Acrylic vs. Oil Paint: What's the Big Difference?

Acrylic vs. Oil Paint: What’s the Big Difference?


In the world of art, paint is a fundamental tool that brings an artist’s vision to life. Among the various types of paints available, acrylic and oil paint stand out as two of the most popular choices. As an artist, understanding these mediums can greatly enhance your creative abilities. In this article, we will explore the difference between acrylic and oil paint to help you make informed decisions about which medium to use for your artwork.

Acrylic and oil paints are both powerful tools for artists, each with its own unique characteristics and advantages. By understanding their differences, you can choose the medium that best suits your artistic style and goals.

Acrylic Paint: The Quick-Drying Option

Acrylic paint is known for its quick-drying nature and versatility. It can be mixed with water, making it easy to clean up and allowing for a variety of application techniques. Acrylic paint dries to a matte finish, which is popular among artists who prefer a more modern look in their paintings.

Oil Paint: The Slow-Drying Classic

On the other hand, oil paint has a slow drying time and offers rich colors. Unlike acrylics, it is not water-soluble and requires solvents for cleaning brushes. Despite these extra steps, many artists are drawn to the glossy finish and depth that oil paint can achieve in their work.

The comparison of acrylic and oil paint goes beyond just their drying times. From blending methods to cleanup processes, each medium affects the entire painting process in its own way.

A canvas split in half, with the left side covered in bold, vibrant acrylic paints and the right side showcasing the sumptuous richness of oil paints.

Why Knowing the Differences Matters

As an artist, you’re not just creating art; you’re expressing your ideas visually. The choice between acrylics and oils can impact how effectively you communicate these ideas on canvas. By understanding the unique qualities of each medium, you’ll be able to choose the right one for your specific needs.

For example, if you need quick results or often work on different surfaces like fabric or wood – acrylics might be the best choice for you because of their fast-drying nature and versatility. On the other hand, if you’re aiming for intricate textures or a luminous finish that develops over time, oil paints could be more suitable.

In the end, it’s about knowing the strengths and limitations of these two mediums. This knowledge will empower you to make informed decisions about which paint to use based on your project requirements or personal preferences.

Throughout this article, we’ll explore the differences between acrylic and oil paint in depth – from their chemical properties and drying behaviors to blending techniques and practical considerations. With this information, you’ll be ready to choose the right medium for your artwork. Let’s get started!

Acrylic Paint: A Versatile Water-Based Medium

Acrylic paint is a fast-drying, water-based paint which employs pigments suspended in a polymer emulsion. These paints are known for their bright colors and versatility, making them a popular choice among artists of all skill levels.

What Is Acrylic Paint?

At its core, Acrylic Paint is composed of pigment particles dispersed in an acrylic polymer emulsion. The emulsion acts as the binder, adhering the pigment to the painting surface once the water evaporates. Unlike oil paints, which require a solvent to mix and clean up, acrylics can be thinned with water and easily cleaned up using soap and warm water.

Characteristics of Acrylic Paint

Here are some key features of acrylic paints:

  • Water-solubility: Acrylic paints can be easily mixed with water while they are wet. This feature allows for easy cleanup and also means that you can modify the consistency of the paint to suit different painting techniques.
  • Quick-drying: Typically drying within a few hours, acrylics facilitate rapid layering without long waits. While this can be an advantage, it may also require a faster working pace or methods to keep the paint workable for longer.

Properties of Acrylic Paint

The main properties that define Acrylic Paint include:

  • Fast drying time
  • Dilution with water without affecting adhesion
  • Flexibility when dry, reducing chances of cracking
  • Ability to adhere to a wide range of surfaces

These properties make acrylics an exceptionally dynamic medium suitable for both beginners and experienced artists.

Advantages of Using Acrylic Paint

Artists prefer acrylics for various reasons:

  • Versatility: You can apply acrylics on almost any surface—from canvas and paper to wood and fabric.
  • Affordability: Generally less expensive than oil paints, acrylics offer a cost-effective option for artists on a budget.
  • Wide Range of Applications: Whether using thin washes or thick impasto techniques, acrylics are adaptable to many artistic styles.
A paint palette with various colors and paintbrushes.

