Two of the most popular paint types are acrylics and oils, and they produce similar results. But the two paints have crucial differences. So how do you know which paint is the right choice for your project? Can you tell the acrylic vs oil paint apart? Is one paint type better than the other? What makes them different?
The main difference between acrylic and oil paint comes down to the base: water or oil. This feature affects the cost, dry time, adhesion, thickness, durability, texture, clean-up, the overall appearance of the paint after it dries, and most importantly, how you use the paint.
Both paints have benefits and drawbacks that determine which is better for your needs. Use the following information to help you compare and contract acrylic vs oil paint. We’ll lay out everything you need to know.
Acrylic vs Oil Paint: Side by Side Comparison
The main difference between acrylic and oil paint is the binder that holds the pigment together or the base. For example, acrylics are dissolvable in water due to their chemical makeup, while oils are not. Use the side-by-side comparison below to help you understand the key differences.
|Acrylic Paint||Oil Paint|
|Durability||Susceptible to water damage||Perform well over time|
|Application||Can sometimes just paint and go||Requires primer and sealants|
|Dry Time||Very fast, 20 minutes to several hours||Slower, up to 24 hours or more|
|Adhesion||Strong||Strong, easy to layer paint|
|Thickness||Thinner, more watery||Thick|
|Blending and Mixing||Difficult to blend and mix||Easy to achieve a smooth blend and mix colors|
|Color Shift and Quality||Changes color as it dries||Yellows over time|
|Washability||Washes off with water||Requires solvents to wash away|
|Safety and VOC Levels||Non-toxic and safe||Non-toxic, but solvents typically contain harmful VOCs|
|Shelf Life||5 to 10 years||30 to 40 years|
|Cleaning||Easy to clean with soap and water||Requires a medium, such as a solvent or thinner|
|Primary Uses||Children and beginner projects; surfaces like paper, canvas, fabric, plaster, clay, and stone||Experienced painters; surfaces like paper, canvas, wood, and metal|
What is Acrylic Paint?
Acrylic is a water-based paint type that’s well-known for its quick-drying abilities and fast application process. Many people adore acrylics because they’re safe, and you can clean them using soap and water. However, the biggest downside to using acrylic paint is that the result is not waterproof.
This paint type is made from acrylic acid. Acrylic paint dries fast and is entirely water-soluble, so you can use it on relatively any surface without worrying about stains or damage. The paint is made similar to oils, but because they don’t have an oil base, they are much safer. Using acrylics allows you to work with bright colors without waiting a long time for them to dry.
The quick dry time also ends up as the paint’s greatest downside. The reason is that when you’re painting something with heavy texture, layers, or detail, you need paint that dries slower. Acrylics dry much too quickly. However, using acrylic paint could allow you to enhance blending and color mixing techniques.
- You can paint nearly anything
- They produce bright colors and crisp edges
- Easy to clean
- Won’t fade over time
- The paint is flexible
- Non-toxic and safe for use in small spaces
- Quick-drying means less detail or time for mistakes
- Difficult to achieve a smooth blend
- The paint changes color as it dries
What Is Acrylic Paint Used For?
You could use acrylic paint for nearly anything, making it a go-to choice for arts and crafts or projects involving children and beginners. It’s suitable for canvas, paper, glass, wood, and ceramics.
Types of Acrylic Paint
Acrylics come in many versatile options, such as indoor and out. Artists can use affordable acrylics to cover a wide range of projects. But make sure to go with a specialty outdoor paint type for added longevity against the elements. Some of the most popular ways to use acrylic paint include:
- Color block designs
- Abstract paintings on paper or canvas
- Painting landscapes or large objects on fabric
- Sponging paint on plaster, clay, or stone
There are also special types of acrylic paints. Some acrylic mediums may have a slower dry time, while others can be reactivated to allow for a longer work time.
What is Oil Paint?
Oil paintings are a classic form of fine art that has been around nearly as long as people have painted. The paints are a popular artist choice due to the color and tone results that help them stand apart from other paints. If you use oil paints on canvas, you can produce excellent crisp effects and linear treatment.
To create oil paints, the color pigment is mixed with a drying oil like walnut, linseed, or safflower. Oils have a glossy appearance and feel for this reason. The exact oil base varies based on the brand, and the base keeps the paint wet longer, allowing you to take your time and focus on detail or texture.
The downside with oil paint is the chemicals. You must use a paint medium or thinner to work with oils, allowing the paint to become more fluid and workable while adding sheen to the paint. You can also use thinners to clean the paint from your brushes or workspace later, slow or speed up the dry time, or add a sealant to your work.
- Longer dry time means more working time
- Creating smooth blending is simple
- No immediate color shift
- Highly durable
- More cleanup
- Longer preparation time
- Best on prepared canvas or board only
- Easy to accidentally create muddy colors
- The paint yellows over time
- Requires proper ventilation and paint thinners
What Is Oil Paint Used For?
Oil paints are common choices for painting portraits on canvas or thick boards. The oil base also allows for a smooth consistency, making the paint ideal for varying projects and surfaces. You could apply it to certain metals, wood, and ceramics.
