oil vs acrylic vs watercolour

Oil vs Acrylic vs Watercolour: How to Choose a Painting Medium

You may feel inspired to dip your toes into the world of painting, but which medium should you choose to start? 

There’s no right or wrong answer and no single perfect medium for beginners. The medium you choose will depend upon the effects you want to achieve, the kinds of painting styles you feel drawn to and to some extent, how much time and effort you’re prepared to put into learning.

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A summary of oil vs acrylic vs watercolour painting

The three main paint mediums are all similar in the sense that they are made from pigment suspended in a binder. Pigments are finely ground particles that give paint its colour. Binder is the adhesive element that pigment is suspended through. It’s the type of binder that is used that differs between oil, acrylic and watercolour paint. 

The binder in acrylic paint has completely different working properties to the binder in watercolour paint. This influences the way artists use the medium, the techniques they use and the finished appearance of the painting.

What is oil paint?

John Singer Sargent: The Mountains of Moab

Pigment suspended in drying oil are the main ingredients in oil paint. Drying oil is usually either linseed, poppy or safflower.

What are the properties of oil paint?

This medium is the slowest drying of all the painting mediums. Paint is thick in consistency straight from the tube; layer it on the canvas to create textural artworks. Oil can also be thinned with a medium to make runny, which is better for detail work.

Certain pigments have transparent properties. Apply transparent pigments to the canvas in thin layers and previous layers of the painting will shine through. When using oil, you can create subtle colour shifts and fine details, enabling artists to create realistic looking pieces.

The oil in the paint enhances the appearance of the pigments. By using oil paint, you can achieve deep, saturated colours and dramatic contrasts.

Oil paint feels rich, buttery, smooth and luxurious. If you’re the kind of artist who wants to really invest some time in mastering a medium, oil paint could be the one for you. 

There are more steps to the process with oil compared to other mediums, a few more safety precautions to consider, and much longer to wait for it to dry. Plus materials are usually more expensive. But it’s so worth it for the results you can achieve and how it feels to paint with the medium.

How long has oil painting been around?

Claude Monet: The Cliff and Porte d’Aval

The oil painting medium has been around for centuries, the old masters and many 19th and 20th century artists painted using oil. Many professional contemporary artists favour using oil too.

You can see how diverse the techniques and effects of oil can be if you go to any gallery or museum. Van Gogh spread paint thickly on the canvas using stiff brushes and vibrant colours. Whereas Rembrandt used a muted, darker colour palette and fine glazes to create smooth colour transitions and details. 

Is oil paint for professional artists?

Many professional artists favour oil painting. By using artist grade paint, linen canvas or wood and varnishing the artwork, you can create archival artworks, meaning they will last centuries. The longevity of an artwork is something buyers consider when purchasing. 

What is acrylic paint?

Roy Lichtenstein: Cape Cod Still Life

Acrylic paint is a relatively new medium, it was invented in the 1950s. Since then, there have been many famous adopters. 

Andy Warhol used acrylic paint in the 20th century. Roy Lichtenstein used an early version of acrylic paint called magna. In the modern day, numerous artists, beginners and professionals alike, use this painting medium.

What is acrylic paint made from?

Acrylic paint is made from pigment and a polymer binder. It is a water based paint, once water has evaporated, the binder and pigment form a hardened, flexible film on the surface.

You will see that most acrylic paint colours have the same names as oil colours. This is because many acrylic paint brands use the same pigments as oil paint brands.

What are the properties of acrylic paint?

Acrylic paint is fast drying. Paint is water soluble when wet, but is not soluble when dry. This means that you must clean materials when paint is still wet. 

This type of paint works with a variety of different techniques and applications. Acrylic paints come in a range of consistencies to suit different artists. For example, soft body paint is runny and suitable for detail work, pouring onto a surface, or even spraying with an airbrush (although you would have to add additives to the mixture). Heavy body paint is thick and can be applied to a canvas with a palette knife if you want to create almost sculptural looking works. 

The results can emulate oil, due to the vivid nature of the colours and the ability to create thick textural works, or thin transparent glazes. It is perhaps more versatile than oil due to the extra techniques you can use, such as acrylic pour painting and airbrushing. So in summary, with acrylic, you could use it for more traditional techniques, or experimental applications.

Although acrylic is water soluble while it’s still wet, take care with how much water you add. If you add more than around 25% of water to the paint film, it can become brittle. Consider adding an acrylic medium instead, to alter the working properties of the paint to make it runnier and more workable.

What is watercolour paint?

