Acrylic vs oil paint: what are the key differences?
Acrylic and oil paints both have benefits and challenges. We've weighed up the pros and cons of each to help you choose the right medium for your art
Acrylic and oil paints both have benefits and challenges. We weigh up the pros and cons of both to help you choose the right medium for your art
When it comes to choosing your painting medium, acrylics and oils are both very popular choices with artists.
If you’re new to painting or an art student, you’re more likely to have tried acrylic paints as they’re more beginner-friendly. As you progress and become a more experienced artist, you’re likely to want to have a go at oils. But are they better? And how do you know if they’re right for you?
For example, if you enjoy working quickly then acrylic paints would suit you. If you love blending your work then oils could be the better choice.
In this guide, we’re going to look at some of the pros and cons of these two mediums to help you choose the right one for your painting style. As you develop as a painter, you may enjoy using both!
Acrylic vs oil paint: which is best?
Acrylic paint pros
1. It’s fast-drying
Acrylic paint dries much more quickly than oils, which is why it’s often used in schools and art classes. Acrylics are popular with artists who like to work quickly and don’t want to wait hours or even days between painting sessions. If you want to produce your paintings at speed, acrylic paints are an excellent choice.
Acrylics can be dry to the touch in 20 minutes, while oils can take days to reach that stage. It can even take years for an oil painting to fully dry out!
2. Acrylic paints don’t smell
Unlike oil paint, acrylic paint does not have a strong odour. It does have a scent, but it’s much milder than oils.
Oil paints smell particularly strong if you’re using thinners such as turpentine or white spirit.
3. Acrylics are less toxic
Oil paints can give off harmful fumes when combined with various mediums and should always be used in a well-ventilated room.
A lot of acrylic paints are non-toxic, making them more suitable for children to use (check the packaging before you buy). However, they can still give off fumes and may cause skin irritation. Open a window while you’re using them and make sure you wash off any paint that gets on your skin.
4. All acrylic paints are water-mixable
You don’t need to use a thinner for acrylic paint – you can just use water! Alternatively, you can experiment with acrylic painting mediums.
Traditional oil paints are not water-mixable and need to be blended with either a solvent or oil to change the consistency. Water-mixable oil paints are growing in popularity because they don’t require solvents and dry more quickly than traditional oils.
More like this
5. Colours stay bright
Acrylic paints come in a range of vivid colours – almost any shade you can imagine! They’re vibrant and easy to mix.
This is a big advantage acrylics have over oils, which can yellow over time.
6. Acrylics don’t get as ‘muddy’
The term ‘muddy’ refers to oil paintings where too many colours have been used at one time. If you mix more than a couple of oil colours together or overwork one section of your painting it can begin to look muddy.
Acrylics don’t tend to suffer from this, as the underlying layers dry out more quickly.
7. It’s easy to correct any mistakes
Acrylic paint is a very forgiving medium. If you make a mistake, you can simply wait for the paint to dry and paint over the top.
Acrylic paints are hugely versatile, which is part of their appeal. They can even be applied very thickly to your paper or canvas using a palette knife to resemble oil paints. They can also be thinned so that they behave more like watercolours.
You can combine acrylic paints with mediums and additives to produce interesting textures in your painting. For example, you can add structure gel to make it thicker, crackle paste to give your painting a cracked surface or sand texture gel to introduce a rough texture.
Another advantage of acrylic paint is that it can be used on a variety of surfaces. You can apply it to wood, fabric or even glass. Acrylic paint can also be used for acrylic paint pouring or screen printing when mixed with special mediums.
Acrylic paints last well over time and won’t yellow or crack like oils. The colours are very stable and are unlikely to fade much, especially if they are well-cared for.
Keep acrylic paintings in warm conditions where possible, as they can become brittle at low temperatures.
If you’re interested in learning more about the durability of acrylic paints and oil paints, this guide from justpaint.org contains lots of fascinating technical details.
Acrylic paint sets are widely available and generally good value for money. It’s possible to pick up a set of paints from any art shop and you can start using them right away without any need for extra additives or mediums.
We’d recommend looking for brands like Winsor & Newton’s Galeria range, which offers excellent quality for the price.
Acrylic paint cons
1. It’s fast-drying
Acrylic paint’s biggest strength is also a massive weakness. It can be more difficult to blend fast-drying acrylic paint, which is frustrating.
You’ll find that your paint dries quickly on the palette too unless you are using a stay wet palette. Another way to fix this problem is to mix in some slow-drying medium to keep your paints wet for longer.
2. It’s harder to blend
While acrylic paint has lots of great qualities, when it comes to blending oil is king. Experienced painters can blend acrylics so smoothly that they closely resemble oils, but this is a big stretch for artists at the start of their painting journey.
3. Colours darken as they dry
Most acrylic paints will darken a little as they dry, which can make it tricky to match colours while the paint is wet. You can compensate for this by adding a small amount of white paint to your colours when you mix them.
4. Acrylic paints can ruin your brushes
It’s so easy to ruin your paint brushes if you’re not careful! If acrylic paint dries on your brushes, it can be very difficult to remove and makes the bristles harden.
Clean the brushes well after each use. It’s a good idea to keep some scrap paper or kitchen towel to hand to wipe away any excess paint. If you’re using a few different brushes while you’re painting, you can dip them in water occasionally to stop the paint from drying on them.
5. Acrylic paints are hard to clean up when dry
While acrylic paints are water-soluble, they become more water-resistant as they dry, which can make them a nightmare to clean up if they get on your clothes or other surfaces.
If you spill acrylic paints or get them on your clothes, try to clean up the mess as quickly as possible before it gets the chance to harden!
6. Primers are needed for some surfaces
If you want to use your acrylic paints on surfaces such as metal or glass, it may be necessary to use a primer so that your paint will stick to it.