Types of Oil Paints
A paint type that’s ideal for painters with more experience, oils are a more advanced paint type. They allow you to create advanced techniques and require a bit more time and effort to work with on certain projects. These features make oil paints ideal for projects like:
- Tonal portraits
- Deep colors
- Landscapes and clouds
- Textured paintings
- Surfaces like paper, canvas, wood, and metal
What Is The Difference Between Acrylic and Oil Paint?
The main difference between acrylic and oil paints is the base. Acrylics are water-based, while oil paint is created from drying oils. This feature causes many other differences. Here are the main things to consider.
Both paints contain the same color pigments, so they have the same lightfastness rating or they’re similarly affected by light. Where they differ comes down to the base. This base is a binder, holding the pigment together. Acrylics use a water base, which allows you to add water to bring dried-out paint back to life. Oil paints use an oil base.
Due to the oil base, oil paints are best used with a primer. First, you must apply the base coats to help the oils better adhere to the surface, then you want to seal the final results for a long-lasting finish.
You have options with acrylic paint. You can thin acrylic paints to brush them on, similar to watercolors. Or you can allow children to use the paint with various tools, sponges, and brushes as is. It’s also imperative to use a sealant to prevent the paint from chipping or peeling. Acrylic-specific sealants come in many options, from super gloss to matte.
Acrylic paint dries into a hard finish very quickly, making it a fantastic choice for students. On the other hand, oils require a longer dry time. However, the added time allows artists to alter their work, add detail, and blend colors.
If you have a larger piece or a more detailed painting, consider using oils. But if your project is small or you are working on a tight deadline, you may want to go with acrylics. The longer dry time that oils have may increase the chances of the wet paint becoming damaged.
Both paint types come with varying mediums that allow you to alter the dry time as well. You can use them to slow or speed up the time, and there are many options available for both paints.
Oil paints have high longevity. Many famous paintings from early century oil artists are still on display today, and they’re in incredible condition. While acrylic paints can also last a long time, they are not water-resistant. This factor makes them unable to perform as well over time, due to weather and the moisture in the air.
Elements like moisture and light can also damage any paint type. Because oil and acrylic have the same pigment and lightfast qualities, they both are affected by sunlight, artificial light, and moisture. That said, you can use a sealant to increase the durability of any paint or use a frame with UV protectant glass to keep the color vibrant.
Acrylics adhere easily to many different surfaces, while oil paints work best on prepared canvas or board. Getting the paints to stick to other surfaces is easier with primer as well. That said, oil paints adhere to each other better, making them a better choice for layers.
Oil paints are super thick. As oil paint dries, it creates a film on the surface and builds a barrier between the paint layers, allowing you to easily apply layers of paint on top. The thicker paint also keeps light from passing through the painted material.
As you can imagine, the water-based acrylics are not as thick. The benefit of acrylics is that you can apply the paint in thick coats using a palette knife to apply the paint in thick coats. You cannot achieve the same effect with oil paints due to the dry time. However, acrylic is more likely to peel or chip over time.
Although oil paints are typically thicker than watery acrylics, both paint types can come in varying viscosities. You may find them available in a full range of consistencies, including pourable liquid and heavy-body paints with a texture similar to paste.
Blending and Mixing
You can blend or mix both paint types to create interesting colors or effects. Blending and mixing paints are much easier with oils. Since acrylics dry faster than oil paints, you can mix the colors without worrying about the paint separating. However, oils are more flexible. You can use oil paints in layers or cover a larger surface area until you’re happy with the result.
The oil base also allows for additional blending capabilities because they have fewer binding agents in the paint. This allows the paint to retain moisture and glide over the surface you’re painting. Painting with oils allows you to create smooth textures with ease.
With acrylics, you must mix and blend much faster. You could keep a spray bottle of water nearby to re-wet the paint if it starts to dry too quickly. But adding too much water could make the acrylics appear more like watercolors and take away some of the rich colors.
Color Shift and Quality
Color shift is a term that describes how paint colors change over time, and color quality is a factor in determining if the paint is right for you. Both paints offer many affordable options that you can choose from based on the skill level, brand, and price. But understanding color shift and quality can help you find and mix the best paints for your project.
The main factor to keep in mind is that acrylics are more flat and dense, so they typically dry darker than they appear. Because the binder changes from white to transparent while drying, the color may look different than you expect, which is something to keep in mind when mixing paint as well. However, acrylics don’t fade over time.
Oil paints are typically glossy, opaque, and thick, which allows for endless blending and mixing opportunities. The downside is that the binder in oil paints turns yellow over time, causing a subtle glow or altering the shade.
If you accidentally spill the paints, acrylics would be much easier to wash off. You could use water to wipe it away. Oil paints would require a medium, and they may stain or damage clothing or certain surfaces that they touch.
You can expect painting with these two options to produce varying finishes after drying as well. For example, acrylics are flatter and more matte. You can use another product to add gloss or shine later, though.