Best Practices for Working with Acrylic Paint

To make the most out of Acrylic Paint, consider these practices:

  1. Keep your paints moist
  • Use a spray bottle with water to keep your palette wet.
  • Consider using a stay-wet palette or slow-drying mediums.
  1. Work in layers
  • Take advantage of the quick drying time by building up layers without muddying colors.
  • Allow each layer to dry completely before adding another.
  1. Blend efficiently
  • Since they dry quickly, blend colors swiftly or use retarders that extend the working time of your paint.
  1. Protect your work
  • Once your painting is dry, seal it with a varnish to protect against dust and UV rays.
  1. Experiment with mediums
  • Mix different mediums into your paint to achieve various effects such as increased transparency or texture.

By understanding how to manipulate the properties of Acrylic Paint, artists can fully explore its potential across diverse creative projects. With proper techniques and handling, this medium can yield stunning results that last.

In contrast to these water-based paints, oil paints offer a different set of characteristics and artistic possibilities that we will delve into next.

Oil Paint: A Traditional and Luxurious Medium

Diving into the world of Oil Paint, we find a medium rich with tradition and luxurious in its properties. Just like acrylics, understanding the characteristics of oil paint is crucial for artists.

The Magic of Oil Paint

The magic of oil paint lies in its composition. Predominantly, oil paint is a blend of pigments and drying oils, often linseed, poppy or walnut oil. These oils act as binders, holding the pigments together and giving the paint its unique qualities.

Key Characteristics of Oil Paint

1. Non-Water-Soluble

One defining property of oil paint is its non-water-solubility. Unlike acrylics that can be thinned and cleaned up with water, oil paints require specific solvents. This might include turpentine or white spirits, which dissolve the oils to alter the paint’s consistency or clean brushes.

2. Slow Drying Time

Another noteworthy characteristic of oil paint is its slow drying time. It can take days or even months for an oil painting to fully dry depending on the thickness of application. While this might seem like a disadvantage at first glance, it provides artists with ample opportunity to perfect their work over time.

3. Excellent Color Blending

The slow-drying nature allows for excellent color blending. This ability to create smooth transitions between colors is one of the reasons many artists are drawn towards oil painting. It allows for expressive brushwork and a depth in tones that’s hard to achieve with quicker-drying mediums.

4. Richness of Color

There’s an inherent beauty in working with oil paint. The richness of color obtained from oil paints is unmatched. They have a luminous quality due to their high pigment concentration and medium viscosity which allows for thick applications that retain brush strokes.

5. Archival Quality

Considerations extend beyond just working methods when it comes to oil painting. There’s also the archival quality and longevity of artworks created using this medium that hold significance. Oil paintings are known for their durability; they resist fading and changes in color better than other mediums like acrylics.

Here are some key points to remember about oil paint:

  • Composition: Pigments and drying oils
  • Non-water-soluble: Requires solvents like turpentine or white spirits for thinning and cleaning
  • Slow drying time: Allows for extended working periods and excellent blending of colors
  • Richness of color: High pigment concentration provides luminous, vibrant tones
  • Archival quality: High durability and resistance to fading

As we’ve seen, the properties of oil paint make it a luxurious medium that offers profound depth in colors and expressive possibilities for brushwork. However, its demanding nature may require more resources and time commitment from the artist.A hovering paintbrush leaving a trail of vibrant colors.

Differences in Drying Behavior and Its Impact on Artistic Techniques

The drying time of paint is a crucial factor that significantly influences the artistic techniques that can be employed, the pace of work, and even the final outcome of an artwork. Let’s delve into the drying behaviors of acrylic paint and oil paint, and gain insights into their impact on various painting techniques.

