For centuries, oil paints have been defined as the traditional and classical medium when it comes to the world of painting. From the corners of East Asia to the hands of the masters like Rembrandt and van Gogh, oil paint has been revered through the ages. But fast-forward to today and you’ll see that one medium has found a strong footing in the art world, perhaps even overtaking the usage of oil paints. This medium is acrylic.
While it may be difficult to determine whether a finished painting is made with acrylic or oil paints, there are many differences between these two mediums.
Oil paintings tend to sell for more money because oil paint is more expensive, and the process takes longer. Portraits are easily made with oils for the seamless blending capabilities it offers, and are generally priced higher than landscapes or abstracts; whereas acrylics, watercolour, or water-based paints are generally used more often by illustrators and commercial artists because of how quickly they dry.
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From costs to drying speeds, from the style of art to work space size, in order to determine which choice is right for you there are five factors to take into consideration.
Still life oil paintings in progress here at Winged Canvas' studio
1. The Paint Dictates the Process
Oil Painting: The biggest difference between oil paints and acrylic paints is the process. Oil painting involves adding and removing paint, and each layer takes about a week to dry - months if the paint is thick, and a day or two with a drying additive. Oil paintings with a lot of detail usually take a lengthy amount of time to complete. Historically, the old masters did an underpainting first, then glazed the underpainting with a layer of colour, then put colour on top. At Winged Canvas, founder and artist Fei Lu teaches this traditional method by starting with an oil rub out technique, followed by covering the surface of the canvas and rubbing out the highlights, then painting in the dark colours. Oil paint is smoothed onto the canvas (like butter!) to create purposeful brushstrokes.
Acrylic Painting: With acrylics, you generally paint background to foreground, working in layers. During this process, as acrylic dries quickly, you only have to wait a few minutes for the first layer to dry before adding a second. And unlike oil paints, acrylics don’t require an underpainting but they do require the use of black paint as acrylic colours tend to look a little flatter and less rich. There are also a wide variety of mediums available that can be added to acrylic to slow the drying time, make colours more transparent for glazing, or to add texture to the paint.
2. Paint Properties & Blending
Oil Painting: In the art world, oil paintings have been consistently connected to realism and classical portraits. The medium of choice during the Renaissance period, artists like Da Vinci have cemented the connection between the use of oil paints with that of forms, figures and layers. With oil paints, colours have bright intense colours and thick, rich layers. And as the creamier option, oil paints have been known to be easier to blend and being naturally richer, they can create much more texture. As they require more time to dry, the painting can stay wet allowing more changes to be made, ultimately creating subtle blends. Also, once dry, oil paints look exactly the same. The paint can be ultra smooth or textured with brushstrokes, preserving the creative process.
Acrylic Painting: When it comes to acrylic paint, this option has been known to be versatile. With only water needed when using the paint, acrylics are easy to use, and can be mixed with gels or texture pastes in order to create different finishes. However, one thing to consider when painting with acrylics is that some colours dry darker because they turn transparent after they are dry, revealing the darker layer underneath. Acrylics tend to dry flatter, and unlike oils, acrylic paints don't leave painterly brushstrokes when used on their own. Acrylic paints need to be thickened with gel medium to achieve the same impasto effects as oil. Also, since acrylics dry very quickly, they are more difficult to blend smoothly, so your best bet is to add a retarder medium to delay the drying. These are all important factors to consider during the actual painting process.
3. Workspace Size
Oil Painting: Consider how confined your work space may be when choosing oil paints. Oil paints are basically pigment mixed with linseed oil, and when it comes to cleaning your brushes, water just won’t cut it. That’s where solvents come in. While most oil painters have now replaced using smelly Turpentine with odourless Gamsol or Taltine to thin the paint from their brushes, some of these solvents are still harmful to breathe in if you’re working in a confined space. Solvents can also be expensive, ranging from $12 to $50 a bottle. Gamsol is the least harmful option but also the most expensive.
Acrylic Painting: A non-toxic option, acrylic paints are great to use in almost any work space; however once acrylic dries on clothing it becomes plastic, making it impossible to remove. However, due to the lack of smell and how easy it is to clean off brushes (you only really need water), this paint option is great (especially for children) as it’s safe for hands, whereas oil paints may stain -- which is why it’s recommended to wear latex gloves when oil painting.
4. Drying Time
Oil Painting: Patience is a virtue and if you’ve got it in spades then oil painting may be the choice for you. Ranging from two days to two months, oil painting requires a longer time period to properly dry. The thicker the paint, the longer it takes to dry. Similarly, the colour choice has an impact on drying speed. Burnt Umber is a rapid dryer for example, whereas Titanium White takes the longest amount of time. It is possible to speed up the drying process, however, by using a speed drying medium called Liquin, which can help paints dry in less than 24 hours.
Acrylic Painting: Due to acrylic being plastic in nature, it dries quickly, only needing a drying time ranging from one to twenty minutes. When used outdoors, acrylics dry in a snap when the sun is shining. If you’re short on time or prefer working quickly, this would be a great option for you. Unfortunately, due to the quick-drying nature of acrylic, it becomes harder to blend and the easiest way to make changes is when a painting is dry. When acrylics are only half dry, any paint put on top will likely remove the bottom layer too, which becomes a frustrating process. In order to assist in the blending process, making sure the paint stays wet, a retarder medium can be used to slow down the drying speed. Fei’s favourite palette hack for keeping paints wet is using a small wet stack of paper towel with a sheet of vellum on top, allowing moisture through the palette paper. Stay-wet palettes are an example of this you can buy. It comes in a giant plastic box with a reusable sponge bottom and special palette paper to save paints for up to two weeks!
Oil Painting: While considered the more traditional medium to use, oil paints do not come cheap, especially when acrylics are now more mainstream, causing oil paints to go up in price. Fei recommends an easy way to avoid high prices: buy paints labeled "series 1" or "hue" -- which is basically a special colour mixed from other colours instead of a being made from a rare substance that produces that specific colour. Typically the brighter the colour, the higher the cost. Stick to simple colours such as the Zorn Palette, or earth tones like Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Yellow Ochre. Paint thinners are usually needed when working with this medium, which is an added extra cost on top of paints and canvases. Solvents like Gamsol and Turpenoid, used to thin paint and/or clean brushes respectively, can range in price from $30 to over $100. Also, oils can also be painted on wood, but most canvases need priming, or the colour gets absorbed into the fabric/material.
Acrylic Painting: While many consider acrylic paints to be the cheaper of the two, that isn’t necessarily always the case. Although you can purchase acrylic paint sets at the dollar store, chances are they are poor quality and contain very little pigment. Choosing professional grade, high quality paint such as Liquitex or Golden will achieve the best results as they contain more pigment and less filler. Good quality acrylic paints can be comparable to oils. Similarly, retarders can be purchased separately to slow down the drying speed, which is an added cost on top.
An example of an underpainting done in oil (but let's be honest, we posted this picture because we love dogs)
Whether you prefer the more contemporary approach or want to feel like the artistic legends of the 1800s, remember to consider all five factors, determining which paint accommodates your artistic process. If anything, consider testing out various acrylic painting and oil painting classes to get a better sense of both mediums and which one suits you best.
But remember, all that really matters is that you enjoy your artistic journey, whether with acrylic or oil. Happy painting!