What is it about cells in acrylic paint pouring that make them so special? Is it the compact layering of colors, the bold 3-d effects they make, or the eye-catching variations they bring to a painting? Whatever the cause, cells in fluid paintings are complex and sometimes enigmatic.
Acrylic pour cells come in many different shapes and sizes. They can form naturally, or they can be artificially coaxed from within a painting by using additives, exposing the paint to small amounts of heat, or by layering paints with different densities and textures. Creating cells can add additional depth and character to your paint pour artwork.
We here at LeftBrainedArtist have done some extensive research into acrylic pour cells and are sharing everything we’ve learned. We hope it provides beneficial and helps you get your cell-making-mojo churning.
What are Cells in Acrylic Pouring?
Acrylic paint pouring is, to define it as concisely as possible, mixing paint in a freeform fluid state to create art. As with many other liquids, when you mix fluid acrylic paints together, you get various effects including color mixing, layering, and cells.
So, what exactly are cells in acrylic pouring? As the name implies, they are effects in acrylic paint pouring that take the shape of cells similar in appearance to those you would see in biology.
To better illustrate the comparison between cells in biology and painting consider this: the nucleus contains the center color, the cytoplasm inner filling usually containing multiple combinations of colors, and the cell membrane is the distinct border.
The cells can take many different shapes and come in various sizes, which we’ll go into more detail later in the article.
Why do Artists Want Cells in Their Pour Paintings?
Many artists have a love-hate relationship with cells in their acrylic pour paintings. Cells can bring amazing eye-catching color combinations and variations to a painting. They can also cause unwanted distractions in a painting.
One of the true beauties of acrylic pouring is a randomness of how fluid paints interact. The nature of the acrylic paints and the mediums make predicting the outcome quite uncertain. Cells are a prime example of this uncertainty. There are ways to coax cells from a painting but some of their creation seems to just be dumb luck.
We believe one of the main reasons that cells are so popular in acrylic pouring is that they are loved by the audience. People that we have shown our art to seem always to be entranced by the arbitrariness and fine intricacies of acrylic pour cells.
Cells also tend to be micro-cosmic representations of the artwork. The underlying principles that direct how cells form inherently pull colors and textures from multiple different layers of paint and smashes them all together creating mini paintings in each cell.
What Causes Cells in Acrylic Pouring?
There are many ways to create cells in a paint pour. The most common ways we have found come from manipulating the density of the various paints, specific pouring mediums, various fluid pour techniques, and special additives.
Cells and Paint Density
Every paint has a different density based on the pigments that are used and the binder that those pigments are suspended in (this is how acrylic paints are made). These differing densities mean that each paint weights more or less than other paints when comparing the same volume of each.
An easy example would be to take a one-inch square of gold and a one-inch square of cardboard and compare the weight of each. The gold would weight more than the cardboard even though the volume (one inch cube) of each is the same.
In physics, the measurement of the difference in densities between two objects, or liquids in the case of acrylic paints, is called the specific gravity. In most cases, this comparison is done between water and another object. This way there is a common benchmark when calculating specific gravity.
Dense objects like a rock will sink when tossed into a body of water. Less dense objects, like a small piece of wood, will float on the water.
This exact same phenomenon happens with acrylic paints. More dense paints like titanium white will “sink” into less dense paints like charcoal black. This happens because the white is denser than the black and has a greater specific gravity. This interaction of materials with different densities is called the Rayleigh-Taylor instability.
To create cells, you can use this physical property of fluid acrylics to manipulate how the paints will rise and sink when combined by stacking more dense paints on top of less dense ones. When paints rise and sink, they gather small bits of the paint they are moving through. When bubbles of lighter paint move up to the top of the painting, they create cells.
How to Measure Paint Density
To accurately calculate the density, you will need to measure the mass of the paint (weight in grams) and divide that by the volume (measured in milliliters). A quick explanation of this calculation can be found in this YouTube video.
Measuring the density of paint is a very painstaking process. It is not reasonable for most artists to figure these out for all their paints. However, we can get a general idea of the weight of paints based on this documentation provided by Golden Paints.
Pouring Mediums and Cells
Using different pouring mediums can also help in the creation of cells. The two main considerations for pouring mediums in cell creation is their densities, as was explained in the previous section, and the chemical properties of each medium.
We have put together a list of a few common pouring mediums that we have experience creating cells with. We have also included a few that other notable acrylic pour artists have had success with.
- Floetrol – This paint conditional works great as a pouring medium. It has a medium consistency and does tend to create cells.
- Water – Paint thinned slightly with water only can help create small cell activity. You can’t use too much as it will cause there to be not enough binders in the paint and it will crack.
- Isopropyl Alcohol – Just like this water, you can only use a little bit of this, or it will cause problems when the paint dries. A little goes a long way. The higher the percentage of alcohol the less you will need. Find 99% Isopropyl Alcohol on Amazon here.