Acrylic Paint Drying Time

Acrylic paints are water-based, causing them to dry quickly – often within minutes to a few hours. This characteristic has a profound impact on how artists use acrylics:

  1. Blending: Quick-drying nature poses challenges in blending colors seamlessly. Artists need to work swiftly or use a spray bottle of water to keep the paint moist.
  2. Layering: With acrylics, artists can build up multiple layers rapidly without waiting days for each layer to dry.
  3. Glazing: Applying thin layers of transparent color (glazes) becomes convenient with fast-drying acrylics.

Oil Paint Drying Time

In contrast, oil paints are known for their extended drying time – from days to even months. This slow-drying quality affects artists’ work in unique ways:

  1. Blending: Oil paints offer ample time for smooth blending of colors right on the canvas, enabling subtle transitions and detailed gradations.
  2. Layering: Building up layers with oil requires patience as each layer needs sufficient drying time to avoid cracking or other issues.
  3. Glazing: With oils, glazing can be more controlled but demands longer waiting periods between each glaze application.

Understanding these differences assists artists in harnessing the strengths of each medium and navigating their limitations effectively.

Acrylic Versatility vs Oil Patience

The quick-drying nature of acrylics lends itself well to artists who prefer fast-paced work or have a rapid turnover of pieces. This feature also enables artists to make corrections or changes without long waits. However, it necessitates speed and decisiveness when blending or working with wet-on-wet techniques.

On the other hand, the slow drying time of oils allows artists to revise and refine their work over extended periods. It favors those who enjoy taking their time with a piece, building up layers of rich color and depth. Yet, it requires careful planning when layering and an understanding of the ‘fat over lean’ rule to ensure the painting’s longevity.

In essence, the drying behavior of acrylics and oils not only influences the working methods but also shapes the visual language and aesthetic quality of artworks. By understanding these aspects, artists can select the right medium that aligns with their artistic vision and working style.

Exploring Unique Approaches to Blending Colors in Acrylic and Oil Paintings

Artists often seek the perfect blend of colors to capture the nuances of light and shadow, emotion, and atmosphere in their paintings. The medium chosen—be it acrylic or oil paint—significantly influences the blending techniques available to the artist.

Blending Colors in Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is celebrated for its quick-drying nature, but this feature presents challenges when blending colors. Artists have developed several methods to navigate these challenges:

1. Wet-on-Wet Technique

  • Acrylics can be blended directly on the canvas while both colors are still wet.
  • This method requires speed since the paints dry quickly.
  • Using a spray bottle with water can help extend the working time.

2. Layering

  • Thin layers of paint are applied over one another once the previous layer has dried.
  • This technique allows for subtle color changes and can create depth.

3. Glazing

  • A transparent layer of color is applied over a dry layer, altering the appearance without covering it entirely.
  • Acrylic glazing liquids can be mixed with the paint to improve transparency and drying time.

4. Dry Brushing

  • A brush with very little paint is lightly dragged over dry layers, producing a broken color effect that can be used for blending edges.
Tips for Achieving Smooth Transitions:
  • Use a soft brush and gentle hand when blending edges to avoid harsh lines.
  • Keep your brush clean between strokes to prevent muddying colors.
  • Experiment with retarders or flow improvers, which are mediums that slow down drying time and increase paint fluidity.

Blending Colors in Oil Paint

Oil paint’s slow drying time offers a luxurious window for blending, making it ideal for creating smooth transitions and rich tones.

1. Wet-on-Wet (Alla Prima)

  • Oil painters often use this method for an entire painting session, allowing them to work with malleable paint throughout.
  • The technique supports intricate blends and soft edges necessary for lifelike textures such as skin.

2. Scumbling

  • A thin, opaque layer of light-colored oil paint is brushed over darker layers.
  • Scumbling creates a hazy effect that can be used for atmospheric perspective or softening features.

3. Optical Mixing

  • Instead of physically mixing colors on a palette or canvas, small strokes or dots of pure color are placed side by side.
  • From a distance, these colors visually blend together—a technique used by Impressionists like Claude Monet.

