Updated: Jun 3, 2021
Starting out, will we first talk about the differences between oil paints and acrylic paints. I will also go into some brands of each. There is no right or wrong paints to use, it just depends on which properties you prefer over the other and which would work best for the style of painting you want to create.
First and foremost, oils and acrylics are the two most popular types of paints that are used; but why is this and what are the differences between each?
One of the biggest differences between the two is their application.
Acrylic paints do not need to be applied in any special manner. Nothing you do with acrylic paints will effect the way they dry. You can simply just take a dry brush and paint right out of the tube and apply it to your canvas. This is called the dry brush technique and will give you the fullest, thickest, most opaque application of paint on the canvas. You can, however, wet your brush and thin down the paint with water, but this is not needed. The only difference thinning your paint would make would be for that effect your trying to create; ie: if your trying to make something more blended, thinning the paint with water would be wise, or if you want something more stark and bold, not thinning the paint at all would you give you the most crisp and stark results.
Oil paints, on the other hand, do have a special manner is which they must, MUST be applied. You absolutely MUST follow the fat over lean rule or you will suffer the consequences when that gorgeous painting you worked so hard on dries and ultimately cracks. The fat over lean rule means your preliminary layers need to be more lean, or contain less oil. This means that you must use more solvent(or thinner) in your preliminary layers. They should be a wash of color. As you build up your layers on top of this wash layer, you can start to gradually use less and less thinner. Your final layers you do not need to use any at all. Keep in mind to let each layer dry enough before adding a new layer. The more thinner you use, the quicker your painting will dry as it also acts as a drying agent. This is why artist will first construct an underpainting; to get thinner first layers and block in colors and values as a guide for the final painting.
The reason for this rule is simple, really. When oils dry, they tighten. A thinner will make them more flexible. If there is not enough thinner in the preliminary layers, then the paints will tighten and crack when they dry. I have had this happen to me in the beginning and it was truly heart breaking. That being said, it again, is truly very important to use thinner in your preliminary layers. Your very first layer should be mostly thinner and then you can gradually add more oil paints as you move on. I will talk more about solvents and mediums and what they can help to accomplish in your painting in a later blog post.
**An added bonus on underpaintings**
You can create an underpainting with acrylic paints, and then paint with oils on top of the acrylics. I personally have never done that and just prefer to do my underpainting in oils, but I have known many artists who do use acrylics for their underpaintngs. You CANNOT on the other hand, paint over oil paints with acrylics paints. This only works when you paint acrylic over oil.
Another major difference between the two is their drying times.
Acrylic paints dry very very quickly, and therefor, the painting cannot be worked on over time. Once the color/subject is on the paper and dry, there is nothing you can do to make adjustments. How ever, this is one of the preferred benefits of acrylic paints, they dry quickly and therefor will be ready to varnish, ship out or display a lot sooner than oil paintings will.
Oil paints have a much slower drying and therefor paint can easily be wiped with some thinner or adjusted and worked on over the course of time. In other words, oil paints leave much more room for error as they can be easily fixed, changed, or completely wiped away. The downside is you have to wait longer before they can be varnished, shipped out or displayed. There are ways for you so speed up the drying time of your oil paints. Solvents and mediums will help quicken this process while also helping to add textures or blend-ability to your piece.
So the main question here is how quickly you work and if you’d prefer a longer work window, over a shorter work winder.
Another difference is preparation.
Painting with acrylics does not require much, if any, preparation. Acrylics can paint on top of any porous surface. If you plan to paint on a surface that is completely smooth, it is best to sand it down with fine sandpaper and add some texture so that paint has something to stick to, otherwise the acrylic paint will only chip off smooth surfaces, such of glass and plastic, because they are not porous enough for the paint to adhere to without preparation.
Oil paints are best used on a primed surface. What this means is, a surface or canvas that has been primed first with gesso. You can buy pre-primed canvas in the store which would give you no preparation, but if you are planning to stretch your own canvas that is not yet primed, paint on paper, cardboard etc, then you must prime your surface with gesso. Buying a pre-primed canvas is much simpler, especially for the beginning.
