Lesson 2 – What Painting Medium Should You Use?

Welcome to lesson 2 of the Painting For Beginners online course. In this lesson we will learn about the different painting mediums.

Acrylics, Oils Or Watercolors?

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.

There is no correct answer to this and all three mediums have different characteristics which may or may not suit you.

Acrylic Paint – The Beginner’s Choice

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, David Hockney 1970-1
Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, David Hockney 1970

Acrylics are widely favored by those just starting out with painting as they are easy to use and often cheaper than oils and watercolors.

Acrylics may suit you if:

  • You are a complete beginner and do not want to worry yourself with the complexities of oil and watercolor painting.
  • You want an easy cleanup time.
  • You are painting on a limited budget.
  • You enjoy experimenting with mixed media.
  • You are sensitive to the harsh chemicals involved with oil painting.

Personally, I started with acrylics many years ago. Acrylics were a great medium to use whilst I was learning the basics of painting and the general fundamentals.

However as I developed, I started to feel constrained by the limitations of acrylics, such as:

  • The paint dries fast, VERY fast. You can extend the drying time of your acrylic paints with certain additional mediums, however not by much. This can be difficult to deal with as you only have a limited amount of time where your paint will be responsive on the canvas. You are therefore limited to painting in a very direct style. Blending and glazing are not that effective for acrylic painting.
  • Some colors darken as they dry (the colors which are lighter tend to have a greater change). This can be very frustrating, as you will think you have the painting spot on when it is wet but then the color harmony slightly adjusts once it has dried.

I currently paint in oils and also dabble in watercolors, which we will discuss below.

Oil Paints – The Master’s Choice

Claude Monet, Etretat, Cliff Of d'Aval, Sunset, 1885
Claude Monet, Etretat, Cliff Of d’Aval, Sunset, 1885

Oil paints are the most widely used medium among professional artists for a number of reasons:

  • They are versatile. You can vary the drying time and consistency of your paint dramatically using paint thinners and additional oil. This allows you to work with a wide range of painting techniques, including blending, glazing and scumbling.
  • They were favored by the all-time greats of painting. It is hard to argue a downside of using oil paints when so many amazing artists used them to such success.
  • Oil paintings seem to be held in higher regard by art collectors compared to acrylic paintings (there are some exceptions to this of course).

You really cannot go wrong with oil paints. If you are not sure where to start, I would suggest either jumping straight into oil painting or starting with acrylics with a view of jumping over to oils once you are more developed. There are many great acrylic painters, but many of them paint in a very contemporary style. The traditional painting techniques which were used by the old masters are much better suited to oil painting.

If you think oil painting is too complex for you, then I urge you to reconsider. There are really only a few ‘rules’ which you need to understand in oil painting and the rest is very similar to acrylic painting.

Also, some of you may be deterred by the harsh chemicals of oil painting. I almost had to go back to acrylic painting due to the extremely harsh smell of turpentine, but then I become aware of odorless solvent which, as the name suggests, is much less intrusive on the senses. Once the harsh turpentine is taken out of the mix, then oil painting is much more appealing.

Next we will discuss watercolors.

Watercolors – The Untamed Beauty

Winslow Homer, Sailing The Catboat
Winslow Homer, Sailing The Catboat

Watercolors are often considered to be the most difficult to pick up due to the untamed nature of water and the fact you are not able to do much re-working of errors (as the paper can only absorb so much water and you are not able to thickly paint over areas). However, if mastered, watercolors can produce stunningly elegant paintings.

For this reason I would recommend you start out with either acrylics or oils before venturing into watercolors. With that being said, watercolors can act as a fantastic compliment to your oil and acrylic painting. Watercolors train a different skill set to the other mediums. It will help you paint delicately and accurately.

For example, John Singer Sargent was famous for his meticulous portraits using oil paints, but he used watercolors to paint impressionistic and loose landscapes. These watercolor paintings probably felt very refreshing for Sargent who would have been accustomed to the lengthy and tedious portrait painting sessions.

What Should You Go With?

Usually I would say there is no right answer here and you should make your own decision, however as you are probably learning how to paint and looking for some direction, I will give you my personal opinion.

