Watercolor vs Acrylic Paint: What’s the Difference?

With many paint types on the market to choose from, you probably wonder which option is the best for your project. Watercolor and acrylic are the two most popular paints. There are many differences in the paints and how you use them to consider when it comes to watercolor vs. acrylic.

The main difference between watercolor and acrylic paints is how you use them. Acrylic is quick-drying paint with excellent coverage, while watercolors are transparent and easy to blend with water. They have many differences. However, they are both water-soluble paints.

In this article, we’ll explore the two mediums in-depth. Use the information to choose the paint that’s best for your project.

Watercolor vs Acrylic

Watercolor vs Acrylic Paint: Quick Summary

Watercolor and acrylic are both water-soluble paints, meaning they are easy to thin or remove using water. This feature makes the paints safer and more affordable to use because they don’t contain harsh chemicals. However, the paints differ in how they’re made and used.

For example, watercolors are famous among still life, landscape, or portrait paintings. The paint’s transparency allows you to layer colors as you paint, so painters work in a different order than with acrylic paint.

Acrylic dries quickly and is opaque, so it offers excellent coverage, and you can work the paint from dark to light colors. For this reason, acrylics are typical in decorative painting techniques or faux finishes. They’re fantastic for canvas, but you can use versatile paint for craft projects on many other materials as well.

Watercolor paintings don’t tend to last as long as acrylic paintings. Acrylics can remain vital for centuries. However, the paint’s durability is also affected by light, humidity, temperature, and paint quality.

Finally, the price of the paints is relatively close. Watercolors last longer because you thin them with water, but they come with more expensive paintbrushes. Acrylics, on the other hand, may require other painting products like primer and sealant.

What is Watercolor Paint?

Acrylic vs Watercolor

Watercolor paint is a translucent art medium with a colored pigment in a water-soluble binder. It dissolves when you add water, so you spread the pigment across the textured watercolor paper with a flat paintbrush made for watercolors.

Pros Cons
  • Dries quickly
  • The least expensive paint
  • Natural transparency
  • Easier to cover large areas
  • Leftover paint is reusable by adding water
  • You can add water to make slight changes after the paint is dry
  • Fragile
  • Requires watercolor paper
  • Watercolor techniques are challenging to master
  • Difficult to cover mistakes or remove them from some surfaces once dry

What is Acrylic Paint?

Difference between watercolor and acrylic

Acrylic paint has pigments in a suspended acrylic emulation. It’s water-soluble, but the paint becomes resistant to water after it dries. The fast-drying paint is opaque, so you apply the color in layers from dark to light colors and can continue working paint over dry areas.

Unlike other paint types, acrylics are highly versatile. You can dilute the paint with water or modify it using gels or mediums to resemble watercolor or oil paintings. It’s also ideal for a wide range of surfaces, like canvas, metal, plastic, glass, and more.

Pros Cons
    • Fast-drying
    • Easy to use for beginners
    • Durable and flexible
    • Ideal for painting detail
    • Easy to clean up
    • You can use the paint on various surfaces, from canvas to glass
    • Not easily blended
    • Acrylic paint pigments contain various toxins
    • Once the paint dries, it can’t be altered or removed

What Is the Difference Between Acrylic and Watercolor Paint?

The way both paints are made and used produces many more differences between acrylic and watercolors. Understanding these differences can help you see what each paint offers and where the limitations lie, allowing you to choose one for your project.

Natural Vs. Synthetic Ingredients

Most watercolors are natural paints with a few simple ingredients. Some brands include a synthetic glycol binder, so the ingredients may vary slightly. However, most use a binder such as natural gum Arabic.

The color pigment remains consistent in all watercolors as well. But some manufacturers may include preservatives, honey, glycerin, or ox gall to alter the colors and durability.

On the other hand, acrylic paint is human-made using acrylic resin, pigment, and a binder. The paint has only been around for about 50 years or so.

Paint Types

Both watercolors and acrylics come in multiple paint types. Watercolors are typically in tubes and pans, while acrylics are available in tubes, jars, and bottles.

There are also many acrylic paint types, including:

  • Standard
  • Fluid
  • Long-lasting
  • Slow-drying
  • Re-workable
  • Thick, heavy-bodied paints

You’ll also see acrylic paints in two grades: the artist and student quality. Artist-quality paints are the professional-grade option. They have a higher concentration of color pigment and are available in tons of colors. Student-grade is slightly cheaper and has lower pigment levels, so the color strength is somewhat weaker. However, they’re ideal for beginners and craft projects.

Surfaces You Can Paint

You can only use watercolors on paper, typically textured paper designed for watercolors. It absorbs the paints properly, keeping the water and pigments from bleeding through the paper to stain the surface underneath. Watercolor paper comes in varying thicknesses and textures.

