How to Choose Between Acrylics and Oil paints

acrylics vs oil paint

If you are a new or inexperienced painter, one of the first things you will need to decide is what you want to paint with. Most painters will be deciding between acrylic and oil paint, and while both are great options, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. This guide will help you to decide which type of paint is best for you and the work that you want to create.

What are oil and acrylic paints

Oil paint is made up of paint pigment suspended in solid oil (usually linseed). These paints are non-water soluble and require a spirit solvent to mix and dilute them. Acrylic paint uses synthetic polymer emulsion to suspend pigment. This type of paint can achieve a variety of different finishes by adding gels and pastes to the paint. Oil based paints are the more traditional of the two, and have been used by painters for hundreds of years.

Oil paint vs. acrylic paint – pros and cons

  • Drying time - perhaps the biggest difference between the two is drying time. Oil paint can take days or even weeks to dry, whereas acrylic paint can be dry in a matter of minutes. The fast drying time makes it more difficult to mix acrylic paints, which might be frustrating for novice painters who will want to take more time getting their shades just right. With oil you can continue to mix colors for days, which will allow you to tweak them and achieve subtle variations.
  • Brush cleaning - You’ll need to move quick on cleaning your brushes if you’re if you’re using acrylics, due to the aforementioned drying time. This can mean that you’ll need to stop painting to rinse off brushes, which might interrupt your creative flow. Oil paint on the other hand will give you lots more time to clean brushes, but you’ll need to use toxic turpentine or mineral spirits to tackle it. Acrylic can be cleaned with water, which is easier and much less harmful.

  • Color – Oil paints have more pigment in them, so the outcome is richer and more intense colors. Oil paints are also true to themselves as they dry, so you won’t see a difference between wet and dry colors. Acrylics darken as they dry, so you’ll need to bear that in mind when mixing colors.

  • Cost – Acrylic paints are cheaper than oil based paints, so are often more appealing to hobbyists and art students. You can also save money due to acrylic paint’s versatility: dilute with water and you can use them almost like watercolors.

  • Durability – we know that oil paints can last for hundreds of years, due to the long standing tradition of using this medium. However, they do discolor over time, which doesn’t happen with acrylics. Of course, acrylics haven’t been around for anywhere near as long, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll stand the test of time either.

How to choose the right paint for you

It will ultimately come down to your own artistic preferences and your painting style, but there are a few points to consider when selecting the right paint for you.

If you’re a slow and deliberate painter, oil is probably the best medium for you. You won’t have to rush to beat the super-fast drying time of acrylic paint, so you can really take your time perfecting your painting. This is great for more involved works which take several sessions to complete. It’s also easier to build layers with oil, which will give you a better chance of creating vividly colorful paintings. However, due to the toxicity of the substances needed to clean oil paints from brushes, if you have children or pets in your home you might want to stick to acrylic paint and invest in a retarder to slow down the drying time.

You’ll also need to think about whether you’ll want to use other media in your artwork. Acrylic paint is non-corrosive and water soluble, so it won’t damage or degrade other materials used in your artwork. Acrylic is also the better choice if you plan to work off-canvas on a craft item or on a different surface. The shorter drying time and the plasticity of the paint makes it a cleaner and easier media to work with, so should probably be your media of choice.

If you are just dipping your toe into the world of painting, it might be more sensible to invest in cheaper acrylic paint to start with. The difference in price is significant, so it might be a good idea to work your way up to oil when you know you want to continue painting. You’ll also need less materials to get started with acrylic paint; as long as you have your paint, some water, and a work surface, you are good to go. With oil you’ll need solvents and you’ll also need to prime your work surface before beginning to paint.

Whether you choose oil or acrylic, take your time experimenting with your chosen medium and make sure that it’s right for you. There are no hard and fast rules, and equally there is no wrong answer, so take your time to work out which option makes the most sense to you. 

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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