If you are a complete beginner to painting and have no experience with other creative mediums – start with acrylics.

If you are someone familiar with art and painting but have very limited experience, go with oils unless for some reason you really want to use acrylics (say for example you want to paint in a very contemporary style).

Whilst you are learning acrylic or oil painting, you may want to dabble with watercolors. I would not start with watercolors unless you are extremely confident in your ability to learn.

Now this is not to say you must choose a medium and ignore the rest. I strongly encourage you to try them all at least to some extent. But you should have a preferred medium.

It is better to be a master of one than average at many.

End Of Lesson 2

Awesome work! Hopefully this lesson cleared up any confusion you may have had regarding the different painting mediums.

What medium do you think you will be focusing on? Let me know in the comments. 

In the next lesson, you will learn all about color theory (my favorite area).

Regards

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.


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57 comments on “Lesson 2 – What Painting Medium Should You Use?”

  1. Hi Dan,
    I tried to find art lessons in my area and found oil painting lessons so that is what I went with. A couple of years ago acrylic lessons became available an I was so excited but I just could not get the blending I wanted to I gave away my acrylic paints and went back to my oils. I will stick with them.

    Reply
    • I had a similar experience, started out with oils and really enjoy that, but I do want to get better. (And yes, I’m very messy). Then the Paint parties became all the vogue so I went to one with a friend. I was really struggling because I couldn’t get the colors to blend. The instructor observed me for a bit and then said “You paint with oils, don’t you?”

      Reply
  2. I’ve started with oils and I’m used to them now so I’m happy to stick with them.
    thanks for the clarity around personal choice with medium and there being no right or wrong choice.

    Reply
  3. All good advice for the beginner.
    I’ve dabbled in all the above except oils! I was leaving oil painting to learn last after I get the hang of the other mediums. I have so many mediums now I didn’t want to buy any more yet. My study is getting cluttered!
    Well you didn’t mention pastel, that’s what I’m focusing on besides drawing at the moment

    Reply
    • Hi Glen
      I started with acrylics then a year later tried oils, they are very different !! The technics are not the same and because I was used to acrylic, it held me back on trying to learn oils. !!
      I am not crazy on the watercolors for some reason, I just have no interest in trying..
      I tried Soft Pastels. Wow, I fell in love immediately! Naturally, Pastel painting is much more expensive than oil, acrylic or watercolors!!
      However one can not deny the heart. So Pastels it has been now for only a short time of 5 months.
      I watch Youtube video after video… I am in a couple of Facebook Pastel groups and I learn something every day!!
      Just thought I would share that with you. 🙂
      Happy painting in whatever medium you are now using.
      Cheryl

      Reply
  4. Hi Dan, thanks for the insight into different mediums. I’ve been working in acrylics for all the obvious reasons you mentioned but will be starting in oils soon. We have moved so all my art materials are everywhere. I put them in such a safe place that I can’t find them. I’ll be doing a workshop with Elize Bezuidenhout middle September and will hopefully be able to give a informative opinion on oils. Thanks for the lessons.
    Regards,
    Hetta Ludik

    Reply
  5. Dan, I have been painting off and on for several years. I always used oils for paintings. Now where I live is not going to work for oils as I have to set up and put away because my kitchen table is my studio. I do have a little store room I can keep supplies and let painting dry on easel. I mostly do landscape paintings and some still life. My most difficult problem in the fast drying time. Trying to learn working in a small area at one time and other techniques.

    Reply
    • Hi Sandy. Water mixables are great, especially if you are sensitive to the harsh chemicals used in regular oil painting.

      With that being said, I still prefer regular oil paints. But that is just me 🙂

      Regards

      Dan

      Reply
      • Hi Dan you didn’t mention pastels ? I started with acrylics then went to water colour but also dabble in pastels . I particularly like doing an under painting in water colour on pastel paper then finishing with pastels . I would be happy to hear your comments ? Thanks

        Reply
        • Hi Julie. I probably should mention pastels as they are a fantastic medium. I guess for this post I was only considering painting mediums. But I will consider adding pastels in the future when I have time.