4. Glazing

  • Similar to acrylics, oil glazing involves applying transparent layers over dry ones to adjust hues and values subtly.
Strategies for Elegant Blends:
  • Master temperature control by pairing warm tones with cool ones to achieve natural-looking gradients.
  • Consider using medium additives like linseed oil to maintain the workability of your oils during prolonged sessions.
  • Patience is key; allow ample time between sessions if adding new layers or details without blending into wet underlying paint.

Painting Techniques Tailored to Each Medium

Each medium’s properties necessitate different approaches; success lies in adapting your technique accordingly. In acrylics, speed is essential; artists must exploit the rapid drying times or counteract them with mediums. With oils, leisurely pacing permits thoughtful application where blends evolve gradually.

The choice between acrylics and oils affects not only artistic outcomes but also processes—anticipate these differences as you plan your painting approach. Whether aiming for bold juxtaposition or seamless gradation, understanding and mastering your medium’s blending capabilities will elevate your artistry.

A painter's palette with a mix of acrylic and oil paints in vibrant colors.

Practical Considerations: Clean-up, Finish, Durability, and Artwork Size

When choosing between acrylic and oil paints, artists need to think about practical factors like how easy it is to clean up, what kind of finish and texture they want, how durable the paint will be, and whether the medium works well with the size of their artwork.

Clean-up Process

Cleaning Brushes for Acrylic Paint

  • Acrylic paint can be cleaned with just water and soap.
  • It’s important to rinse brushes before the paint dries to keep them in good condition.
  • Any leftover paint can be washed down the drain safely.

Cleaning Brushes for Oil Paint

  • Oil paint requires special solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits to clean brushes.
  • These solvents have strong fumes, so it’s best to use them in a well-ventilated area.
  • When disposing of solvent waste, make sure to follow proper environmental guidelines.

Finish and Texture

Finish of Acrylic Paint

  • Acrylic paint usually dries with a matte finish, but you can add a gloss medium to make it shiny.
  • Depending on the products you use, you can achieve different levels of sheen from glossy to satin.

Finish of Oil Paint

  • Oil paint is known for its rich, glossy finish that brings out the colors.
  • This natural shine is often preferred for a more luxurious look.

Whether you choose a matte or glossy finish depends on what you want your artwork to look like. Both options have their own appeal and can affect how people see the colors and depth in your painting.


Durability of Acrylic Paint

  • Acrylics are less likely to crack because they’re flexible.
  • You can protect acrylic paintings from fading by applying a UV varnish.
  • They’re also more stable when it comes to changes in temperature and humidity.

Durability of Oil Paint

  • Oil paintings can crack if they’re not taken care of properly.
  • To keep them safe from dust and light damage, they need to be varnished carefully.
  • With the right maintenance, oil paintings can last for hundreds of years – just look at the works of the Old Masters.

Both types of paintings should be kept away from direct sunlight, and you should have a regular cleaning routine based on the medium you’re using to make sure your artwork stays in good condition.

Artwork Size

The size of your artwork can also affect whether acrylics or oils are a better choice:

Acrylic Paint:

  • Acrylics dry quickly, so they’re great for smaller pieces that you can finish in one sitting.
  • If you’re working on a large canvas, the fast drying time might make it harder to blend colors, but you can use retarders or wet palettes to extend the drying time.

Oil Paint:

  • Oil paint takes longer to dry, which is why it’s often used for larger projects where you need more time to add details.
  • The size of your artwork doesn’t really matter with oils since they stay wet for a while, giving you plenty of working time.

The way you prepare your surface also depends on the size of your artwork. Smaller acrylic paintings might not need as much priming, but larger oil paintings require extra care to prevent problems like discoloration or canvas damage in the future.

Incorporating these practical considerations into your workflow will enhance your creative experience. Whether you opt for quick-drying acrylics or luxuriously slow-drying oils, being mindful of these factors ensures your artwork’s beauty stands the test of time.

Personal Preference or Project Requirement: Factors Influencing Artists’ Choice between Acrylic and Oil Paint

Choosing between acrylic and oil paint often boils down to the individual artist’s preferences, their working style, and the specific requirements of the project at hand. These factors shape the decision-making process, guiding artists toward the medium that best aligns with their creative vision.

