Oil Paint vs Acrylic Paint: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Choosing between oil and acrylic paints is a decision that many artists encounter. If this is you, then you've come to the right place. In this in-depth guide, we'll cover the characteristics, advantages, and practicalities of both mediums to help you make an informed choice when it comes to oil vs acrylic.

A comparison of oil paint vs acrylic paint

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Oil Paint Properties and Considerations

Oil paint, known for its rich texture and versatile application, has been a favorite amongst artists for centuries. Its unique blend of pigments and oils creates a wide array of possible techniques and styles. Let's first look at the properties of oil paint, from texture and consistency to drying time and safety considerations:

  • Texture & Consistency: With its creamy texture, oil paint allows intricate blending, layering, and texturing. Palette knives, specialized brushes, and even fingers can create unique effects.
  • Drying Time: Slow to dry, sometimes taking days or weeks, allows for careful decision-making, alterations, and wet-on-wet painting.
  • Versatility: From techniques like glazing, sfumato, and impasto, oil paint is very versatile. Suitable for various primed surfaces, including canvas, wood, and paper.
  • Durability: Properly cared for oil paintings can last for generations all while retaining their color and integrity. Oil's slow drying process allows for a deep bonding of the paint layers.
  • Safety Considerations: Utilizes solvents like turpentine that can be hazardous. Proper handling, disposal, and ventilation are important to minimize health risks.

Acrylics vs oils, what's the difference?

Acrylic Paint Properties and Considerations

Acrylic paint is a modern, flexible medium known for its quick drying time and adaptability. With a wide range of textures and the ability to mimic other paints, it offers something for every artist. Let's now look at the ways to utilize acrylics can suit your artistic vision and goals.

  • Texture & Consistency: From watery thin to paste-like thick, acrylics can mimic other mediums and can be transformed with additives, offering endless possibilities.
  • Drying Time: Dries within minutes but can be altered with retarders or by spraying with water. This quick drying time facilitates rapid artwork creation.
  • Versatility: Adheres to a wide variety of surfaces and can be used with mixed media. Great for experimental techniques, abstract works, and mural painting.
  • Durability: Resistant to yellowing and water damage, but long-term exposure to UV light can cause fading. Proper varnishing can preserve the vibrancy.
  • Safety Considerations: Generally safer than oils, but some pigments and additives may require careful handling. Always check labels for specific safety guidelines.

oil vs acrylic and what paint to choose

Oil Paint vs Acrylic Paint: Analyzing the Differences

Oil and acrylic paints have distinct characteristics. Oil paints offer extended working time, rich colors, and intricate blending possibilities, but require some safety precautions. Acrylics, on the other hand, dry quickly, are versatile across various surfaces, and are generally safer but may lack the depth of color found in oils. Let's do a detailed comparison of these mediums, exploring aspects such as texture, blending, color vibrancy, durability, safety, and cost, to help you choose the best fit for your artwork.

oil paint and acrylic paint comparison

1. Working Time:

Oil: Working time is a vital aspect of oil painting that sets it apart from other mediums. With oil paint, the extended period to manipulate the paint allows for thoughtful compositions, intricate blending, layering, and alterations. This slow drying time, sometimes taking days or even weeks, offers a creative advantage in producing detailed works without feeling rushed. Regardless of your intentions, the generous working time of oil paints can enhance your ability to create. I personally work faster in oils as I'm allowed to complete areas the way I hope to before they dry.

Acrylic: Acrylic paint's working time is short due to its rapid drying, a property that can both challenge and motivate artists. Drying within minutes, acrylics require swift action if blending is needed, but this quick drying time also supports rapid layering and experimentation. While some artists may use retarders or water to slow down the drying process, the inherent speed of acrylics lends itself to a dynamic and fast-paced painting experience. This is quite helpful to move quickly from one stage to the next, but it does pose challenges to anyone who isn't a fast painter. 

Acrylic paint vs oil paint, what's the difference?

2. Texture and Flexibility:

Oil: The texture and flexibility of oil paint open up a range of creative possibilities. With so many texture options ranging from thin glazes to thick impasto, artists can achieve a variety of effects and finishes using oil mediums. The creamy texture of oil paint allows for intricate blending and layering, enabling artists to create brilliant surfaces and tactile qualities in their work.

learn how to oil paint

Acrylic: Acrylic paint, like oil, can also produce a range of textures with mediums. From smooth washes to heavy textures, acrylics mediums, gels, and specialized tools can help produce almost anything. This adaptability allows acrylics to mimic other mediums, offering an extensive range possibilities. This is why acrylics have become a popular choice for abstract or thick impasto work, as it allows the artist to achieve what their after without having to wait months for it to dry.