          Thanks for mentioning it!

          Regards

          Dan Scott

          Reply
          • Hi Dad
            Thanks for the lessons.
            I started acrylic painting over a year ago and was following tutorials on Youtube.
            Then bought all 40 colors of Artisan water-soluble oils paint. I dabble in the occasional
            tutorial here and there but with not much success.
            Then about 2 months ago I found soft pastels!!! And fell in LOVE!
            Even though they are dirty and hard to store and the pastels themselves are needing to be cleaned and it is so time-consuming. Not to mention Expensive!!!!
            I have an absolute admiration for pastel artists.!!
            So my first choice would be pastels.
            Then followed with Acrylics as I have a large variety of equipment. Plus
            many hours of lessons and about 80 paintings done so far.
            Thank you very much!
            Cheryl
            A wannabe artist. (Just for pleasure).

  6. This information just helped make up my mind what I must do. Thank you! I painted with oil in college, then chose watercolor as my main medium. After failing miserably, I became determined to learn how to use the elusive medium. I did nothing but watercolors for four years before getting even one that met my satisfaction. Then, I moved on to other mediums including oil, pastel, and acrylic. The past five years, I’ve mostly worked en plein air in sketch books with ink and watercolor. I just picked up a canvas I had begun long ago with acrylic and am having a difficult time with it. Because of this lesson, next time I work on it, I am going to cover what I have done with oil paint and finally finish it!

    Reply
    • Hi Karen glad this lesson helped you get some direction! At the end of the day it does not really matter, but I remember being very lost with what medium to focus on in my early days.

      If you need any help with learning oils let me know!

      Dan

      Reply
  7. Hi Dan,thank you for explaining the uses of different brushes and other art supplies. But I am a bit confused of the uses of palette knife. Besides of mixing colour and creating waves from the beach, what other effect can a palette knife create?

    Also, if I am going to paint a huge classroom borad, what medium is best for me? I used hard pastel last year, but it is quite ineffective. I spent almost 2 weeks to finish the whole borad. Is acrylic a good choice? But it might be too costly to buy a lot of paint… Can you give me some advice on this?

    Reply
  8. Hi Dan – I also use water mixable oil paints and paint on gessobord panels. I’ve been oil painting for about a year and a half. I like being able to clean up with soap and water. It’s also easy to wipe any mistakes.

    Reply
  9. Hi, I’ve used mostly acrylics over the years. I want to learn all I can about oils, I think that’s where my heart is going. I like the look of texture in oil paintings. To achieve some texture in my acrylics, I purchased some mediums to mix in with my paint to add some depth to the paintings.

    Reply
  10. Hi, I started with oils and still I love oils only. I don’t enjoy acrylics. Some contemporary artists around me tried to convince me for acrylics but my answer was it’s my choice and I love it as my approach is to learn Classic realistic.

    Reply
  11. I find that oils suit my temperament of taking things slow. They will patiently wait for me while I mull over each move! I also like the smell of linseed oil and don’t mind turps either despite being asthmatic.
    I did try acrylics much later but get completely frustrated with the speed of drying and the many attempts it takes to get a decent blending. So is it really faster to execute? Not for me.
    Watercolour is another whole story I don’t want to get into. So there you have it – oils it is for me!

    Reply
  12. Interesting and I agree that making a choice about a primary medium is a good Idea for most people, but I still like all three! Just me.

    Reply
  13. Well, I thought I knew what medium I wanted to use and you confirmed it – acrylics. Thanks. It is good to be reminded of the characteristics of each and the limitations of acrylics.

    Reply
  14. I paint with watercolors which I love…..tried acrylics and did not like it…never tried oils ….don’t have the budget for that so I will stick with what I love. I am always learning but I love to find different subjects to focus on…now it is lighthouses. I seem to be drawn to them. Thank you so much for your tutorial……I look forward to more with you.

    Reply
  15. I used to paint with turpentine but became intolerant to it. I tried odourless turps but that did not help much either. I now use Liquin and that works fine.

