Medium matters: a comparison of acrylic and oil paints

Palette of colorful artist oil paints

Artist disclaimer: my admiration for oil paints and the artistic legacy they embody runs deep; however, my own personal artistic journey is exclusively paved with acrylics. The decision to remain within the realm of acrylics is not merely a choice of preference, but a practical consideration. The prospect of managing two distinct sets of brushes, essential for the non-mixable nature of oil and acrylic paints, is a logistical challenge I choose to sidestep. Moreover, investing in the comprehensive spectrum of a second medium (in my case, oils), along with the necessary supplies, demands not only a substantial financial commitment but also necessitates dedicating precious studio space – a luxury I currently lack. Despite the allure of oil, I am, unequivocally, an acrylic painter. Join me as we explore and compare these two mediums...

 Artist acrylic paints in the art studio of painter Claire Desjardins.

Acrylics or oil paints?

Artists, both seasoned and budding, often find themselves standing before the expansive world of paint, contemplating the choice between oil and acrylic. Each medium possesses its unique characteristics, offering a distinctive journey on the canvas. In this artistic exploration, let's dive into the differences between oil paints and acrylic paints, helping artists make informed decisions about their chosen medium.

Colourful abstract painting by artist Claire Desjardins: "The Most Perfect Day".

Drying time

One of the most notable distinctions between oil and acrylic paints lies in their drying time. Acrylics dry relatively quickly, allowing artists to build layers and complete a painting in a shorter time frame. On the other hand, oil paints have a slower drying time, giving artists the luxury of manipulating the paint for a more extended period. This slow-drying nature also allows for subtle blending and the creation of intricate details.

Viscosity and texture

The viscosity, or thickness, of the paint varies significantly between oils and acrylics. Oil paints tend to have a higher viscosity, resulting in a smooth, buttery consistency. This characteristic makes them ideal for impasto techniques and creating texture on the canvas. Acrylics, on the contrary, have a more fluid consistency, but artists can alter their thickness by adding mediums like gels or pastes.

Paintbrush moving paint around on substrate: vivid reds and greens.

Color shift and saturation

Artists often praise the vibrancy and richness of color achievable with oil paints. The colors in oil paintings tend to remain true over time, as they don't experience the same level of color shift as acrylics. Acrylic paints can dry slightly darker than when initially applied, altering the perceived color. However, acrylics offer a vast range of pigments with high saturation, providing artists with intense and bold hues.

Layering and blending

The ability to layer and blend colors is a crucial aspect for many artists. Oil paints excel in this regard due to their slow drying time, allowing for seamless blending and the creation of translucent layers. Acrylics, while also versatile, require artists to work swiftly to achieve similar effects. However, some artists appreciate the challenge of working within the time constraints imposed by acrylics.

Abstract acrylic painting by artist Claire Desjardins: "Snug as a Bug in a Rug".

Support and preparation

The choice of support and surface preparation can influence the performance of both oil and acrylic paints. Oil paints typically require a primed surface, often stretched canvas or wooden panels, to prevent the paint from deteriorating the support over time. Acrylics are more forgiving in terms of support, allowing artists to paint on a variety of surfaces, including paper, canvas, and even wood, without the same risk of damage.

In the grand tapestry of artistic expression, the choice between oil and acrylic paints adds another layer of nuance to an artist's creative process. Whether one opts for the slow-drying elegance of oils or the fast-paced versatility of acrylics, both mediums offer a myriad of possibilities for self-expression. The key lies in understanding the characteristics of each and embracing the unique challenges and advantages they bring to the canvas. So, as you embark on your next artistic endeavor, let the choice between oil and acrylic paints be a conscious decision, guiding your brush to create masterpieces that reflect your individual style and vision.

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thankyou. Very clear and organized explanation. I have allways painted with oil and I was wandering how crilics work. Sometimes I think I wont get the richness of color and density/texture that oil offers

Mirella salcedo

I used to paint exclusively with oils, but I switched to acrylics because I developed a sensitivity to the solvents used. As well , I was concerned about air quality in my home, where my studio was located.

Barbara Ibronyi

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