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.
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.
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.
The Key Differences Between Acrylic and Oil Paints
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.
Which Is More Expensive?
Oil painting tends to be slightly more expensive than acrylic painting due to the number of additional materials required, including:
- Specific cleaning materials
- Oil mediums & solvents
- A wider selection of palette knifes (optional)
In addition, I find the paints and paint brushes themselves to be slightly more expensive for oil painting.
With that being said, you can greatly reduce the cost of oil painting with proper cleaning procedures to ensure your paint brushes and materials last a significant period of time.
Tip: If you have just finished your oil painting session and you know you are going to paint again the next day, then you can save yourself some cleaning up time by simply wiping off any mass paint on your paint brushes, dipping the bristles in oil and then just letting them rest. The oil will keep the brushes moist until your next painting session, at which time you can simply give them a gentle wipe and you are good to go again.
Which Is More Beginner Friendly?
Acrylic paint is widely considered to be the most beginner friendly medium, as it is simple to use, requires very few materials and is much less intrusive on the senses compared to oils.
With that being said, acrylic paint dries very, very fast. This can be extremely difficult to handle as a beginner painter.
Oil paints will be responsive for much longer, with the drying time to touch being anywhere from a day to months.
All you need to start acrylic painting is a canvas, acrylic paints, paint brushes and water. There are however many other accessories to make your life as an acrylic painter easier, such as mediums to help increase the fluidity of your paint without watering it down.
If you are a complete beginner to painting, I would start with acrylics and then consider moving into oils. That is what I did.
Differences In Cleaning
Oil paints are strong and difficult to clean, so much so there are specially designed chemicals with the sole purpose of cleaning oil paints.
Oil paints and solvents can quickly deteriorate your paint brushes if not properly looked after.
Acrylic paints on the other hand generally require nothing more than some soapy water to completely clean your paint brushes and materials.
If you do not have a proper cleaning area or simply do not want the extra hassle of cleaning up after oil painting, then you may prefer to focus on acrylic painting for the time being.
Is Space An Issue?
The amount of studio space you have available may determine whether you focus on acrylics or oils.
I find oils require more room to move for a few reasons:
- The toxicity and odor of oil paints, mediums and solvents do not mix well with confined spaces. Ideally oil painting should be performed in a spacious, well ventilated studio.
- Oil paints are much more difficult to clean as compared to acrylic paints, which at most times just requires water.
So if you find yourself only having a small space to paint in, then you may favor acrylic paints due to the ease of clean up and the weaker odors.
Final Thoughts On Acrylic Versus Oil Painting
Oils and acrylics are both great mediums and you can be a great artists no matter which you decide to focus on. The fundamentals of painting are very similar across both mediums, the main difference is simply the techniques of applying the paint.
If you are completely new to painting and have no preference either way, then I would suggest you have a play around with acrylics first. They will allow you to learn all the general fundamentals of painting without having to deal with the nuisances of oil painting. Once you have grasped the basics of acrylics, I would then move onto oil paints.
There is nothing stopping you from painting in both mediums, however I would aim to focus on one of them. It is better to be a master of one medium than being decent across many mediums.
As far as watercolors go, I would treat that separately to acrylic and oil painting. It is widely considered to be the most difficult medium to pick up due to the volatile nature of water and the very limited amount of work you can perform on watercolor paper.
I hope you found this article useful. At the end of the day, it does not really matter which medium you decide to practice. You will learn most of the same fundamentals regardless. The most important thing is just to start painting!
What medium do you currently paint with? Please add any thoughts to the comment section below.