    Reply
  16. I painted with acrylics years ago and recently began to dabble in watercolor. I have been intimidated by oils, likely because I have not had experience or training in how to use them. I would like to continue with watercolor painting for now and maybe venture out to oils in the future.

    Reply
    • Thanks Edith. Yes oils seem intimidating at first but once you have a grasp of the oil painting ‘rules’ they seem much easier to handle.

      Regards

      Dan

      Reply
  17. Hi Dan, I started off with a student quality watercolour set, a small watercolour pad and a couple of cheapish brushes. I got a how to book from the library. Not the best way to start a love affair with art! However, I have tried oil and acrylics but found I have no affinity with either. So I’m still using watercolour with an upgrade to professional quality paint and a shelf full of books and plenty of demonstrations online. I have a lot left to learn, but I’m enjoying the journey learning gradually more as I go on. I also like to use pastel pencils and coloured pencils which, for good reason, have become very popular. I paint purely for enjoyment and relaxation and watercolour seems to be the right pace for me even if the results are not perfect. I’m learning all the time.

    Reply
  18. Watercolor was difficult for me…mistakes couldn’t be completely removed. With oils I just paint over. And the texture of the paint appeals to me- it’s a sensuous medium. I do use acrylics in painting a background or a first layer.
    Thanks for helping so many…

    Reply
  19. Your lessons were meant for people like myself who haven’t really started painting yet. I started trying to draw and use coloring pencils in December. I enjoyed it so I got some tubes of watercolor. I tried to paint some of the Oak leaves still around but found that I didn’t have the knowledge to mix shades of brown. Still want to though. Looking forward to the next lesson.

    Reply
  20. Acrylics was my first to try when I started painting and then I ventured into watercolors. I’ve never used oils before but one of these days once I have the money to splurge on more art supplies I will definitely be trying oil paints out. I think I’ll be starting with acrylic paints just so I can get the basics and fundamentals down pact first before I try anything else.

    Reply
  21. HI, Dan:
    I have played with watercolour and a little with oil pastels, but I am finding that acrylic suit me best at the moment. I am, a complete beginner and acrylic is more forgiving than the other mediums that I’ve tried.

    Reply
  22. Oil painting is what I’ve chosen – I started to learn from my father who became quite a good plein air landscape artist in his 70s. When he passed away in 2009 I stopped painting. Just recently, as I have all of his supplies, I have started trying to learn again. I appreciate your book, it is very helpful. I have also gotten good information from YouTube and from Kevin Macpherson’s books. Its a constant learning process and I think one of the most important things for me is to remember just to keep trying no matter how things turn out!
    Anyway I was glad to discover your site and thank you for all the great information .

    Reply
  23. I started taking oil painting lessons last year but due to illness and cost of lessons I am unable to return this year.
    I’m trying to get basics of drawing.
    I also had a few lessons in pastels.
    I also like acrylic but not sure how long I will continue to use them.

    Reply
  24. Hi there Dan. I have mostly used acrylic and tried watercolour. I always have wanted to do oils but had many tell me it’s too hard to master. So I never ventured. I got annoyed with acrylic drying too fast and it always seems too flat to me. Lacking depth plus the blending never looks quite that smooth, and well I never seemed to paint anything grandious. It just seemed to lack something. Watercolour I like for the beautiful delicacy and softness however when I tried it seemed to resemble a big puddled mess. Urrgh!! So I think my medium of choice will be oils. I’m excited about that but nervous as hell as I’ve never done them before. After what I considered failing at painting I went back to drawing, graphite sketching, oil pastels and soft pastels. I love to draw and Imsketch freehand mostly and sometimes use the grid method for greater proportional accuracy. I would love to do portraiture in oils especially.

    Reply
    • Hi Rochelle

      Oils are really not as difficult as they seem. Once you get a feel for the paint, they are actually really easy to handle (especially compared to watercolors).

      Dan

      Reply
  25. An accurate description for each medium – thank you.
    I have tried using acrylics, oils and watercolours. The latter is my favourite. I seem to have had more satisfactory work with w/c. I love colour and I enjoy the w/c process. I’ve also been fortunate to have found a wonderful teacher.
    Sincerely
    Amelia Gordon.

