The Differences Between Acrylic and Oil Paints

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The Differences Between Acrylic and Oil Paints


One of the first questions you are faced with when you start painting is what medium you should focus on. The three main choices are acrylics, oils and watercolors. For the purpose of this article, I will be discussing the differences between oils and acrylic.

Watercolors are arguably more difficult to pick up due to the untamed nature of water, so I would recommend you start out with either acrylics or oils before venturing into watercolors.

Now is it essential to focus on just one medium? Of course not. But I feel it is more beneficial to aim at mastering just one of the mediums. You will improve naturally across all mediums by doing this.

I will also say there is no correct answer to acrylics versus oils. They are both fantastic mediums with different characteristics.

So let's get into it - acrylic versus oil painting.

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What Are Acrylic Paints?

Acrylics are synthetic paints designed to mix and blend just like oils.

Acrylic paint dries extremely fast, to the extent it will dry on your palette if you do not use the paint quick enough. It is less forgiving in this manner and you must be decisive when you paint.

TIP: You can keep your acrylic paints from drying for a short period of time by lightly spraying water over your palette (using a spray bottle of some sort).

TIP: If you do not like painting for long periods of time, just pick 1–3 colors to use in the session and paint the relevant parts of the painting in those colors. Then you can pack up for the next session, where you will add new colors. This way you are not filling your palette with all the colors of the rainbow only to have them dry on your palette.

Due to the quick drying time, acrylic paint is generally not favored for portrait painting or other subjects where you may want to go back and make subtle adjustments. But the quick drying time does have the benefit of being able to quickly paint layer over layer.

Acrylic paint does not have any ‘fat over lean, thick over thin’ rule (which we will discuss later) and is therefore often favored by beginner painters.

I find there is a bad stigma against acrylic painting, as people tend to think the painting masters only used oil paints. Acrylic paints however have come a long way over the recent years so do not be discouraged from acrylic paints. Acrylic paints were not even available for most of the masters during their times.

With that being said, if you are looking for commercial success early on as an artist, you need to consider whether this ‘stigma’ may influence your chances of selling your paintings.

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What Are Oil Paints?

Oil paints are made up of pigment (the color) and oil. Most of the oil paints on the market are poisonous, so always keep them out of the hands of children and be very careful with how you use them.

When painting with oils you will need three main materials:

Oil Paint

Medium (Oil)

Paint Thinner (Solvent)

The oil paint is simply your tube of paint. Paint from the tube is made up of pigment and a small amount of oil which is used as a binder. By adding a medium (more oil) you will be able to paint more fluidly and use less paint from the tube.

The third material is a paint thinner, which as the name suggests, breaks down the oil and thins the paint. Paint thinner was introduced in oil painting to speed up the drying process.

Oil painting involves a steady balance between the amount of oil and paint thinner used.

I will also put here a special mention for odorless solvents. When I started painting, I would almost pass out from the strength of the turpentine solvent I was using. The odorless solvents seem to have no apparent downside and do not have the potent smell.

Most of the famous paintings you may be familiar with are oil paintings. This is due to the versatile characteristics of oil paints combined with the fact acrylic paints were not available during the golden ages of painting, when many of the great masters came to prominence.

There are some key differences between acrylic and oil paints.

Oil paints have much slower drying times than acrylic paints. You will have more flexibility with oil paints due to longer the drying times. Oil paints can take up to a year to dry completely. With acrylic paints you must be decisive with your strokes, as the paint quickly dries once applied.

You must paint thick over thin and fat over lean with oil paints. If the top layers of paint dry before the lower layers of paint (the earliest layers applied) then the top layers will crack. The thicker and fatter (oilier) your paint, the slower it dries. Simple as that. Try to have a process in place to ensure each subsequent layer dries slower than the prior. My general rule is to start with a very light wash of paint and solvent. I will then move to 3:1 solvent to oil medium, then for the next layer I will use 2:1 then 1:1 and so on until I am not using any solvent at all. The final layer is usually just highlighting / darkening areas using paint straight from the tube mixed with some oil.

Acrylic paints darken in color as they dry. Oil paints do not have this problem (however some types of oil paints do get a yellow tinge over time). You will need to account for this change in color whilst using acrylic paints.

Blending is easier with oil paints. Get friendly with a large blending brush as it will get a lot of use with oil painting. This is one of the main benefits of oil painting. For example, if you are painting a landscape, you will be able to gently blend the mountains in the foreground into the sky, giving it a distant feel. Blending is not as easy with acrylic paints due to the quick drying times.

You will make a mess with oil paints. Oil paints are much harder to clean and control than acrylic paints. Invest in some quality cleaning materials to make your life easier.

The finish of oil paint is slightly glossy and refined whilst acrylic paint has a more matte finish.





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