Oil vs. Acrylic: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Which Paint is Right for You
Should I use oil or acrylic paints?
This is a question that all beginners ask. The oil vs. acrylic debate is ongoing and controversial. Every artist has an opinion or preference in the matter, but I’m not here to give you mine. Instead, I want to introduce you to the material qualities of each, what they do and how they can work for you, so that you can make an informed decision about what is best for your practice.
Let’s be clear: There are benefits and drawbacks to both oil and acrylic paints. Each has its challenges. One is not inherently better than the other, despite the many myths out there. Knowing what these pros and cons are will enable you to use your paints effectively to get the most out of their inherent characteristics. You will also learn what you can do to modify and counteract these characteristics. There are many products out there that, for example, slow and speed up drying time, give body and luminosity to the paint, or increase its transparency.
Ultimately, I suggest that you experiment with both acrylic and oil paints to figure out what you like best. There’s no rush to decide. Like me, you may decide to work in both acrylic and oil paint depending on the project. No matter which medium you choose, there will be a learning curve. Don’t expect to get it right away.
Do keep in mind, that when learning to paint, the principles of painting are the same for both oil and acrylic paints. So no matter which you ultimately choose, the tutorials offered here will apply.
To simplify the discussion below, I’ll provide a downloadable and printable chart PDF chart that summarizes the oil vs. acrylic question, showing the pros and cons of each, at the end of this post.
Materially speaking, acrylic paint and oil paint are two very different animals. Let me explain.
What is acrylic paint?
Acrylic paints are made of pigment suspended in polymer emulsion. This is a fancy way of saying that it’s plastic. They are water-soluble, but they become water-resistant once they’ve dried (the paint isn’t reactivated by water).
What is oil paint?
Oil paints are made of ground pigments suspended in a drying oil (like linseed). As we know, oil and water don’t mix! Oil paints must be thinned and cleaned with oil-based products or solvents. Cheaper oil paints may have solvents already added to the mixture.
Difference #1: Drying Time
One of the most evident differences between oil and acrylic paint is drying time.
Acrylic paints are fast drying. This is both a blessing and a curse. Acrylic can literally dry in minutes, depending on how thickly it is applied. By contrast, oil paints can take days to be dry to the touch, and weeks or months to fully dry.
The Cons of Acrylic Paint:
Acrylic on the Palette. You’ll have to keep your paints constantly moist on the palette to prevent them from drying out. You can regularly spray them with a fine mist of water using a spritz bottle. Cover them with plastic wrap when taking breaks. This will prevent waste. An alternative is to use a “Sta-Wet” palette made with a moist sponge and permeable palette paper. You can also mix an “acrylic retarder” (a painting medium) directly into your paints, slowing their drying time (see below on mixing).
Your Paintbrushes & Acrylics. You’ll also need to keep your paintbrushes constantly moist. Dip them in water between brush strokes. Keep brushes in a container of water while painting. Don’t forget a paint-coated brush on your palette! Once acrylic dries on your brushes it will never come off. I won’t lie: acrylic is hard on your paintbrushes. The washing dries out natural bristles (like hog’s hair) and causes them to break over time. The paint can also build up at the base (or heel) of the brush where the bristles meet the ferrule (the metal part which holds them), eventually causing the bristles to splay. Many companies are now making synthetic paintbrushes for acrylic paints which mimic the qualities of a traditional natural bristle brush, while discouraging the paint from sticking to the bristles and building up in the heel of the brush. You might consider these as an alternative to hog’s hair paintbrushes, but I suggest experimenting with both.
Color Mixing with Acrylics. Drying time has consequences for color mixing. You’ll want to be sure to mix up larger quantities of color than you think you need. This is because it can be difficult to get an exact color match after the acrylic dries (acrylic dries darker) on your painting or palette. It is easier to have more than enough to begin with. Some artists will even pre-mix large pots of paint in a range of colors, rather than mixing on the palette or on the canvas itself.
Blending with Acrylics. Fast drying time can be frustrating if you are trying to blend on the canvas. You’ll find that the paint doesn’t stay wet long enough to achieve subtle blending. One solution is to mix a ‘retarder’ into your paint. This is an acrylic medium that slows down the drying time of the paint, extending its working time. Some companies, like Golden, also sell “Open Acrylics” which have a longer open time than regular acrylics.