Pouring Techniques that Create Cells
There are multiple different acrylic pour painting techniques that lend themselves well to creating cells. Additional explanations about each of these pour techniques can be found in our articles on 5 Basic Acrylic Pour Techniques and 16 Advanced Acrylic Pour Techniques.
- Dirty Pour – The dirty pour cup is created by pouring multiple paints together. The density of the different paints can organically create cells as the heaver paints fall the bottom of the cup and the lighter ones rise to the top. By pouring the paint into the cup from high up or pouring more paint in at a time you can also force the paint to mix which also creates cells.
- Flip Cup Pour – The flip cup pour starts with a dirty pour cup of paint. The cup is then flipped over all at once on the painting surface instead of poured out. If you want to get even more cells, cover the canvas lightly with a single color of slightly more fluid acrylic pour paint before doing the flip cup.
- Strainer/Colander Pour – Start with a dirty pour cup and pour it through a strainer or colander onto the canvas.
- Bottle Pour – Cut the button 2 inches off a one- or two-liter bottle. Turn this bottle bottom upside down and pour your paint onto the bottle so it separates into multiple streams over the bottle bottom. As the paint flows into each other at the bottom of the bottle it will create cells between layers.
- Swipe Pour – This is one of our favorites. Pour your paint onto your canvas using any of the techniques you have learned. Then pour a single color along one of your edges. Now gently take a spackle knife or a painter’s knife and pull that new paint lightly across the other paint on the canvas. The new paint will flow over the previously poured paint and create an amazing webbing effect.
- Dutch Pour – Cover your canvas lightly with white paint. Now pour a few additional colors into the center of the painting surface. Once this is done around the outside of the paint you just poured, pour a good helping of the white. Now blow the white paint from all directions over on top of the colored paint. Most people use a hairdryer to do this. Once this is done blow from the center of the new pile of paint to the edges of the canvas. Because you are forcing the paint to flow over each other you will get cells to form.
Using Additives to Create Cells
One of the most popular ways to create fluid acrylic cells is by using additives. These additives are generally much lighter than the paint and will rise through the paint layers bringing little bits of each color of paint to the surface and thus creating cells.
Getting Cells from Silicone and Dimethicone
Silicone and Dimethicone are the preferred methods by many artists to create cells. These additives are relatively inexpensive and can be found at most general stores in one form or another. Only a drop or two per 2 to 3 ounces of paint will go a long way in creating cells.
This can be added to the individual cups of paint before mixing or it can be added directly to a dirty pour cup in between any layer of paint.
The more vigorously the paint is stirred after the silicone or Dimethicone is added can affect how small (stirred rapidly and vigorously) or large (barely stirred at all) the cells become.
NOTE: When using oil additives, if you are getting bare canvas spots on the outside of your paintings we recommend you read our article about 3 Ways to Prevent Bare Canvas Spots on Your Acrylic Paint Pour.
Use Alcohol to Create Cells
We mentioned using alcohol as a medium previously. You can also add alcohol to other paint mixtures and mediums to cajole cells to come out. You can use anywhere from a few drops to 5 to 10% of the total mixture.
Alcohol helps create cells because it “lightens” whatever paint it is added to. In addition, when the alcohol quickly evaporates from the paint it helps pull colors together in small quantities (a.k.a. cells).
Most cells created by isopropyl alcohol tend to be small and numerous.
Create Cells with Rain-X
Using the popular window treatment Rain-X has gained additional popularity of late. This product is a hydrophobic, or water-resistant, repellent. It essentially repels liquid molecules.
You can use this in small quantities while mixing your paints, but we believe it is better used by lightly spraying or sprinkling directly on to already poured paint.
When the Rain-X hits the paint it immediately makes the top layer of paint separate and shows the paint underneath it. This creates cellular formations.
You can find a small bottle of Rain-X at your local automotive store or at any superstore like Walmart of Super Target. You can also find it online.
Create Cells with Coconut and Other Oils
Many different common household oils can be added to your acrylic paint pours to help facilitate the creation of cells. 100 percent coconut oil is one of the others that we would recommend trying.
Keep in mind that ALL additives will need to be completely cleaned off your dried panting surface before you can add any topcoat or varnish. Failing to do so will cause the varnish to either become patchy or to not adhere to the dried acrylic paint.
Using Different Paint Types to Create Cells
There are various paint types that have been known to help create cells in acrylic paint pours. We’ve listed a few of the ones we have experience with or that we know trusted influencers in the pouring community have endorsed.
- DecoArt Satin Enamel – When added in small quantities to some paint it does tease out cells. We don’t recommend using more than about 10-15% as it can cause your paint to crack. The cells that are created from adding this sating enamel general take the form of puffy clouds. Many artists that use it to create cells call the result “cloud pours”. You can find DecoArt Satin Enamel on Amazon here.