Comparing acrylics to oils and their differences"Inviting Illumination" by Chuck Black

3. Blending:

Oil: Blending with oil paint is an art in itself, offering the ability to create subtle and gradual transitions between colors and tones. The slow drying nature of oil paint allows for intricate blends, giving artists the ability to develop complexity and depth within their work. This extended time to manipulate the paint provides room for thoughtful composition, refinement, and experimentation. This relaxed process is where many artists develop their love for oil painting, as it allows them time to strategize their efforts to produce exceptional results.

Acrylic: The blending process with acrylic paint requires quick thinking and swift execution. Acrylic's faster drying time necessitates immediate blending, creating a sense of energy within the work. Though it presents a unique challenge, this property can also fuel creativity, encouraging bold and spontaneous decision-making. Specialized mediums and wet-on-wet techniques can aid in smoother transitions, offering various ways to approach blending with acrylics. Additives also increases the transparency of the paints, which reduces potency of the colors and can add difficulty. This is where acrylics become more complex, leading to a lot of struggle in figuring them out. 

Deciding to choose oils or acrylics

4. Color Vibrancy and Stability:

Oil: With deep and rich colors that remain stable over time, oil paint offers an unparalleled brilliance that can capture the essence of any subject. However, it's essential to note that some whites may yellow if poorly made, and quality plays a significant role in maintaining color integrity. So, the complexity of what to buy and use becomes an issue for many starting out. 

Acrylic: While acrylics are generally stable, many colors may darken as they dry, posing many challenges for artists seeking precise results. It's also important to note that extended exposure to UV light can affect the vibrancy over time more so than oils.

oil paint or acrylic paint and what is best

5. Durability:

Oil: Oil paintings, when properly cared for and varnished, can last for generations. Resilient to flaking or peeling, they retain their color and structural integrity over time. The lasting power of oil paints ensures that the emotions, stories, and beauty captured on canvas are preserved for future generations to admire. If creating art that endures through time is your goal, oil paint might be a better medium to go with.

Acrylic: Despite the risks of UV exposure, acrylic paintings remain stable and flexible, accommodating various environmental conditions. With proper care, acrylics can be a reliable choice for artists of all levels. Acrylic paints are being improved all the time, so don't be deterred on the longevity alone.

oil paint vs acrylic paint safety precautions

6. Safety Considerations:

Oil: Working with oil paint requires an awareness of safety considerations that should not be overlooked. Oil paints utilize solvents like turpentine, which can be toxic. Proper handling, disposal, and ventilation are crucial to ensure a safe working environment. Adequate safety measures, including wearing gloves when necessary and using appropriate containers can mitigate risks. So, artists must be mindful of their studio safety when working with oils. Unless you are very sensitive to working with oils, safety shouldn't deter you all together. Following proper studio safety might be easier than you think - Read more on safety.

Acrylic: Acrylic paint is generally known for its safer handling characteristics, being water-soluble and generally non-toxic. However, some specific pigments and additives may still require careful handling and consideration.

Oils vs Acrylics price difference

    7. Cost and Availability:

    Oil: Oil paint can be a more expensive choice, particularly when seeking artist-grade options. The investment in specialized brushes, cleaning materials, and quality pigments, can be substantial at times. However, for those willing to invest in their art, oil paint offers an experience that is unmatched.

    Acrylic: Acrylic paint offers a broad price range and is generally more accessible, making it a favorite choice among beginners and professionals. The ease of cleanup using water and the availability of various mediums and gels for experimentation contribute to its appeal. Artist-grade acrylic paints can still get pricey, but not compared to some of the high-cost oil paints.

    The choice between oil and acrylic, which is better?

    Final Thoughts

    The choice between oil and acrylic paints really depends on your individual preferences, techniques, and vision. I have worked with acrylics for years and found many reasons to love them. After switching solely to oils 5 years ago however, I wouldn't go back. I actually find myself working faster than I did with acrylics once I became fully comfortable with the medium. At the same time, I see many artists who I admire able to create exceptional masterpieces with acrylics. So again, this choice really comes down to your own personal needs.

    If I were just starting out, I would probably try purchasing a little bit of both to see what I like most for what I'm after in my artwork. I think understanding the process is more complex with oils, but easier to execute once you grasp a basic understanding of them. With acrylics, they are very easy to understand in the beginning which makes them great for anyone who is just starting out, but can pose greater challenges once you really get into the painting.

    All of this brings me to the point I want to leave you with which is that you must experiment for yourself. As a professional artist for many years, I still have to try new things and test on a daily basis. Painting requires you to be a lifetime student, and you must embrace that in order to progress in your art. So, relax and have fun with it, whatever route you decide to go with.

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