Coloring with Acrylic Paints

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Coloring with Acrylic Paints

Vast array of colors provide infinite possibilities

by Sue Chrestensen and Toni Burghout

This article was first published in issue 30 of Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts.

Acrylic paint comes in wide variety of colors. By mixing your own custom colors, you can create a broad spectrum of hues to meet the needs of any project. Most acrylic paint is environmentally safe, odor free, easily cleaned up, readily available, and economically priced. However, in its pure, undiluted form, it covers the wood and any attractive wood grain. By diluting acrylic paint to a wash, you can get a smooth, even color and still allow the beauty of the wood to shine through.

Acrylic Paint Washes

Many artists have their own formula for creating paint washes, and the ratio of paint to thinner is often a matter of personal preference. We decided to test the two most common diluting agents: water and rubbing alcohol. Since the viscosity of the paint is substantially heavier than that of the diluting agent, we use a medicine cup marked in teaspoon increments to measure the paint, and an eye dropper to measure the diluting agents. Both of these inexpensive measuring devices are available at the drugstore.


Acrylic paint thinned with water. From the left:
One coat of wash, two coats of wash, undiluted paint.

Diluting with water

Start with a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of acrylic paint with 11/2 teaspoons of water (1:3 ratio). The wash goes on clean and is absorbed evenly. Once dry, the wood surface is smooth. There is no odor which is another benefit.

Diluting with rubbing alcohol

To accurately compare the two diluting agents, use the same mixture ratio: 1/2 teaspoon of acrylic paint with 11/2 teaspoons of rubbing alcohol. The wash becomes very gritty and leaves crumb-like particles on the wood. The color doesn’t absorb well and the pigment in the paint is compromised, leaving an undesirable color behind. I also don’t care for the odor of this wash.

Acrylic paint thinned with rubbing alcohol. From the left: One coat of wash, two coats of wash, undiluted paint.


If the paint is too thick and obscures the grain of the wood, dilute the paint by dipping the piece in clean water, then wiping it off on a paper towel or rag. This method can also be used for blending or to achieve a certain effect.

If you feel the wash is too light, apply subsequent coats or try a stronger wash. The following chart illustrates the variety you can achieve using different ratios of water with the same portion of paint.


There are several brands of acrylic paints and price is not always an indicator of quality. Colors with similar names across brands can produce dramatically different results. Experiment with different brands to find the one you like best.

Ease of Use

You control the wash ratio and therefore the viscosity. If you find the paint is too thin to control, try a slightly thicker wash and thin the paint after it is applied to the wood by going over the section with a wet paintbrush. Acrylic paints clean up easily with water. If the paint dries in your paintbrush before you get a chance to rinse it out, try cleaning the brush using Windex with ammonia.


Acrylic paints and washes are easy to layer and blend. If you want to create a custom color, mix the paint prior to creating a wash, or use one of the methods below to create a specific result. Be sure to test the paint or technique on the same wood you plan to use in your project. Experiment with the mixtures and techniques. When you have one that works well for you, make sure to document the ingredients and their measurements so you will be able to duplicate it again in the future.

About the Authors

Sue Chrestensen and Toni Burghout are the founders of Chrestensen Burghout Designs. See more of their designs at

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