Acrylic paint is more versatile. You can use it on multiple surfaces, like paper, wood, canvas, glass, metal, plastic, and more. Most people use them on canvas, though.

Uses and Styles

Both paint types are similar in that they’re water-soluble. But the way you use the paints with the water differs.

Watercolors are highly transparent. They’re diluted and applied with water, so water plays a massive role in using the paints. Acrylics can be altered with water to simulate watercolors. However, you typically apply them in thick layers. The water comes into play when you want to change colors or clean your brushes after completing the project.

Acrylic paint is also more versatile in application, as you can add impasto gel to create an oil-painting appearance. You can also add impasto gel to tubed watercolors to apply them more thickly, but they cannot produce the same effect.

Durability

Between acrylic and watercolor, you can expect acrylic paint to last longer. Oil paints are the most durable option. However, watercolors are easy to damage with water and other elements.

Acrylic paint has not been around long, but the colors tend not to fade over time like watercolors. Compared to oil paints, acrylics won’t turn yellow in time either. Using primer and varnish also helps extend the lifespan of an acrylic painting.

Smudging

In painting, smudging is how you achieve shading. When using watercolors, you can mix two colors easily. Applying water allows you to bleed the colors together or shade.

Acrylics don’t allow you to mix a dark color after it’s applied to a lighter shade. Instead, the dark color shows through, and the strokes are not smudged completely. You can smudge acrylic using a brush for blending and broad strokes to blend various colors.

Brightness

If you want bright paint, watercolor is the option for you. The pigments are bright and produce a light, tinted effect. Acrylic paints are more vibrant in color. Because you can layer lighter colors and whites over dark acrylic shades, you can create brighter works of art.

Controlling Dark and Light Shades

Acrylic paints require you to start with dark colors and move to light ones. Watercolors are the opposite. Expect acrylics to dry slightly darker, while watercolors dry lighter.

Transparent Vs. Opaque

Although watercolors are more transparent, they come in various styles, from transparent to semi-transparent and opaque. Acrylic paints are often brighter than watercolors due to the way they’re applied. They come in the same options, but the paint is not for use on a transparent medium like watercolors.

The Use of White

When painting with acrylic, you add white paint to lighten colors or add highlights to change the scene. Watercolors do not use white to lighten, as the process only makes the paint more opaque.

Instead, you use the white of the paper and the paint’s transparency to alter tones by adding more water. You can also scratch watercolor or lift off the paint to make the scene lighter.

Priming Your Surface

You don’t need to prime watercolor paper before painting. However, acrylic paint does better if you prime the surface first. Many canvases are pre-primed, so you can sometimes skip preparing the surface and get down to painting.

Dry Time

Acrylic paints are fast-drying. While this means you don’t have to wait long for your project to dry, you must work quickly. This dry time makes it more difficult to blend than watercolor or oil paints. Creating a unified look on a large canvas is nearly impossible for this reason. Acrylics also dry flat, even if you see more texture when the paint is wet.

Watercolors also dry super fast. However, you don’t need to worry about wasting leftovers. Wet the dried paint to reuse it.

Overall, acrylics typically dry faster than watercolors. However, how thick you layer the paint and details about your environment like temperature and humidity can alter the time it takes to dry. Acrylic projects also take longer if you prime and seal the paint, as you must wait for each coat to dry before moving to the next.

Clean Up

Because both paints are water-based, they’re easy to clean with soap and water. Watercolors are the better option for easy clean-up, though.

Watercolor paints are less likely to ruin your clothing or paint brushes. Even if you forget to wash the brushes, the paint won’t cause damage. All you have to do is give them a quick rinse, and you can start painting again.

Acrylics dry quickly and should never dry on your brushes or clothing. Once the paint dries, it’s much more difficult to clean. You must clean your brushes and workspace immediately. Otherwise, you could damage your brushes and stain your work surface or clothing.

Cost

Due to the tube size, acrylics may appear more affordable than watercolors. Cost varies from brand to brand. However, watercolors are also relatively inexpensive. You’re also more likely to use less watercolor paint than acrylics, making them last longer.

The main price difference is the paintbrushes. High-quality watercolor brushes cost much more than acrylic brushes. They come in a range of prices, with natural and semi-natural among the most expensive, and human-made brushes are among the lower end.

But you may need added products to paint with acrylics, like primer and sealer or varnish. The paintbrushes may be cheaper, but you may pay more for all the things you need to purchase, depending on your project.

Watercolor vs. Acrylic for Beginners

Acrylic paint vs watercolor

When it comes to choosing between watercolor and acrylic paint for beginners, go with acrylic. The medium is more forgiving, allowing you to learn and make mistakes that you paint over later. It’s also ideal to use when you begin painting because you can mix the paints.