    Reply
  26. Ah, found the bottom of the comments. I have begun to take a local six week acrylic course and am enjoying it so far. I do have some water colours and will be trying them again in a months time. I did one oil painting last winter when I was away but to do oils at home, I don’t want the expense of buying the paints, so for now I will stick with acrylics and maybe watercolours.

    Reply
  27. I thought acrylics would be my choice. they still might be, but I really love watercolors and am experimenting with them now.

    Reply
  28. I have all mediums, and very much want to learn them all. At this point, however, I realize I need to focus on one; so I pick oils. I’ve tried them a few times, and have much difficulty with the alla prima method. Can’t seem to apply a second layer without mixing it with the first. Technique I suppose. Hopefully I can learn .

    Reply
  29. Hi Dan. I have been painting in acrylics – I may try oils sometime when I have more experience. I use a palette that stays wet and it keeps the paint wet for quite awhile. Blending is not easy because it dries so quickly on the canvas but other than that I can fix my mistakes which is nice since I’m a beginner.

    Reply
  30. After many years of painting with acrylics I have found it possible to replicate oil painting techniques. People often assume my paintings are oil paintings so it is possible to achieve the same appearance with some practise.

    Reply
  31. Like Joy Brown my acrylics could be mistaken for oils. Because most people think oil paintings are superior to acrylics I switched to oils. Oils sell better in my experience. Does not matter what medium is used a knowledgeable buyer is aware of good art when he/she sees it.

    Reply
  32. I will be changing from Oils to Acrylics as my husband and I will be taking to the Road. We are retired and it is now time to travel in an RV. Continuing in oils will not be a good choice basically because of the drying time required as well as the stationary time that is needed… They don’t need to be bumped and jostled.

    Reply
  33. Before I went south for the winter last year I did a sip and paint (3 hours) in acrylics. I was pretty happy with the result. I then found an oil class when I was away which was for 6 weeks, 3 hours once a week. I’m a beginner so was hesitant about taking it but it turned out ok. I also bought some water color paints from someone down there and tried a bit of that, however without instruction. When I got home, I wanted to continue to paint and found an acrylic class not from from me that gets together once a week for 4 hours, with instruction. I must admit though, that I do get frustrated with my canvas drying up quickly. Since I’ve been home though I haven’t brought out the water colours and I don’t plan on buying any oils. I’ve been pretty happy with the 4 that I’ve painted so I’ll be sticking to a acrylic at home and maybe take the oil class when I go south again this winter. Can’t afford to do both oil and acrylics.

    Reply
  34. Hi Dan, what is your opinion of underpainting in acrylic and then using oils. I find the cost of decent oils and the slowness in drying frustrating but I do love oil painting.
    Also, if I do underpaint in oil which medium could I use to thin the oil and dry fairly quickly? I have tried diluting with turps but I’m not that happy with the result.
    Thanks
    Jenny

    Reply
  35. I am not a real beginner as I have been painting on and off for several years now. My preferred choice of medium is oils with soft pastels coming in a close second, followed by acrylics. I have dabbled a bit in watercolour and love the effects you can get using them. Recently I have been using more acrylics as I like the fact that they dry quickly – I am an alla prima kind of painter, and do paint very quickly and can easily finish a painting in an hour or so. I signed up for these lessons as I believe there is always something we can learn, even in a beginners class, and it ‘grounds’ us to know that we can and will always be striving to improve our art. So a big thank you from me.

    Reply
  36. I have worked mostly with acrylucs so far. I love pen and wash. I would like to learn more about watercolour techniques and improve on mine. I think i will focus on using oils for this course. I have painted once using oils, i can see why they are good to work with when blending in particular. Again need to learn the techniques and how to apply them. My focus for this course will be working with oils.

    Reply
  37. Hey Dan,
    I just wanted to say-as I’m still a beginner – that acrylic painting is my choice..but the problem is that I don’t think these kind of mediums are available here in my living area so personally I don’t really know what to start with for now …do you have any suggestions for me ??!

    Reply

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