Art Blog

Paint Debate: Oil Vs. Acrylic and When To Use Each

If you’re interested in taking up painting, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is what type of paint you’d like to try first. For fine art painting, two of the key types of paint are acrylic and oil paint. But when it comes to oil vs. acrylic, which one is the best choice for your painting?

Tubes of Acrylic Paint

To the naked eye, these two types of paint may seem identical, but this is not the case. While both are used to create beautiful works of art, they have some important differences that you should consider as a painter. This guide is meant to demystify these two types of paint in order to help you decide which might be best suited for you and your unique style of painting. 

Let’s start with a brief description of what each type of paint is.

Acrylic paint

Tubes of Acrylic Paint

This is a fast-drying type of paint, wherein the paint’s pigment is suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion.

While the paint is still wet, it is liquid soluble; the paint can be diluted and brushes cleaned with water. Once the paint dries, however, it is water-resistant, with a plastic texture.

Acrylic paint can be manipulated with any number of “medium” mix-ins, gels or texture pastes to attain different finishes, from a high-gloss to a dull matte to sandy textures. 

Oil paint 

Palette With Oil Paints

This slow-drying variety of paint features paint pigment suspended in a solid oil, often linseed oil. The oil makes it non-water soluble, so to mix and dilute oil paint, you’ll need some sort of spirit solvent. The paint dries slowly and will ultimately “set,” but applying a solvent will break down the paint.

Key differences between oil and acrylic paint

Note: These differences primarily reflect traditional acrylic and oil paint rather than alternative versions of each (such as water-soluble oil paint or sticks). 

Solubility

Acrylic paint is water soluble, whereas traditional oil paint requires a paint-thinning solution, such as linseed oil, to mix. (Note: water-soluble oil paints do exist, which would not require linseed oil to mix).

Cleaning brushes

Acrylic paint brushes can be cleaned with water. Brushes used for oil paint, however, will repel water, making this an ineffective mode of cleaning. Instead, a paint-thinning solution such as turpentine is used to clean brushes. 

Speed of drying

Acrylic paint dries quickly; most portions of a painting will dry in minutes, and even the thickest portions of or applied acrylic will dry in an hour or so. On the other hand, oil paint dries very slowly. Depending on the thickness of the paint, it can take days for a portion of the painting to dry completely. 

Quality of dried paint

Once acrylic paint dries, it is permanent and cannot be altered; oil paint can be re-moistened with a medium and added to or altered.

Color of dried paint

Acrylic paint will typically dry slightly darker than when it looks when wet, which requires a bit of forethought in your painting. This means that you’ll have to mix a color that is slightly lighter than you’d like, as the paint will dry slightly darker. Oil paint, on the other hand, will dry pretty much the same color as applied.

Prepping your work surface

While acrylic can be painted directly on a work surface, oil paint absolutely requires a prepped work surface. Oil paints can corrode a work surface over time, so you always have to prime a canvas, board, or even paper before painting. Learn how to prime a canvas here.

Tubes of Paint in Jar and on Tray

What paint should you use?

While ultimately your painting medium of choice should be your own decision and reflect your artistic style and preference, here are some thoughts on which type of paint might be more appropriate in a variety of common situations.

When to use acrylic paint

When you’re first getting started with fine art painting.

Acrylic is definitely an easier medium to get started with; all you need is paint, water, a paintbrush and a work surface. It requires minimal investment and can allow you to just get painting far more quickly.

When you don’t have a lot of time or space to paint. 

Your setup with acrylic paint can be fairly minimal: palette, brush, water and work surface. Since the paint dries fairly quickly, you don’t have to leave your painting out to dry for a long time. An oil painting, on the other hand, will require a more involved setup, ventilation (for the turpentine or mineral spirits you’ll be using) and a safe space for the painting to slowly dry. 

When you want to create a mixed media painting.

Since acrylic is non-corrosive and water soluble, it is far easier to incorporate into a mixed media painting or piece of art, as it won’t damage or degrade other elements of the piece. 

If you’re painting a craft item.

If you’re taking your paint off the canvas and painting a craft item or atypical surface, be it a yoga mat or a pair of shoes, acrylic is a better choice. Its plasticity and low drying time makes it a clean, easy and effective way to paint off-canvas.

When to use oil paint 

When you want to paint in layers.

Because oil paint can be manipulated more than quick-drying acrylic paint, it is better for painting in layers and layers of color in the style of old masters. When built up in many layers, this can yield beautiful, vibrant paintings. It can be harder to attain a rich layered technique with acrylic, since it will dry solid and any layer painted on top of the previous will reflect the texture of the brush marks below.

When you want the colors you paint to look the same when they dry.

The fact that acrylic paint dries slightly darker than when applied can be difficult to wrap your mind around. If you think that this will cause a sense of dissonance in your artistic process, you may want to stick with oil paint, which will dry pretty much the same color as when applied. 

When painting an involved scene which will take more than one session to paint. 

If you’re creating a large or involved piece of art that will require many sessions to complete, oil paint may be a better choice than acrylic. Since it dries slower and can be re-moistened later with a solvent, it is better suited to long-term or highly involved painting projects. 

