Jesse writes: What is the difference between acrylic and oil paint? I started in acrylics about a year ago, but I’m suddenly interested in the slow progress of oil paint. What does it take? You are such a huge inspiration to me, I think that you’ve started a spark in me!
I’m asked this by students all the time so I’m really glad you’ve asked this!
- Water based
- Can be thinned with water or a mixing medium.
- Brushes clean with water (although a conditioning soap will make them last longer).
- Acrylics dry VERY quickly. You can speed this time by using a hair dryer.
- An experienced acrylic artist’s acrylic paintings can look just like an oil painting when varnished with a gloss finish. For me, if you can look at one of my acrylic paintings and tell it is acrylic vs oil…something went terribly wrong on my end. There are times when I can’t remember if something I did was oil or acrylic and I have to go look it up in my records because I really can’t tell by looking at the painting.
- Acrylics are faster to work in because you’re not fighting a dry time, but blending large areas can be difficult to learn.
- You can use an airbrush to mist water on your wet paint directly on the canvas. This can keep the paint wet for as long as you need it to be, just keep misting more water.
- No harsh fumes or chemicals in most acrylic paints.
- Oil based
- Can be thinned with paint thinner or a mixing medium.
- Brushes take more work to clean. You will use paint thinner (or one of any number of other harsh cleaners like turpentine, or even some natural ones which I find to be even harsher…looking at you lavender brush cleaner, I stick with mona lisa odorless myself) and then a conditioning soap to make the brushes last longer.
- The dry time of oils depends on the type of oils and mixing medium that you use. I use liquin as my mixing medium so most of what I paint is dry to the touch within 24 hours. This gives me plenty of time to blend, but also dries fast enough that I can keep working on my painting the next day.
- Wet into wet blending for soft backgrounds or transitions in skin tone or fur is MUCH easier to do in oils than acrylics.
- The oil painting fumes are toxic. You do not want to paint these in a room with a bird for example. It will likely kill the bird, especially smaller birds like canaries.
- It’s easier to create mud with oils by over blending. This can completely be avoided when you get the hang of letting your paint dry between layers and not over blending.
Which should I start with?
When students ask me which is easier to start with, I always answer oils. Unless it’s a child. Children have a harder time keeping their hands/brushes clean so I would not usually recommend starting them with oils until they learn that control with acrylics. I know that sounds backwards, the thought of oils intimidate many people, but when you know how to layer and when to let the oil dry (check out this video), it’s much easier to control for most people than acrylics. Students often get quickly annoyed with how fast the acrylics dry. While I do recommend using an airbrush to keep the canvas wet as you blend with acrylics, this takes a bit of practice to get used to.
No matter which medium you choose to start with, it will take some practice. Don’t expect your first few paintings to be a masterpiece. Allow yourself to make a mess on the canvas as you learn how to best use them. I personally love working in both mediums. I find that when a student started with acrylics, they felt like they were cheating when moving onto oils given how much easier it was to blend wet into wet with that medium.