Acrylic/Oil and their bases
Acrylics paints are a water based paint which means that you can mix them with water to thin then down which would end up giving you a wash of color. The more water you use, the more translucent and more of a wash the paint will be. If you want the paint to be thicker, use less water. You will achieve the thickest, most opaque consistency without using any water.
Oil paints are, you guessed it, oil based. This means that you have to use a thinner in order to thin down your oil paints. You cannot use water for oil paints. The thinner that I use is turpentine. It is a solvent, which is meant to thin paint, and is also used to clean your brushes. For this reason it is beneficial to have two jars of turpentine: one clean jar to use as a thinning agent and the other to use for cleaning your brushes. Be careful what solvents you use as some of them can yellow over time, effecting the color of you oil paints. I personally, have never had that problem with turpenoid, but doing research on other solvents is always a good
Since acrylic paints dry down so fast, creating a seamlessly blended surface is very tough, especially if you’re working on a large scale (say 6ft x 4ft). You must use the right techniques, tools and work very quickly. That being said, it IS possible to create a beautifully blended acrylic piece, but my be difficult for beginners. You can, however, add a medium to the paints that helps the paints drying time slow down and keeps your window to work open longer. See below an example of a beautifully blended acrylic painting by Color By Felix. Aside from how they blend, a pro of acrylics is that you can easily get clean crisp edges which would be largely beneficial in more graphic compositions.
Oil paints on the other hand, since they stay wet for a while and have a long drying time, are much easier in terms of blend-ability, even on larger scales. They can create seamless and subtle blends throughout the whole of the painting. You can also get sharp, crisp lines with oils paints as well, but you would have to wait until the preliminary paint is dry-to-touch, otherwise your brushstroke will pull and mix the paint underneath and next to it and mix those colors with your new strokes.
The finish of Acrylics and Oils
Acrylic paints will finish with a glossy finish and usually oxidize as they dry. This means that the colors you use will get slightly darker when they dry.
With oil paints, when they dry down you get a matte finish. You can add a gloss varnish (I use gamblin gloss varnish) to put onto of you painting if you prefer a gloss finish over a matte finish. The gamblin varnish will also saturated the colors and make them appear more alive. Please note if you choose to do this, you painting MUST be COMPLETELY dry as the paints will bleed and smear. I have made this mistake before and it is truly heartbreaking.
Oil paints can also appear to change colors once it dries. They can appear to look a little more “yellow” when they dry depending on what binder is used in the oil paints, which is usually linseed oil, so I personally, would stay away from using that as a medium to thicken paint, but it is your choice and always good to experiment to see what works best for you. There are other options you could use for oil paints if thickening the paint is your goal. This will be covered in another blog post in the future.
You work space
Another difference to take into consideration is your workspace. With acrylic paints, you can work with them in small space because they do not contain the fumes that oil paint thinners do which can overwhelm you if inhaled. However, some acrylic brands to contain traces ammonia, so ventilation is still suggested.
Oil paints, as mentioned, use thinners which contain odors. For this reason, it is better to work with oil paints in a large area, outside or where there is proper and sufficient ventilation. Please remember these are CHEMICALS and not safe to be inhaled. It it a wise decision to purchase thinners that are odorless, such as turpenoid (turpentine is the original version and has a stronger odor) and odorless mineral spirits. Odorless Mineral Spirits has even less of an odor than turpenoid. Even using odorless thinners please make sure you still have ventilation.
So after reading all about the differences between acrylics paints and oil paints, which do you think would work best for you and why? Acrylic or Oils? Let me know if you ever used either before and what your experience has been with both! It’s always frustrating to learn any new medium so if you don’t get it right away, don’t beat yourself up! As a good beginning tool, I highly recommend starting out practicing on paper or a piece of cardboard etc. That way you don’t waste your money buying canvas until you are certain you feel comfortable enough to paint on one. Just remember, if you are going to paint on paper or cardboard with oil paints, you must first prime it with gesso. With acrylics, you can just start painting straight away!
Well that’s about it for today! We went over A LOT in this blog, so if you have any questions please drop a comment and let me know! I talked about thinners and solvents a lot as well which is something I will cover more in perhaps my next blog post! Keep an eye out for it!
Drop a comment about anything! I’d love to know what you think!