.
5. Work fast
This is a sure way to avoid drying of your paints, although it's not very practical for most people. We work at the speed we're used to and comfortable with, and that changes with every person. I personally work quite fast, but that's because I'm generally a little impatient, and I'm always trying to get my ideas on the canvas before I forget them 🙂 Try to speed up parts which require blending and work tactfully. That should help you keep the paints moving and flexible.
If none of the above work for you, and you still find acrylics dry too quickly for your taste, I'd strongly suggest you try oil painting, specifically using water mixable oils at first. They can be thinned down and diluted with water, and you don't need the different oils or spirits to use them.
I hope you found some use in this article! Keep painting, and let m know your thoughts in the comments below 🙂