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Toolkit Acrylic vs Watercolor – The Key Differences

Kathleen

Watercolor vs Acrylic – The Similarity | Acrylics vs Watercolor – The Differences

Just a quick segue before I talk about acrylic vs watercolor. Check out our previous Toolkit article – Colors and Emotions In Art. Discover how colors and emotions are closely linked to each other. Find out the different ways that color can affect your life, how to use it positively, and how you can paint with the colors of your mood! 


TABLE OF CONTENTS: Looking for something in particular? Jump ahead using the links below:

Acrylics vs Watercolor – The Differences
The Difference In Ingredients
Difference Between Acrylic and Watercolor Paint Types
Acrylic or Watercolor – Transparency or Opaqueness
The Difference In How The White Is Used
Watercolor vs Acrylic – Painting From Light To Dark or Dark To Light
The Difference In Painting Supports
Watercolor vs Acrylic – Painting Style


Before we start, I’d like to make it clear that this is not a battle between acrylic paint and watercolor. Instead it’s a quick guide to help you understand what makes each one special in their own way and what their differences are. That way, you can make informed decisions when trying to decide which of the two to use for your painting ideas. 

Watercolor vs Acrylic – The Similarity

Let’s first start by talking about the main similarity between acrylic and watercolor – they are both water soluble paints. This means that water is used to thin down the paints while painting, and for rinsing the brushes during and after painting. You don’t need any specific solvents to rinse your brushes in, just plain water. For deep cleaning acrylic paint brushes, wash with soap and water. That is their main similarity. Now to the differences!

Acrylics vs Watercolor – The Differences

Now just because they’re both water soluble doesn’t mean they are used in the same way. It’s good to know what their differences are so you can also choose which one is best for specific effects or styles you’re planning to paint.

The Difference In Ingredients

Watercolor

In the past (16th to 18th century), the binders used for watercolor were sugars and/or hide glues. By the 19th century, the favored binder was now natural gum arabic with glycerin and/honey added to enhance the plasticity and solubility of the binder. Other chemicals are also added to aid in the paint’s shelf life.

Gum arabic is a natural gum sourced from the hardened sap of two species of the acacia.
Acrylic

With acrylics, you can use white to lighten a color or to make changes to a mixture’s value and intensity. It’s best to add it in small increments as you don’t want to keep on mixing and adding alternately until you end up with a lot more than you need. And it’s such an easy waste with acrylic as it dries quite fast. Similar to watercolor, you can use the white for highlights as well.

Acrylic polymer. There are many kinds available for you to choose from for different uses.

Difference Between Acrylic and Watercolor Paint Types

Watercolor

Watercolor comes in two forms – in cakes/pans or in tubes. The general consistency between the two is not far off. Those that come in pans make it very convenient to just jump in and paint right away. Those that come in tubes are found to be slightly more saturated than the pans. It’s much easier to use paint from a tube if you’re going to be mixing a great amount for washes of big areas or sections of your painting. 

Watercolor that has dried up on your mixing plate can simply be rehydrated with water and used again.

On the left: Allegro palette from the Aspiring Artists Series watercolor sets from ZenART Supplies – COMING SOON!. On the right a compact set of watercolor in tubes.
Acrylic

While acrylic paint comes in tubes, tubs, bottles, and jars. There are also three levels of viscosity or thickness. You’ll see labels such as “fluid’ or “soft body” for light viscosity acrylics. The medium viscosity ones have the same consistency as oil paints. And the heavy viscosity acrylics are often labelled as “heavy body”. If you’re looking to paint a lot of glazing for more realistic work, then fluid acrylics will be useful for that. But if you want to paint with a lot of heavy texturing and brushwork, then go for the heavy bodied ones.

Acrylic paint that has dried up cannot be rehydrated and will remain dry. That’s why it’s important to make sure to keep those caps and lids tightly closed.

From the left: Acrylic in bottles, followed by acrylic in tubes, and lastly, acrylic in tubs/jars.

Acrylic or Watercolor – Transparency or Opaqueness

Watercolor

Watercolors have a great range of transparency. They can go from very transparent, sem-transparent, to opaque. The best way to use watercolors is by taking advantage of its levels of transparency. For me, no other medium can create the beautiful effects of vibrancy that you get by playing with the layers and layers of transparency.

The first three layers are painted with a single color (Aqua Blue), and the final layer with a deeper blue – Cobalt Blue. Using the Espresso watercolor palette from the Aspiring Artists Series and round watercolor brushes from the Turner Collection of ZenART Supplies.
Acrylic

Acrylics tend to be brighter than watercolors due to the usual manner of application. They can also be thinned down to a transparent or semi-transparent consistency, but the finish has a milky effect compared to the cleaner transparency of watercolor. For opaqueness, they are quite similar to oil paint.

Using Cerulean Blue acrylic paint for all five layers. Filbert Brushes for Acrylic Paints used are from the Renoir Collection of ZenART Supplies.