In the Studio and at Home. Acrylic literally fuses to fabric. Wear an apron or old clothes to paint in because acrylic will not wash off your clothes (or carpet) once it has dried. If you’re painting at home be careful not to get it on the walls either. You’ll have to paint over it. That said, if you act quickly you can remove acrylic while it is still wet with soap, water, and a little scrubbing.
The Pros of Acrylic Paint:
Clean up for Acrylics. Clean up is straightforward, quick, and easy with acrylic painting. Wash your brushes with warm water and gentle soap. They do sell special brush soaps in art stores, and I know artists who use “artists’ hand soap” for cleaning their paintbrushes. Personally, I use handmade vegetable soaps with natural conditioners like shea butter or cocoa butter. Get some at a farmer’s market or at your local health store. It will be much cheaper than at the art store. Use a glass or plastic palette with acrylics for easy cleaning. These can be soaked for a few minutes in water and the old dried paint will simply peel off.
Work Quickly. You can work quickly with acrylic paints and build up layers easily. Often I use a hairdryer if I want to speed things up. You don’t have to worry about the rules that apply to oil paint like ‘fat over lean’ (more on this later). Other advantages are that you can get crisp edges and it is easy to keep your colors clean and bright.
What about Oils?
Oils are slow drying. This is great for working ‘wet-into-wet’, achieving subtle blends and variations of color, painting alla prima style, and playing with edge quality (hard or soft). They will stay wet on your palette, allowing you to easily work on a painting over a period of days or even weeks. This also makes it easy to work back into an area of your painting if you need to make changes or bring it to a higher level of finish. In some cases, however, you will have to wait a few days until a layer is dry before you can work on top of it again and you may find your colors getting muddy. If you make a mistake, it is often easier to scrape off the paint and start again rather than waiting for it to dry.
Difference #2: Color shift
Another important difference in oil vs. acrylic is that acrylic paint darkens (significantly) on drying, whereas oil paint doesn’t change color as its dries. This change of color can be an unpleasant surprise if you not expecting it. Get used to preparing your colors slightly lighter in value than desired.
Oil paintings do yellow slightly over time due to oxidation of the oils. This seems to be unavoidable. Most paint companies have tried to minimize this by using lightfast pigments and binders that are less prone to yellowing. Look for the lightfast information on the tube of paint or the company’s website.
Difference #3: Color mixing
The two factors mentioned above—drying time and color shift—have implications for color mixing. With acrylic paint, it is almost impossible to match a color that is already dry on your canvas, because the wet paint will always look different than the dry paint. I often find myself repainting entire areas that I just wanted to touch up, because the color that I thought was an exact match turned out to be totally different once dry.
Difference #4: Luminosity
There is a difference in the luminosity in oil vs. acrylic paint. Oil paintings glow. This is because the oil refracts the light. However, if you are looking for a flat or matte effect—a graphic quality—acrylic will be able to give you this far better than oil.
There are mediums that you can mix into acrylics called “gel gloss” that will add luminosity and shine to the finished painting, but it still doesn’t match that of oil paint.
Difference #5: Handling and Clean-Up
As mentioned above, cleaning up with acrylics requires only soap and water. Excess paint should be scraped and thrown away, not washed down the sink. Brushes should be kept in water while is use ad cleaned immediately afterwards.
Oil paint requires more care and the handling of toxic solvents. Excess paint on the palette should be scraped off or wiped off with rags. However, these need to be safely disposed of to avoid fire risks. When cleaning brushes, they should first be wiped with a rag to remove paint and then agitated in a container of solvent to remove oils, before finally being washed with soap and water.
I will provide a future post on health and safety for painters, as it is a topic that deserves special attention.
Oil vs. Acrylic: A final word
So, what’s the verdict in the oil vs. acrylic debate? Well, there isn’t really one. But I’ve given you the low-down to empower you to choose what’s right for your practice.
Oil is more suitable to subtle blending to achieve realistic or photorealistic effects. It is great for glazing and building up transparent layers. If you are doing landscape, portrait or figure painting, oil may work best for you. Acrylic is great for abstract and graphic work. It is used by many contemporary artists.
There are ardent lovers of both. In general, I prefer to work in oils, but there are occasions when acrylics are really handy. Often I use it in my abstract paintings. In fact, I recommend doing some beginner exercises in acrylic, like color mixing, monochromatic studies, and quick paintings. It is worth getting a feel for them. They are great for hassle-free painting when traveling or working outdoors. You may find they suit your working habits.
Download it here for easy reference: