Oil vs acrylic: which medium should you choose? Learn what the differences are so you can decide which medium would suit you best.
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The main differences between oil and acrylic paint
Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil, such as linseed oil. Acrylic paint is a fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion.
The main differences between these two types of paint are the drying time and the materials that should be used with each type of paint.
Oil paint dries slowly, which allows the artist to blend colors and create complex effects. Acrylic paint dries quickly, which can be advantageous for working in separate colour layers or on large canvases.
What is the paint made from?
The main difference between oil and acrylic paint that affects the working properties of the two paint mediums in the difference in the binder used to make both acrylic and oil paint.
What is oil paint made from?
The very basic recipe of oil paint is pigment + a binder. The binder will be a drying oil like linseed, safflower or poppy. Some brands of oil paint will add various fillers, dryers and additives to their oil paint recipe.
What is acrylic paint made from?
In acrylic paint, the binder will be a type of polymer resin. Pigments used in oil and acrylic will generally be the same, which is why you get consistent colour names from brands of acrylic and oil. Colours such as Ultramarine will contain the same pigment, despite the medium.
Do the ingredients affect the properties of the paint?
The main difference then, is the binder. Acrylic binders are chemically very different to oil binders and thus have different working properties.
The main difference is that oil is hydrophobic—it repels water. So oil paint cannot be mixed with water to make it runnier or to clean from materials. You have to use more oil, an alternative medium or solvent to get your desired effects. Acrylic paint on the other hand is water soluble, so you can mix water in with your paint and clean your materials with it. Once acrylic paint is dry, however, it’s not resoluble like watercolour is.
Polymer resin dries differently to oil. Acrylic dries by evaporation. Once the paint film is dry, it’s completely set and won’t change any further.
However, there are two stages to the process of drying in oil paint. First, it becomes dry to the touch, then it oxidises (cures). The molecules in the paint react with oxygen in the air and harden.
The drying time is different
The drying time of the paint greatly affects how the artist uses it. However, artists can alter the drying time of both types of paints using a medium.
What is the drying time of oil paint?
Oil takes a long time to dry fully. This is due to the two step drying and curing process it undergoes.
Oil can feel dry to the touch after several days. Oil paint lends itself to techniques such as blending which require a longer open working time.
For example, if you want to paint a large canvas with a sunset sky gradient, oils would be perfect to use as you could spend as long as you need blending the colours together without worrying about it drying up.
However, the curing process in oils takes place over the course of several months, even up to a year depending on how thickly the paint has been applied.
You won’t notice the curing process taking place. Once the paint is touch dry, it won’t change in appearance.
It’s important to know about the curing process for two reasons. The first is that the paint film whilst drying is contracting ever so slightly. This means that paint layered on top should not dry more quickly than the paint layer below. The top layers of a painting should be more oil rich and flexible, to allow for the drying and shifting to take place beneath. This principle is called the fat over lean rule and is one of the main guidelines of oil painting.
Another reason is that if you are varnishing a painting with damar resin (traditional varnish), you should wait until the painting has cured to avoid cracking. You can always get a synthetic varnish like Gamvar, though which can be applied as soon as the painting is touch dry.
The drying time of oil seems slow, but you can add a medium to your paint mixture to speed it up. A medium such as Liquin will make your paint dry much faster, usually within a day. If you want to work faster, creating wet on dry layers with hard edges, a fast drying medium can help you achieve this in much better time.
A fast drying medium also acts to level the drying time across your paint colours, as some pigments dry faster than others. For example, Burnt Umber and some other earth colours dry within a day. Whereas Titanium White can take around three days to dry straight from the tube.
A huge advantage of the slow drying time with oils is that you can keep your paint wet on the palette for days at a time. If you seal your palette in a container like the Masterson Palette Seal then put it in the fridge, the paint squeezed onto your palette can stay workable for up to a week. The cold and lack of air prevents the oil from oxidising.
What is the drying time of acrylic paint?
Acrylic paint dries fast, the drying time of tube paint (depending on the brand you use) will be around 20-40 minutes. It can be a challenge to mix colours on a palette with such a short open working time. There are ways to slow the drying time, however.
If you are someone who likes to paint slowly and create blended effects in your work, then you can achieve this with acrylic, despite the fast drying time. There are three ways of doing this:
- Use a medium to slow drying time. Mediums such as this fluid retarder will increase the open working time.
- Open Acrylics by Golden dry slowly. These acrylic paints have been specially formulated to have a similar drying time to oil. They will take around 10 times longer than regular acrylics to dry.
- Get a Stay Wet Palette. These palettes are sealable and have a wet base that prevents your acrylics from drying up. If you use this along with Golden’s Open Acrylics, you could keep your paint wet on the palette for weeks at a time.
Oil vs acrylic: Which is safer?
Generally speaking, acrylic paints are safer to use than oil. However, the answer to this is a little more complex.
Acrylic paints are safer and easier to use in smaller working spaces with less ventilation because they are water soluble. There’s no need to thin paint or clean materials with harsh solvent. So you don’t need to worry too much about your materials being harmful when using acrylic.
When it comes to the paint itself, acrylic and oil are both non-toxic and safe for air quality. The only exception is with pigments such as lead, cobalt and cadmium red or yellow which some oil and acrylic paint brands manufacture. If you’re using these pigments then make sure to wear gloves to prevent your skin coming into contact with the toxic pigments. Most paint brands use pigments that have been made to substitute for these toxic pigments.
One thing to consider is that drying oil is combustible. So if you leave bunched up oil soaked cloths or paper towels lying around, there is a chance that they could cause a fire. If you’re using a lint free cloth to wipe oil residue on during a painting session, just soak the cloth in dish soap when you’re done, that will remove the oil. To dispose of paper towels, keep them in an airtight container filled with water until you can take them to your local hazardous waste disposal centre. Or call up your local council and enquire where to best dispose of it.
Artists consider oils less safe to work with mainly because oil doesn’t mix with water—they need to be thinned with solvent.
The fumes in solvents such as odourless mineral spirits and turpentine are toxic and carcinogenic to breathe in. Even brands of odourless mineral spirits that market themselves as ‘studio safe’ do still have some level of toxicity.
So if you want to work with odourless mineral spirits or turpentine I would advise working in a large room with at least two windows that can be left open for air to circulate properly. You need good ventilation to work with these solvents otherwise it could make you ill.
Can you use safer solvents for oil?
Oil of spike lavender is a studio safe solvent. It’s non toxic and it’s not a carcinogen. I would recommend ventilating your room properly before working with it though and wearing protective gear such as gloves if you think it might come into contact with skin.
The great thing about oil of spike lavender is that it’s more effective at thinning oil paint than odourless mineral spirits and just as effective as turpentine. Pigment will disperse evenly through a layer of oil of spike lavender and leave a satin-like finish to your paint film. It can be used for thinning resins such as damar too.
Because oil of spike lavender is such a great paint thinner and because it’s safe (and has a wonderful aroma) it’s more expensive. A little goes a long way, though. I bought a small 8oz bottle over a year ago and I’m not even ⅓ of the way through, even though I’ve been painting almost daily since then.
Chelsea Classical Studios create a wonderful range of oil painting mediums that are oil of spike lavender based, check them out here.
Can you paint in oils without using solvent?
It’s possible to paint without solvent and actually really easy. I use oil of spike lavender in the first layers of my painting process, because it thins the paint and dries quickly. But you don’t need to thin the paint in the first layers of a painting.
You could paint straight from the tube instead, then gradually increase the oil content of your paint with each consecutive layer. Or you could mix in a medium like Liquin to speed up drying time.
I don’t clean my materials with solvent. Instead, I use brush soap at the end of the painting session which cleans, conditions and preserves brushes. My materials are in a much better condition since I stopped using solvent.
Throughout the painting session, I use safflower oil to remove oil paint from the bristles when changing colours.
Although oils have a bad reputation for being less safe than other painting mediums, as long as you dispose of paint waste properly, don’t use toxic pigments and stay away from solvent, the safety aspect is pretty much the same as any other painting medium.
Do you have to use different supplies for oil and acrylic?
Which brushes do you use for oil painting?
For oil painting, you can use any type of brush with any sort of hair fibre. Be it natural hair (sable, squirrel, goat or hog), or synthetic. Hog hair works well with thicker paint as the stiff fibres can easily move it across the canvas. If you want to use softer bristles like sable, make your paint runnier with a medium. Synthetic bristles are springier than natural hair and more resistant to solvent.
Here are the best brushes for oil painting:
- Da Vinci Sable brushes are soft, weasel hair brushes. The round brushes taper to a point and hold their shape well, but work best with very runny oil.
- Raphael Paris Hog Brushes are stiff and perfect for moving thick paint.
- Escoda Modernista Tadami Brushes are springy and flexible synthetic brushes that comes in a range of shapes and sizes.
Which brushes can you use for acrylic painting?
Synthetic brushes are best for acrylic painting. The filaments in the bristles are more resistant to the chemicals in the paint.
Plus hog brushes don’t perform well when mixed with water. You can get synthetic brushes that are stiff like hog or soft like sable. The great thing about synthetic brushes is that they are so springy that they can move viscous paint like acrylic across the canvas with ease.
Best brushes for acrylic painting:
- Silver Bristlon Brushes are synthetic hog. Stiff synthetics, perfect for moving heavy body paint.
- Winsor & Newton Monarch Brush is moderately stiff and very springy, giving you great control.
- Escoda Primera Teijin Brushes are soft synthetics. Use these with soft body paint and for creating detail.
Which surfaces should you use with oil/ acrylic paints?
For the most part, you can use the same surfaces for oil and acrylic painting.
Cotton or linen canvases, wooden panels, Gessobord, oil paper and acrylic paper are some of the most common surfaces you’ll find for the two mediums.
Oil paint dries to be more brittle than acrylic. Acrylic paint is flexible. So a flexible surface like canvas would be more suited to working in acrylics than oils. Artists use canvas with oil, as it is lightweight. However, linen is much more suitable for oil painting as it is more rigid and less flexible. A surface that warps could cause the more brittle oils to crack over time.
If you choose to paint on unprimed canvas or wood, the surface preparation method is the same for both oil and acrylic.
Which palettes can you use with oil/ acrylic paints?
For oil painting, the best palettes available are either tempered glass or wood. Tempered glass is easiest to clean, wooden palettes are lightweight and handheld.
Palettes suitable for acrylic painting are tempered glass and Stay Wet Palettes. Wooden palettes don’t work well with acrylic because the paint dries so fast, they can be really tricky to clean.
Which is more expensive, oil vs acrylic?
Let’s compare prices of acrylic and oil paint for different budgets.
There are artist quality brands like Schmincke that produce both oil and acrylic paint.
Schmincke Primacryl (acrylic) starts at £7.90 for a 60ml tube. None of their acrylic colours go above the price of £16. Schmincke Mussini (their oil collection) starts at £8.70 for 35ml and the more expensive pigments can go up to £45+.
A midrange paint like Winsor & Newton Professional starts at £6.20 for 60ml of acrylic paint and doesn’t go above £16. Their budget acrylics start at £3.20. Winsor & Newton’s Professional oil range is a little more expensive. Prices start at £6.20 for 37ml and prices go up to £22+. Their budget oil paint range Winton starts at £3.10.
So there you can see that oil paint is generally more expensive than acrylic paint.
The other materials available to buy, like painting surfaces, brushes, easels and other studio equipment will be the same price regardless of the medium you choose.
How does it feel to paint with oil vs acrylic?
Many artist grade ‘heavy body’ oil paints have been designed to emulate the properties of oil. Due to the fast drying times, unless you use Open Acrylics or a slow drying medium, acrylic paint can start to feel sticky pretty fast. Where oil has this wonderfully smooth, creamy consistency, sometimes painting with acrylic can make the bristles on your brush feel like they are dragging a little bit.
Soft body acrylic paint feels runnier, a little bit like gouache. However this can feel sticky quickly unless you add a medium.
Which is easier to clean, oil vs acrylic?
If you paint solvent free with oil, you don’t have to worry about the heady fumes coming from the paint thinner. Cleaning up without a solvent is really easy and it’s the method that I advise everyone to start off with.
Clean brushes throughout the session with safflower oil, wiping oily residue on a paper towel. Then at the end of the session swill your brushes in some brush soap to remove all the oil from the bristles. It’ll keep them in perfect condition.
To clean a glass palette, scrape dried paint with a razor scraper. Simply wipe away wet paint mixes that you don’t need with a paper towel.
Acrylic paint can be more difficult to remove from brushes. You can clean with just water, or you can use a brush cleaning soap like the Master’s Brush Cleaner just as you would for oil. I recommend getting a brush washer to remove acrylic paint from your brushes throughout the painting session.
Cleaning a glass palette is the same for acrylic as it is for oil, just scrape away dry paint. If you use a Stay Wet Palette, you can throw the palette sheet in the bin.
Do you use different techniques for oil and acrylic painting?
Creating hard edges is easier in acrylic paint because it dries so fast. However, creating softer edges is more tricky because of the fast drying time.
Impasto is a technique perfectly suited to acrylic painting. Because the paint dries fast, you can quickly layer heavy body paint thickly onto your canvas to create texture. It works with oils too, but you might need a fast drying impasto medium.
Most techniques you use with oils can be used with acrylics too. The only exception is Alla Prima (wet-on-wet) which requires the paint to stay wet on the canvas before the painting session is complete. Another technique you might struggle with when using acrylic paint is blending.
Is it easier to paint with acrylic or oil?
If you have some painting experience already, either with watercolour or gouache, it can feel easier transitioning to acrylic paint if you are used to mixing your paints with water.
Getting into a routine of thinning paint with solvent or using oil mediums can take some getting used to. If you don’t mind making that transition, or if you are completely new to painting, there are many benefits to oil painting, such as the luminosity in colours and the smooth texture, that makes it worthwhile.
The answer to this though, is that it’s just down to personal preference. I find oils easier to paint in, because I enjoy using techniques like blending and glazing which are better suited to oil painting. When painting, I like the idea that my paint will stay wet on my canvas and palette, because I work quite slowly and enjoy blending colours on the canvas.
If you work fast and want to create thick textural paintings, it might be worth trying acrylic.
Travelling with oil vs acrylic paint
If you’re just travelling locally, by car, boat or train, it’s pretty straightforward to pack away and transport either medium.
There are some brilliant Field Easels you can buy that are perfect for travelling with. They come with inbuilt glass palettes and storage for your materials.
Because some of the mediums made for oil are a fire hazard, it can be more tricky taking them on flights. To avoid any problems at customs with your paint, read these tips for travelling with oil paints.
I have usually opted to take acrylics with me when I’ve travelled by airplane in the past and have encountered no problems.
Will there be differences in the finished appearance of a painting?
Oil paintings often appear more luminous. This is due to the higher pigment content in oil paint.
Wet oil paint will appear the same colour as it does when it’s dry. Oils become more transparent with age and if you have used linseed oil, they can have a tendency to yellow slightly. This change will take place over the course of many years, however.
Acrylic paints change colour as they dry ever so slightly and become darker. Over the years, their appearance will not change much.
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