Watercolors have a reputation as the most challenging medium to learn. It takes time and effort to master watercolor techniques compared to acrylic paint. It would be best if you also worked much harder to cover or remove mistakes.

Can You Paint Watercolor Over Acrylic?

Although both paints are water-soluble, you cannot paint watercolor over acrylic. Watercolors will pool on the surface of an acrylic background, causing the plastic acrylic paint to warp. On the other hand, a clear acrylic could help protect watercolor from exposure issues.

That said, you might be able to use watercolors over a watered-down acrylic to glaze it. If the acrylic is too thick, the watercolor does not stick.

Watercolor or Acrylic: Which Paint is Safer?

Both watercolor and acrylic paints are non-toxic and safe for kids to use. However, toxic is not the same as safe. Although acrylic is safer and less harmful than oil paints, watercolors are the safest choice.

Acrylic paint can contain toxins. The paint pigments sometimes have various toxins. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says formaldehyde and ammonia in the paint could cause respiratory irritation  if ingested.

Watercolors are non-toxic and safe. The Missouri Poison Center says watercolors don’t cause symptoms if you ingest small amounts. However, some colors are hazardous. They include ingredients like zinc, cadmium, and cobalt.

Which Paint Does Professional Artists Use?

Acrylic paint is a popular choice for professional artists and crafters alike due to the flexibility and versatility of the paint. It also has a fast dry time and provides easy clean-up compared to oil paints. Unlike watercolors, acrylics allow you to create detailed designs that last a long time.

That said, professional artists use watercolors too.

The Best Acrylic Paints

Artist-grade is the highest quality acrylic paints you can buy. They have vibrant pigments, high-performance ratings and tend to come in tons of colors. Here are some of the best acrylic paints available on the market today.

Liquitex BASICS Tube Acrylic Paint Set

Acrylic Paint SetLiquitex BASICS is an artist-grade acrylic paint. The brand has been in business since 1955, and they specialize in tube acrylics. In this paint set, you get 48 of the highest-quality paints. The paint goes through a rigorous manufacturing process to produce tiny, ground pigments with the most vibrant colors.

You can use this paint set for all your projects. The paint dries fast and adheres to a variety of surfaces and textiles. The opacity is even adjustable. Plus, the set includes everything else you need to prep and finish your project.

Arteza Acrylic Paint Set

Arteza Acrylic Paint, Set of 60 Colors/Tubes (0.74 oz, 22 ml) with Storage Box, Rich Pigments, Non Fading, Non Toxic Metallic Paints for Artist & Hobby Painters, Art Supplies for Canvas PaintingThe Arteza Acrylic Paint Set is another top artist-quality option. The premium kit comes with 60 tubes of rich, vivid colors. The smooth paint and high pigments allow the shade to maintain its color over a long period. The paint is certified non-toxic and safe. Plus, each tube has a label with the lightfastness rating, opacity level, and pigment information.

Unlike many other acrylic paint sets, Arteza even offers a 100% money-back guarantee. If you’re not thrilled with your paint supplies, you can return them for a replacement or refund.

The Best Watercolor Paints

The best watercolor paints come from reliable, well-established brands. Single pigment paints have more lively colors. Look for the lightfastness rating on the label to see how long the paint should perform as well. The following are some of the best watercolor paints.

MeiLiang Watercolor Paint Set

Watercolor Paint SetThe MeiLiang Watercolor Paint Set is ideal for beginners, students, kids, or professional artists. The set comes with 36 vivid colors made with high-quality Arabic gum, which boosts the transparency and gloss of the paints while heightening the color intensity. The high pigment quality mixes well, and it’s safe and non-toxic.

MeiLiang Watercolors comes with a satisfaction guarantee. Contact the company with any complaints or issues for a quick resolution. The kit even adds in a watercolor brush and metal carrying case to keep your paints safe.

Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colour Paint Set

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Paint, Plus Set 24 Half Pans, Set of 24If you’re looking for a fantastic and affordable student-grade watercolor set, go with Winsor & Newton Cotman tube paints. You could use the tubes to refill half pans of cake-like watercolors or directly apply the paint from the tube.

The Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor paint set includes 12 small, 8mL tubes. The paint is made to the company’s high-quality standards. They cut costs by using some less expensive alternatives to costly pigments. However, the paint has decent transparency and excellent tint strength.

Conclusion

Choosing between watercolor and acrylic paints depends on your project. Both options come in professional grades, which use high-quality paint pigments for vibrant color. They’re both also water-based, but the paints have many differences. Consider how you use each paint and other elements to determine which one is best for your project.

Did our in-depth guide help you figure out which paint to use? If you enjoyed this article, please share your experiences in the comments and let your friends know.

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