Artists’ Preferences

Each artist has a unique approach to painting, which can heavily influence their choice of medium:

Creative Tempo

Acrylic paint dries quickly, making it ideal for artists who prefer a fast-paced workflow or are working under tight deadlines. In contrast, oil paint takes longer to dry, allowing for a more leisurely pace, perfect for those who enjoy taking their time to refine and adjust their work.

Mixing and Blending

For artists who prioritize extensive blending and subtle gradations of color, oil paints offer unparalleled working time. Acrylics dry faster but can be kept workable with techniques such as using a spray bottle of water or slow-drying mediums.

Health and Safety

Artists sensitive to chemicals may favor acrylics because they’re water-soluble and can be cleaned up without harsh solvents. Oil paints require solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits for brush cleaning and thinning paint, which can be off-putting for some due to the fumes.

Environmental Concerns

Environmentally conscious artists might choose acrylics since they are safer to wash down the drain and don’t involve harmful chemicals.

Working Style

An artist’s working style includes preferred techniques that may be better suited to one type of paint:


With its quick-drying nature, acrylic is great for building up layers without long waits. Oil painters value the ability to work into wet layers for days, achieving depth through glazing.

Texture Creation

Acrylics are versatile in creating varied textures; they can be diluted to a watercolor consistency or thickened with mediums. Oils are inherently luscious and blendable, perfect for impasto techniques where texture is key.

Desired Effects

The intended aesthetic outcome plays a significant role:


Acrylic paintings tend to have a matte finish unless varnished for glossiness. Oil paintings naturally exhibit a rich, glossy finish that enhances color depth.

Color Vibrancy

Some artists feel that oils offer more vibrant colors due to their refractive quality. However, high-grade acrylics also provide excellent color saturation.

Famous Artists’ Medium Preferences

Many renowned artists are closely associated with one medium over the other:

Acrylic Advocates

  • Andy Warhol used acrylic paint in his iconic pop art pieces for its bright, flat colors and quick-drying properties.
  • David Hockney shifted from oils to embrace the flexibility of acrylics in his vivid landscape paintings.

Oil Paint Exponents

  • Rembrandt van Rijn is celebrated for his mastery of oil painting techniques which allowed him to achieve dramatic light effects.
  • Vincent van Gogh is known for his thick application of oil paint that added intensity and emotion to his work.

Artists often experiment with both mediums throughout their careers. Some even blend them together in mixed-media pieces. The choice between acrylic vs. oil paint is deeply personal and varies from one project to another. It reflects an artist’s current fascinations, practical needs, and expressive desires.

When selecting the right medium, consider how these factors apply:

  1. Evaluate your speed of execution—do you need more or less drying time?
  2. Think about texture—do you want to build up layers or work wet into wet?
  3. Reflect on safety—will you work in a ventilated space suited for oils?

By weighing these considerations against your artistic goals, you’ll find the medium that not only suits your immediate project but also feels right in your hands as you bring your art to life.A vibrant paintbrush and palette with a mix of intense, saturated colors.


Art is an adventure that beckons artists to explore and express with endless creativity. Acrylic vs. Oil Paint Summary: both mediums shine with distinctive traits, inviting you to dive into their unique characteristics.

  • Acrylic paints offer the expedience of quick drying times and ease of use, making them a pragmatic choice for artists who value versatility and speedy execution.
  • Oil paints lavish your work with a luxurious depth and timelessness, ideal for those who revel in rich textures and a leisurely pace of creation.

Why choose one when you can have the best of both worlds? Embrace the strengths of acrylics and oils by integrating them into mixed media artworks. This fusion not only expands your artistic repertoire but also leads to innovative outcomes that may surprise you.

Understanding the properties of each medium equips you with the knowledge to make informed decisions tailored to your artistic endeavors. Whether you lean towards the quick-drying nature of acrylics or the sumptuous finish of oils, remember it’s not just about choosing paint; it’s about choosing the right partner for your artistic journey.