With oil paint, you have a more smooth finish. It produces a natural gloss. However, similar to acrylics, some mediums allow you to create a matter or opaque effect. You can include additives to alter the finish and create a more matte appearance, such as painting on a matte varnish as the final layer.
The idea of cleaning your paintbrushes and other tools isn’t exciting, but it’s necessary for the long-term maintenance of your equipment. Decent paint brushes require care for durability, especially if you’re using oil paint.
Because acrylic paint is water-based, cleaning it is a breeze. You don’t need any solvents to clean off brushes or your work area. All you need is soap and water. The paint is also more economical, as you can save time on cleanup after painting.
Oil paints, on the other hand, contain harmful chemicals that can cause damage to the brush bristles. Water is not enough to clean oil paint. You need to use an oil-based medium to clean your brushes after using oil-based paint. Linseed oil is a natural option that conditions the bristles while simultaneously loosening the paint.
Paint solvents and thinners also work well. The downside to using a solvent medium is the chemicals. You must use them with caution. They can harm the bristles in your paintbrushes, causing them to dry out or fade over time. The thinner could also eat away at the wood handles if you leave the brush in the solution too long.
To clean your brushes after using oil paint, you would rub the medium on and mix the brush in a little water, wiping and rinsing until the color is gone. Artists’ soaps may also help get rid of any stains the paint may leave on light-colored bristles without causing damage.
Safety and VOC Levels
Both paints are considered safe and non-toxic when you use them alone. You typically don’t need to use any safety precautions when working with the paints. That said, the best way to know for sure is to check your paint’s label. The ASTM International label on your paint should call out any dangers.
However, many mediums (for both paints) contain harmful toxins. Most oil solvents contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause harm to your eyes, skin, and airways. Paint thinner with petroleum distillate is an especially harmful chemical that evaporates in the air as you breathe, for example.
You may need to wear gloves, a mask, and protective clothing when working with the strong chemicals found in solvents. Also, make sure to protect yourself from the fumes by working in a well-ventilated, open area or near a window. Oil-based paint poisoning could take place if the fumes get in your lungs.
The cost is an important factor for any new hobby or project. If you’re on a budget, go with acrylic paint. It’s a simple option, and you can even use water as a medium. The price makes acrylics the go-to for beginners, students, and children’s projects.
Oil paint is typically more expensive than acrylic. Using oils also comes with the additional expense of the tools and solvents, which can quickly increase the price of your project. Oil brushes, primed canvases, and primers can also cause your project to become more expensive.
Can You Paint Acrylic Over Oil Paints?
Acrylic is not recommended over oil paint. The plastic paint is not breathable and oil paint releases gas slowly over time, so an acrylic on top would crack and flake over time. However, sometimes artists use oil paint over acrylics to bring more shine, texture, or layers to the work.
Can You Mix Oil and Acrylic Paints?
The two different paint types have varying textures, colors, and thicknesses. Due to these features, they do not mix well. Mixing acrylic and oil paints could produce an entirely different result than you wanted. Consider the paints non-compatible.
As an exception to the rule, some people will use certain acrylic paint brands to help dilute or thin oil paints. However, it’s not easy to mix the paints and the result is not normally worth the effort.
Do You Need to Seal Acrylic or Oil Paintings?
You should seal or varnish all paintings for the best result. Paintings are susceptible to contaminants like dust, UV rays, and moisture, all of which can cause added yellowing over time. Varnishing the painting after you’re done allows it to last longer.
Is Acrylic or Oil Painting Easier?
The easier paint type depends on your project. Each paint has its characteristics, just like each project. For example, acrylics are ideal for people who want to paint quickly and easily. The paint products bright colors with ease. Oil paint, on the other hand, is better for artists who want to create a lot of detail and don’t mind a slower pace.
How To Tell the Difference Between Oil and Acrylic Paintings
When looking at oil and acrylic paintings, you can tell the difference based on the texture. Oil painting can produce more texture, but acrylics appear rougher on the surface due to the way the paint dries. To tell for sure, hold the painting at an angle and look at the texture. If it has many layers, it’s likely an oil painting.
Are Acrylic or Oil Paints Toxic?
Some paints contain harmful ingredients, but both acrylic and oil paints are considered non-toxic and safe. It’s the solvents and paint thinners that are typically required to clean after oil paints that contain toxic chemicals.
How to Choose Between Oil and Acrylic Paints
To choose between the two paints, think about your project. Consider your budget, workspace, and the materials you have available. Next, take the surface you’re painting into regard. Ponder the pros and cons between the paints with these things in mind for the best results.
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Is Oil or Acrylic Paint Better?
The debate over which paint is better, oil or acrylic, is never-ending. Some artists find oil paint is easier to use, while others believe acrylic is better. Both options are perfect for a wide range of projects. Based on all the pros and cons we discussed above, acrylic paint is the easier choice. But if you want to explore painting techniques and bring in more detail, go with oil paint.
While oils are excellent for learning how to blend and mix colors as well, acrylics are a go-to because they’re perfect for beginners and various projects. They’re also safe, inexpensive, and easy to clean with soapy water.