Find out what acrylic paint will not stick to with Painting Gal’s handy guide.
7. Cheap paints can ruin your painting experience
Resist the urge to buy the cheapest paints you can find. Low-priced acrylic paints don’t have as much pigment and you’ll need several layers to get good coverage. This can really spoil your enjoyment of this beautiful medium.
If you can, buy paints from a reputable brand such as Daler-Rowney, Liquitex or Winsor & Newton. It will make a big difference to your painting experience!
8. Improving takes time
You can pick up an acrylic paint set and start painting immediately, but becoming proficient takes time. Be patient with yourself and take the time to learn from books or online guides – it’ll pay off!
Find a simple painting project
Ready to get painting? Take a look at these fabulously easy acrylic painting ideas.
Oil paint pros
1. No need to rush
While acrylic artists have to rush to get their paint on the canvas, oil painters can afford to take their time. Oil paints dry very slowly, allowing plenty of time to work.
The drying time varies depending on how much paint you’ve used and the room temperature. It can take over a day for oil paint to be dry to the touch.
If you’re into oil painting, it’s a good idea to have more than one painting on the go at any time so that you can switch between them while waiting for the paint to dry.
2. Colours stay open for longer
Acrylic paints dry very quickly, which can be frustrating when you’re working on a painting. You can end up having to re-mix colours because they’ve dried up while you paint.
Oil paints stay open for longer, meaning that you can keep your colours consistent. This is particularly useful if you’re working on a large painting.
3. Colour matching is easy
Oil paints don’t tend to change much as they dry, so it’s much easier to match colours on your painting. You can feel confident that the paint you’ve mixed on your palette will look the same on your finished painting.
4. Create beautiful blending
Smooth blending is one area where oil painting really excels. While it’s possible to blend acrylic paints, it’s considerably easier to blend oils. If this is a quality that you value in your painting, then oils are definitely the right choice for you.
You can blend so perfectly with oils that brushstrokes seem to just melt away. It’s extremely difficult to do this with acrylic paints.
Use the ‘alla prima’ technique to blend colours easily while the paint is still wet.
5. Layer up your paints with ease
You can build up thick layers of oil paints to create paintings with lots of texture.
You can also create luminous effects using the glazing technique, which involves adding a transparent layer of paint over an opaque layer. The results can be truly spectacular!
Just remember the ‘thick over thin’ rule when you’re working with oils: paint thicker layers over thinner layers to prevent cracking.
Oil paintings can last for centuries with proper care and if they’ve been painted using the correct technique. Be aware that if you don’t allow each layer of paint to dry fully then the upper layers of the painting can crack.
Oil paint cons
1. Uses toxic solvents
Unless you are using water-mixable oil paints, oil painting involves the use of solvents, which are both toxic and highly flammable.
The solvents can irritate your skin, so some artists like to wear protective gloves while they paint with oils. They also give off fumes, so make sure you work somewhere with good ventilation.
It’s possible to buy citrus-based thinners and odourless solvents, which have less of a strong smell and solvent-free gels are becoming more widely available.
One of the biggest problems with oil paints is that it’s easy for your paintings to become muddy. This is when you use too many colours together and they become a dull-looking mess. Your paintings can also get muddy when you overwork an area of the canvas.
You can prevent muddiness by limiting the number of colours that you mix together to create a shade. A good rule of thumb is to avoid mixing more than three colours together. This will help your colours stay bright and clear.
3. It’s tricky to fix mistakes
It’s much harder to correct mistakes in an oil painting than it is in an acrylic painting. If you mess up an oil painting, you can scrape away some of the paint with a painting knife and then wipe it away with a cloth and some linseed oil. Once that’s done, you’ll need to wait for it to dry, which could be as long as a couple of days.
For acrylic painting, you can often paint directly over the top of your mistake as soon as it’s dry and you will only have to wait a couple of hours at most to fix your painting.
4. They’re slow-drying
The drying speed can be frustrating if you’re keen to get on with the next stage of your painting, but there’s very little you can do to speed up the process.
If you make sure your painting is in a warm and dry place, it will dry a little more quickly. Just ensure that the space is well-ventilated.
You can also try using acrylic for your underpainting (base layer) and applying oils over the top. This will dry more quickly and allow you to start your oil painting much sooner.
5. Cleaning up and setting up takes longer
Oils can produce rich and glorious paintings, but you will need to spend more time setting up your equipment and cleaning it away. For example, brushes should be cleaned first with turpentine and then with soap.
Oil paint vs acrylic: which is the right one for you?
Acrylic paints and oils both have advantages and disadvantages – and most artists will have a preference for one or the other.
When it comes to speed, acrylic paints are definitely the winner, while oils are the best for creating beautifully blended paintings.
Whichever you choose, both have real benefits and we’d recommend trying both as you progress as an artist.
Get to grips with gouache
Is illustration more your style? The matt finish of gouache paint makes it a popular choice for illustrators – and it’s very easy for beginners to pick up too.
Experiment with a new painting medium using Gathered’s beginner’s guide to gouache.
Sarah Orme is a UK-based linocut printmaker, digital editor, feature writer and award-winning podcaster. She's been editing the sewing and art sections of Gathered.how – and before that our sister website calmmoment.com – for over 3 years. She’s the host of Gathered’s We’ve Made It podcast and A Calmer Life podcast. She’s a keen crafter and artist and loves creating DIY tutorials for Gathered. Sarah has previously written features for The Guardian, In The Moment Magazine, Project Calm Magazine, countryfile.com, radiotimes.com and yourhomestyle.uk. She enjoys designing her own unique lino prints and dreams of opening her own online shop. She shares her work @sarahormeprints
SALE NOW ON - Save up to 75% when you subscribe!