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Toolkit Acrylic vs Oil Paint – The Main Differences

Kathleen

What is the difference between Acrylic and Oil Paints | Drying Time | Solvent or Water | Lightfastness | Flexibility | Thick or Thin LayersAcrylic vs Oil Paint

Before heading into the acrylic vs oil paint discussion, you might want to have a look at our previous Toolkit article – Color Meditation – Meditative Painting With Watercolor. It’s filled with fun and relaxing meditation exercises using watercolor that you can easily do everyday. Let the soothing flow of water and pigment sooth your mind and soul.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

What is the difference between Acrylic and Oil Paints?
Do you like your paints to dry fast or slow?
Solvent vs Water – Acrylic or Oil Paint
Lightfastness – Oil Paint vs Acrylic
Flexibility – Acrylic Painting vs Oil Painting
Do you like to work in thin layers or thick layers?


What is the difference between Acrylic and Oil Paints?

Feeling stuck not knowing how to start your painting journey? So many ideas you want to unleash on the canvas but don’t know how to choose between oil paint vs acrylic? Visiting an art store to have a look around without really knowing exactly what you want can be quite an overwhelming experience. You might even end up buying things you don’t end up using. I feel you, there are just so many options out there! 

To help you come to a decision or at least have a better understanding of which one is better suited for you, I’ll be talking about the main differences between the two regular types of acrylic and oil. We don’t have to do a deep dive into the modern water-mixable oils, quick-drying oils, or more experimental acrylics just yet. Let’s study the basics for starters. 

Do you like your paints to dry fast or slow?

Acrylics dry quickly and oils slowly. The first thing you want to ask yourself is if you like to work with paint that dries quickly or if you prefer one that you can take your time with and work on for hours without the fear of drying too soon. When choosing between acrylic or oil paint, this is the very first thing to consider especially if you’re just starting to explore them.

Acrylic Drying Time

The ability to dry quickly is one of the good things about acrylic, an evenly applied layer can be dry in minutes! This makes it a very adaptable medium that you can easily use on paper, boards, canvases, wood panels, on countless other surfaces really. It dries pretty fast that you can easily pile on layer after layer in a short amount of time.

But that quick drying feature can also be a setback if you suddenly get interrupted or can’t finish a painting that you originally planned to when you started out. Imagine that you have squeezed out some paint and are happily painting away, then you get cut mid-painting by something or other, by the time you get back the paint is already dry – well that was fast!

There are ways to extend the drying time if you want to avoid wasting your paint. You can either add a paint retarder to it, spray your palette with water, or in my case use a stay wet palette.

This is my stay wet palette. It comes with a sponge that you can wet and acrylic palette paper to layer on top. Your paint will be made to stay wet longer with this method. With the lid closed, it creates an airtight seal that keeps it moist and extends the drying time of the acrylic paints.
Oil Drying Time

It’s the complete opposite with oil paints, it stays wet longer and dries at a much, much slower time. When you’re done for the day, you can leave your palette with just minor storing practices and be confident that when you come back the following day it will still be wet. The paint will still be usable and will still be wet enough to be perfectly blendable. 

Another difference between oil and acrylic paint is that oil requires a properly prepared and primed canvas or surface. Otherwise the oil (usually linseed oil) in the paints will get absorbed and leave the paint on the surface too dry and prone to cracking. If you want to hasten the drying time, you can thin down your mixture with solvent – this is great for the first two to three layers. The upper layers should contain more oil, keep in mind the fat over lean rule.

Oil paints featured here are from the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes. And the brushes are from the Renoir Collection.

Solvent vs Water – Acrylic or Oil Paint

Oil paint vs acrylic that’s water based is another deciding factor for many artists. Are you willing to go through the more time consuming cleaning process when painting in oil in exchange for the longer drying time? Or would you prefer the fast drying but easier to clean acrylic paints? Find out the advantages and disadvantages of each one below.

Acrylic and Water

You only need water to dilute or rinse off your acrylic paint. Then water and soap (preferably something mild and moisturizing or a specially formulated brush cleaner soap) for a deeper cleaning later on. This makes it a less messier medium to use or clean up after. Water also evaporates quickly which is one of the main reasons why acrylics dry fast.  

A large jar of water for diluting your acrylic paint and for rinsing your brushes in. Brush shown in the photo is from the Black Tulip Collection of ZenART Supplies.
Oil and Solvents

Traditionally, solvents such as turpentine, white spirits, and other thinners are used to dilute and or rinse off oil paint from brushes. These solvents give out vapours that can be harmful to your health with prolonged exposure. Generally, it’s a good idea to have a well-ventilated working space whether using acrylic or oil paint. But it’s especially important when working with strong solvents.

Nowadays we are lucky to have odorless mineral spirits, and other non-toxic and eco-friendly alternatives that you can use as diluents and brush cleaners. There’s no longer any need to breathe in those headache inducing fumes! You can also use walnut oil ala Rembrandt to clean your brushes. And similar to acrylics, use soap for a deeper cleaning.

A selection of oils, oil and solvent mixtures, an eco-friendly oil painting medium, and dilutant.

Lightfastness – Oil Paint vs Acrylic

The capacity of the pigment found in paint to be resistant to fading when exposed to light is called lightfastness or sometimes also referred to as permanence. The colors that fade, change, or darken over time are called fugitive colors. 

In the acrylic vs oil paint comparison, there are pigments that are more lightfast or permanent compared to others. So it’s best to check the lightfastness rating found on the tube or jar so you’ll be using or buying. That way, you’ll end up with paints that will stand the test of time. You’ll see one of the ratings shown below:

Acrylic Lightfastness

The binder used in acrylic paints is acrylic polymer, it’s been thoroughly tested and shows that it won’t yellow over time. Though aim for a lighter mix when painting, once it dries the binder that’s used is usually white when wet. But it will turn transparent when it dries. This will cause colors to deepen when they dry. The colors you see in a fully dry acrylic painting now will be almost the same colors people will see a hundred or so years from now. 