- Heavy density paint colors like titanium white and cadmium yellow – These are necessarily specific paint brands but because they are made of heavier organic, non-organic, or synthetic materials they “drop” through lighter paints and help create cells.
- Metallic paints – These paints are generally heavier than other paints and have the same effects mentioned above with the difference in densities.
- Flat paints – This can be things like house paint, or paint brands that don’t have a lot of shine combine with more traditional shiny paints have a good chance of creating cells.
Torching to Coax Out Cells
Another great method of creating cells is to use heat on the surface of your paint. When using heat as a cell creator you need to be very careful to not burn or dry out the paint or it will ruin your artwork.
Many artists use a torch to pop any bubbles that might be lurking in their paints. Besides removing pesky bubbles, torching a painting causes the top surface of the paint to heat up.
Warming up acrylic paint causes it to break the surface tension of the paint. This allows the paint to flow more freely and can allow the underlying layers of paint to rise through the top layer.
Change the Shape and Size of Acrylic Pour Cells
Now that we’ve shown you a few ways to manipulate your fluid acrylic pour to create cells, now it is time to make those cells look like you want them to look. This is probably one of the most difficult parts of cell creation and will take a bit of practice to master.
How to get Big or Small Cells
Adjusting the size of cells in an acrylic pour isn’t an exact science. However, with a little planning, a little patience, and a little luck, you stand a good chance of getting the results you expect.
Small cells are the easier of the two to produce. Here are a few ways to get small cells.
- Torching closely but very quickly. If there are layers of paint underneath the top layer it will most likely come out when you do a quick short torching.
- Wait till after you have tilted most or all the paint off the canvas before torching.
- Use small amounts of alcohol in your lightest paints: greens, purples and some blues are usually a good bet to be on the lighter, less dense side.
- Use one of the additives mentioned above but really mix it well into your paint just before you pour it into your dirty pour cup or onto your canvas. Because the oil gets mixed so well you get smaller droplets coming to the surface and therefore smaller cells.
- Tilt and stretch the paint as quickly as possible after putting it on the canvas. Cells the form after the paint is already stretched and thinned are generally smaller.
You stand a good chance of getting larger cells doing one or more of the following:
- When you torch your pour, do so from very high up and only slowly heat up the top layer of paint. That will let the paint below heat up slightly also and help it come up through the top layer more slowly.
- Torch as soon as the paint is on the canvas and before you tilt and stretch. That way small cells at the beginning grow with the tilting and stretching.
- When using silicone or Dimethicone only use small amounts and don’t mix in more than one or two small swipes. The bigger drops of oil in the paint will stay together and move together thus creating bigger cells.
- Let the paint sit for a bit before you start to tilt it. This allows the paint to shift and move under the surface and let cells form naturally before you stretch them out.
How to Change the Cell Shape
Changing the shape of cells is no easy task. Because the nature of cells in acrylic pouring is based on so many different factors you can only create the best environment possible to get the results you are looking for.
For perfectly round cells you will need to make sure you don’t have too much cell action happening. When there are tons of cells, they are going to run into each other and deform as they do. Having a few cells there and there is a better recipe for circular cells than having a whole ton of them.
Introducing an additive by dripping it or flicking it onto the paint after it has already been stretched will also allow the oil to work in a confined area and produce more regular looking cells.
Square or Rectangle
The only way we know to get squared cell is to use the chameleon technique where you put an additive on top of the canvas in a very uniform way with a comb or by hand. That way each cell grows at the same time and connects with their neighbor cells and create more rectangular forms.
Oblong and Elliptical
These are cells that have been stretched along with the paint underneath them. This can also be achieved by having a cell fall off the side of the painting surface as it will deform slowly as it drips down the side.
We have seen these randomly across various paintings, but we haven’t had very good luck in recreating them ourselves. The caterpillar cell is one that is almost chopped in sections as it starts to grow and ends up looking like the segmented body of a caterpillar.
We most often see these types of cells on a floating flip cup with silicone where the flip cup is rotated and moved across the canvas as the paint is slowly leaking out of the cup where it creates a gap between the lid and the canvas.
UPDATE: We recreated this with great effect by preparing a dirty pour cup and adding one or two drops of silicone on the top of the paint. Then take a stick or stirring device and “push” the silicone down into the cup. Now quickly do your pour and you will most likely get caterpillar cells. Good Luck! Check out our PVA Glue video where we duplicate this on one of the pours here.
How to Reliably Create Cells in Your Acrylic Pour?
The most reliable way to create cells in your acrylic paint pour is to use silicone or another oil additive. This will almost guarantee that you get cells in your fluid painting.
We recommend that you try each of these different cell making techniques one by one. And then when you are familiar with each, try mixing and matching different cell creation approaches.
We hope that we have answered all the questions that you have about creating cells in your acrylic paint pour. If there are still things you want to know, please let us know in the comments below and we’ll be sure to respond to all those that we get.