The Difference In How The White Is Used

Watercolor

Generally white isn’t used to lighten colors when painting in watercolor. In fact, when I was in school it was heavily discouraged by my teachers. “The white is your paper!”, they would always keep reminding us. The main reason is because when you mix white to your mixture, it will muddy the transparency and your colors will become more opaque. The only times I would use white was when I wanted to add opaque white highlights here and there. And when I’m specifically looking to mix a milky effect to achieve a certain atmospheric element. So just experiment in order to find out when you’d probably like to use it and when to stay away from the white.

This is a quick painting of a white cloth hanging on a peg hook. The white is the color of the paper and the colors used for shading the cloth were Ultramarine mixed with a little Warm Sepia. All colors used are  from the Allegro palette.
Acrylic

With acrylics, you can use white to lighten a color or to make changes to a mixture’s value and intensity. It’s best to add it in small increments as you don’t want to keep on mixing and adding alternately until you end up with a lot more than you need. And it’s such an easy waste with acrylic as it dries quite fast. Similar to watercolor, you can use the white for highlights as well.

How acrylic lightens the color that’s straight from a tube or from a mixture. Palette knife and Filbert Brushes for Acrylic Paint are all from the Renoir Collection of ZenART Supplies.

Watercolor vs Acrylic – Painting From Light To Dark or Dark To Light

Watercolor

When painting with watercolor, you usually start by painting with the lighter colors and the lighter values. As you add each layer, the colors progressively become deeper and the values darker. One thing to remember is that watercolor tends to dry lighter. So it’s a good idea to swatch out your mixtures on a separate paper to check if it’s the right color or value that you’re looking for.

All four colors used are from the Espresso palette – Hansa Yellow, Gamboge, Orange, and Crimson. Clockwise from top left: Starting with the lightest -Hansa Yellow, followed by Gamboge, then Orange, and lastly Crimson.
Acrylic

It’s the opposite when it comes to acrylic. You start off by painting with the darker colors and then going towards the lighter ones as you progress. Acrylic also has the tendency to dry darker. So the colors you see while it’s still wet won’t necessarily be the same once it dries. Just keep this in mind when mixing your colors, so you can allow for a little room for the darkening.

I started by painting the shadows in, then the midtones, next the light tones, and the highlight for last.

The Difference In Painting Supports

Watercolor

For watercolor, it is highly recommended that you paint on paper. To be more specific, on watercolor paper as it is specially designed to absorb pigments and water properly. If you use regular paper, the colors will bleed unattractively and the paper will buckle. The thicker the watercolor paper is, the more washes it can handle. 

There is no priming needed when using watercolor on paper.

My selection of various kinds of watercolor paper with different thicknesses, texture, and both hot press and cold press to choose from.
Acrylic

Acrylics can be used on a great variety of surfaces. You can use it on watercolor paper, cardboard, wood, canvas, fabric, even metal and glass. Its elastic and acrylic properties allow it to be more experimental than other mediums. I myself have used it to paint on leather for some handmade jewelry.

Surfaces for acrylics need to be primed and prepped before using. Though most stretched canvases sold nowadays already come pre-primed with gesso.

As mentioned above, these are just some of the supports that you can use with acrylic.

Watercolor vs Acrylic – Painting Style

Watercolor

Water plays a very important part in watercolor painting, how well you control your water will affect your work. Watercolor is generally used in layers and the finished surface tends to remain flat. You can have watercolor paintings framed under glass. The impasto technique is not often used as this requires you to use a huge amount of paint and apply it in very thick layers. Or by adding a thickening agent or gel to your watercolor that comes in the tube form. There are other watercolor mediums available nowadays if you’re looking to explore more. But I suggest you first get acquainted with the traditional watercolor techniques for a good foundation. We have just the right guide to help you here – How To Watercolor For Beginners Tutorial.

A simple watercolor flora painting.
Acrylic

Acrylic can be used like watercolor, in washes and thin layers on paper. You can use it like oil, in beautiful more opaque layers on canvas and wood. And you can easily use it with an impasto technique. You can use the heavy bodied ones for those very thick impasto applications. 

Using a palette knife for the greenery to create the heavy impasto effect and a filbert brush for painting the sky. Both the Palette Knife and Acrylic Paint Brush are from the Renoir Collection of ZenART Supplies.
And that’s it!

And those are the main differences between acrylic vs watercolor. I hope that cleared some questions in your mind and helped you understand them both better. Watercolor is the perfect medium for minimalist artists. You just need your paints, your brushes and your paper and you’re good to go anytime and anywhere. Though it can be a quite challenging medium to master as it can be unforgiving when it comes to mistakes. But the joys you get from the beautiful layers you’ll be painting will totally make up for it! Acrylic is very forgiving in comparison as you can easily cover up any mistakes. And you can easily experiment with it and use it in an amazing wide range of ways. Nothing better than trying them both out for yourself and discovering your own preferences and styles!

We’d love to hear back from you!

Which of the two have you already tried using – acrylic or watercolor? Which one are you more interested in exploring further? What’s your painting style and which one do you think suits it better? What future content would you like to see from us? 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 queries you have.

Learn how to paint easy watercolor trees in our next Toolkit article – How To Paint Watercolor Trees and Techniques. See you there soon! Until then, have a great time exploring the difference between acrylic vs watercolor!


— 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

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