All this information can usually be found at the back of the paint tube.
Oil Lightfastness

With oils, the colors you see when you mix are what will more or less come out when they dry. This is one difference between acrylic and oil paint to carefully consider, they both have their own pros and cons. There won’t be as much color shifting compared to acrylics. However, there are times where “sinking in” may happen – when the layer you painted becomes dull, matte, and loses its saturation. This happens because the oil has been absorbed by the canvas or the layer underneath it. You can help deal with this problem by oiling out or by adding a layer of medium such as a retouch varnish. 

Also, be prepared for some more yellowing to occur over the course of time. Since the oil in the oil paints will go through oxidation and cause additional yellowing. Poppy oil and walnut oil yellow less over time compared to linseed oil, but poppy oil takes longer to dry. Walnut oil’s drying time is faster than poppy but still slower than linseed oil.

Besides the Lightfastness rating, you can also find the Opacity level of each color in the same area. Oil paints shown are from the Impressionist Palette and Portrait Palette of the Infinity Series Oil Palettes from ZenART Supplies.
color mixing guide

Flexibility – Acrylic Painting vs Oil Painting

If you’re looking for a medium that you can experiment a lot with, then acrylic is the easier choice. But if you’re looking for a more traditional style of painting, then go for oils.

Acrylic Flexibility

Once it dries, acrylic is considered to be fairly flexible. If you’ve peeled off dried up acrylic paint from your palette (I love doing this, haha!), there’s some stretch to it if you pull it apart. And so, it’s a medium that’s more forgiving when it comes to choosing your supports. You can use a canvas, on paper, on wood, and on other more experimental ones. Acrylic is also great for experimenting, mixing in modern mediums, and does well in mixed media settings.

A close look at the quite popular acrylic pouring painting technique. The paint is diluted with water or pouring mediums, and with other additives to give certain effects.
Oil Flexibility

When oil paints dry, they become hard and even brittle. So that’s why you need to use stable supports that have been properly primed or sized, or have been manufactured specifically for oils such as oil pads. Otherwise the oil will seep into the support and will leave the pigment on the surface dull and flakey. Oil though has been around for centuries, the oldest known oil painting dates from 650 AD. Its manner of flexibility lies in the fact that it gives you a longer working time if the working pace that you prefer is slower. It may seem a traditional medium, but it also has been modernized in many ways.

A beautifully vibrant and textured floral oil painting by ZenART Supplies’ Co-founder, Ardak Kassenova. You can follow her on Instagram @ardak_zenart and attend her LIVE art tutorials every Monday @zenartsupplies.

Do you like to work in thin layers or thick layers?

If you want to paint thick layers and want them to dry fast, then acrylic is a good choice. But if you want to work in thick layers that you can still touch and work on for the next few days, then go for oil.

Acrylic Layers

Yet another significant difference between acrylic and oil paint that will affect your working time. Since acrylic dries fast, painting in thick layers is much easier as you don’t need to wait long for thick layers to fully dry. So you can do a lot of impasto layers on top of each other without worrying too much about the layers underneath if you’re in a hurry. Provided that you allow them to dry in the short amount of time they need to of course. 

You can use acrylic like watercolor, thinned out on paper. I also use it in thin, translucent or transparent glazes especially when painting skin. Though you have to find your sweet mixing spots over time. It maintains its flexibility even when thinned down.

A layering of thick on thick acrylic paint. It can be done while still wet or on top of another dry layers, as even thick layers dry pretty quickly – just an hour or two.
Oil Layers

You can also paint thick layers in oil, but it requires some time, knowledge of the different drying times of your pigments, and the mediums you can add that speed up the drying time. 

Different oils have different drying times, so you must keep that in mind. Each pigment has its own drying time, some dry faster such as the cobalts and the natural earthy pigments. While some take longer to dry like the blacks, titanium white, and the cadmiums especially the reds. So take that into consideration when underpainting or painting your layers. There are oil drying agents or mediums that you can also use to speed up the drying process.

This painting titled “Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent van Gogh (1980), is considered to be one of his greatest works according to critics. His paintings are well-known for the thick and expressive brushstrokes he loved to paint with.

I know there’s so much to take into account when deciding between acrylic vs oil paint. Armed with the right knowledge, you’ll get to properly weigh the pros and cons of each one. You’ll be more confident in deciding which one you prefer, or maybe even do both – why not? Or if you’re still trying to figure that out, try them both and see which one you enjoy the most. Just take your time, explore, and most importantly – have fun!

We’d love to hear back from you!

Which of the two, acrylic and oil paint, have you tried painting with already? Which one are you looking to try out for the first time? Or if you’ve painted with both, which one did you find easier to use? Let us know what you think, we’d love to hear back from you. Feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll be happy to answer any comments and queries you have.

Now that you’ve just ventured into the properties of oil and acrylic paint, why not learn how to properly clean and care for your brushes when oil painting. That’s next up on our Toolkits and Guides section – How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes. Until then, have a great time exploring the difference between acrylic and oil paint!


— MEET THE AUTHOR—


Kathleen is the Wordsmith at ZenART, resident artist and art editor. When God sent a shower of talents, Kathleen made sure she got a basketful of them! She’s a visual artist with practical knowledge on various fields from painting and sculpture, to costume and set design which comes in very handy when writing about various art techniques and theories. She also shares her passion for the arts through teaching. She runs her own brand of handmade wirework jewellery designs.


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