17 Comments

Worood AlShatti.

To me, ACRYLIC PAINTS are the BEST!
because I have no patience to wait until the oil paints get dry.

Reply
Goldie

I love acrylic ! Never used oil abit scared! Love this new club u have helpful information!

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CB

I will never go to the dark side (acrylics). I’ve painted in oil since 1972 and use a big, fat bar of SOAP, plus water to clean brushes, etc. No smelly turpentine is ever needed. I would never use that stuff. Use linseed oil to thin. Oil creates lucious, rich layers without that plastic look and smell. It allows for wonderful blending.

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Alexina Kois

Love your comment about using turpentine. I use Dawn (and hot water)! I figure if it will clean the oil off birds etc then it will clean my brushes! And it does! Linseed oil is great. Thanks!

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Lynette Seiter

I use heat set oils. The best of both. Smooth and blend able until you want to dry it. Love them.

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purrbollina

The information about acrylics is out of date. Golden does a line of heavy body acrylics that dry much slower blend beautifully like oils, plus you can add an acrylic drying retarder to your regular acrylics if needed. You can also do glazing layers with acrylics, just like oils: you add a glazing medium to liquid acrylics to dilute to your preferred saturation. Acrylics are a lot more flexible with paint effects than oils. If you don’t believe me go on to YouTube to see various methods demonstrated by different artists. As far as I’m concerned the only advantage oil paintings have is the ability to command higher prices due to traditional “fine art” snobbery on the part of buyers.

Reply
Raleigh

As stated, Golden Acrylics can be thinned as applied in layers to produce a deep rich glow.

Reply
fallen angle

The information above IS NOT out of date. It states at the beginning of the article that this comparison discusses basic acrylic and oil paints. In other words, water soluble paints were not included, acrylic retarders to increase drying times and other special types of paint were not discussed. This is to make the information applicable to everyone who paints – big budget v small budget, beginner vs master.

This “fine art snobbery” you talk about is not accurate at all. Prices of artwork are largely determined based on the artist’s reputation and where the work will be displayed. For example, artworks the are shown in galleries have been purchased from the conceptual meaning, not aesthetic value. Artwork shown in a person’s home is however bought for its aesthetic value. The pricing of the artwork also considers the cost of materials and the time is has taken to PAINT the artwork – not including drying time!

As someone who has worked with both acrylic and oil paint, I can say with certainty that I prefer oil paint. I love its long drying time; rich hues and ability to create subtle, realistic blends. As someone with a small budget for buying oil paint so I have found that applying a modelling paste underneath and creating a texture in that will reduce the amount of paint needed, thus reducing the cost. Anything can be used UNDER oil paint to create a mixed media painting.

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virginia mcgowan

TWO options oil or acrylic … correction grammar, not which is best, it’s which is better.

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Lindie

Nothing was said of, “water solvable oils”! Water soluble oils have all the handling qualities and the buttery feel of traditional oil color, but eliminates the odor of solvents in the studio by allowing you to clean your brushes, palette, and workspace with soap and water. Choose from your favorite brands such as Grumbacher, Holbein and Winsor & Newton.

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Lindie

Water soluble oils Opps, sorry for miss spelling..

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Frank

you absolutely CAN paint layers with acrylics. that’s what GLAZING liquid is for…

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Colin Griffin

I use them both on the same canvas or board then spray them with a wet coat of spray pack clear lacquer.

Any solvent left before the spray is applied gets vaporised with the lacquer solvent. I even use watercolor pencil give it all a spray lacquer tack coat then a good wet coat. I have never had a failure it is too easy. I have even used different brands of fast dry spray can lacquer.

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Carla Rae

I paint in layers with acrylics all the time, and it works beautifully. I can’t think of one good reason to switch to oils!

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Margaret

I find acrylics are good but irritating when they dry so quickly,
oils take so long, I have to do an underpainting before I can work with it, wait a day or so and come back to it, if I don’t the paint just seems difficult to work with. Once over initial hurdle it works well and looks great.

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Rose Thompson

I use oils and have tried different detergents/agents to clean my brushes. The best to date for me is using Murphy’s oil soap. It’s wonderfuL, smells great and really is gentle on one’s brushes and hands!

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Mario

I have painted with both, oils and acrylics. For the first 20 years with oils, and the next 20 years with acrylics, oils, oils over acrylics, and almost everything else.
I know the characteristics of both and expect them to behave as described (drying time). I really don’t see the problem that some people have with any of them.
My final paintings are just as good in both. The little differences are insignificant.
My main reason to use acrylics is that most of those paintings take me 4 or 5 hours to complete, all layers. I can start in the afternoon and be completely finished by 8 or 9 pm. Oils, on the other hand take longer,but allow for very subtle blending when the painting needs it.
Acrylics also allow the easy use of other media. Try crayon over ink over acrylics over Krylon aerosol background, Crazy? Yes!! I have even used Sharpie color markers over acrylic. I bet Leonardo would have tried all modern paints and probably liked them as much as oil or more.

Reply

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