J.M.W Turner: San Giorgio Maggiore in the Morning

Watercolour paint is made from fine particles of pigment suspended in water soluble binder. The binder in most watercolour paints is gum arabic. Other additives are used such as glycerine, wetting agents and sometimes ingredients such as honey are used to give the paint a smoother consistency. 

The paints are sold as either dry pans, or tubes of liquid. Water is added to thin the paint and make it spread on the surface.

What are the properties of watercolour paints?

Watercolour is a fluid, transparent medium that requires an absorbent surface to paint onto. Paint in pans must be thinned with water to ‘activate’ them and make them workable.

Paint is water soluble when wet and it’s also water soluble when dry. Adding layers of watercolour onto previous dry layers will reactivate the watercolour. This means that colours combine. For this reason, artists work by painting light colours first, then gradually adding in the darker colours. It’s possible to paint separate layers of watercolour without the colours bleeding into one another, use a masking medium for this purpose.

Watercolour is translucent, so it’s the colour of the paper that gives the impression of light and luminosity. Some pigments have staining properties, others will lift from the paper. Look on the paint tube for information about the individual properties of the pigment you are using.

Due to the translucent properties of the watercolour and the fact that it’s thinned with water, watercolour paintings often look muted in appearance. Paintings often take on a high key appearance with lighter colours that seem to blend into one another.

Watercolour, just like acrylic and oil is an archival medium. Use acid-free paper, professional grade paints and frame artwork behind museum glass to prevent colours from fading over time.

Oil vs acrylic vs watercolour: What are the main differences?

Drying time

Watercolour dries quickly and it has a relatively simple drying process. As it’s a water soluble medium, water evaporates from the paint mixture, leaving the gum, pigment and other ingredients to set on the paper. Expect watercolour to dry between five minutes and half an hour. The drying time also depends on the environment. If you paint in a dry, hot climate, watercolour will dry quicker than if you paint in a humid environment.

Acrylic is another fast drying medium. This is an advantage for some artists who like to work quickly in layers. Expect your paint layer to dry in around half an hour, although this depends on how thickly it’s been applied and how much water has been added. A type of acrylics called Open Acrylics have been designed to dry as slowly as oil paint. Open Acrylics will take around a day to dry fully.

Oil paint takes the longest to dry, and it undergoes a curing process. Paint that has been applied thickly, without added mediums or drying agents could take weeks or months to harden. Thinner layers of oil paint will feel dry to the touch in around one to three days. To learn more about the oil paint drying process and how you can alter it, read our guide.

How does it feel to use the different paint mediums?

Oil paint feels soft and buttery. It’s thick straight from the tube and different brands of paint can range in their consistencies. Paint is easy to blend and layer. However, because of the slow drying time, you may get to a point with a certain layer where it feels overworked. It’s always a good idea to wait for a layer to dry and start fresh if you feel like colours are blending into one another too much and are starting to look muddy. 

The results with watercolour paint are more unpredictable and less easy to control. You can try and guide the direction of the paint, but when lots of water is involved, the colours can have a mind of their own. Practice being restrictive when painting with watercolour, as mistakes are harder to correct. This is why artists paint light to dark and cautiously add in darker colours. Paint is wonderfully smooth and runny, which makes painting detail and also covering large areas of paper quickly easy.

Acrylic paint can feel thick if you’re working straight from the tube with heavy body paint. Equally, paint can feel fairly runny if you’re using soft body paint. However, soft body acrylic is runny like thinned oil, it’s not nearly the same consistency as watercolour. Artist quality colours like Golden will feel buttery, almost as soft as oil paint, but due to the fast drying time, they can feel quite tacky and sticky fairly quickly. If you like working quickly, acrylic would be perfect for you. Create illustrative style paintings, or distinct, separate layers of colour that don’t blend into one another.

Supplies and resources needed

Get an idea for what you will need in order to start painting. Not all supplies are essential and there are budget friendly ways to invest in art supplies. If you’re on a budget, it’s possible to strike a balance between affordability and quality. Below, I outline the essentials, with some recommendations of materials that are a joy to use.

Watercolour supplies

oil vs acrylic vs watercolour supplies

You don’t need many supplies to get started with watercolour:

  • Paint: get a set of pans or tubes. Daniel Smith, Sennelier, Winsor & Newton are all great quality and stock affordable paint. Paint that is less expensive but also decent quality is Winsor & Newton’s Cotman range.
  • Brush: Get a soft brush to move fluid paint. A synthetic brush in a round size 4 like the Da Vinci Casaneo would be suitable for most watercolour applications. Get a larger flat brush if you anticipate you will be painting large washes of colour. Natural sable brushes are another option to consider, they’re more expensive and are made from animal hair. 
  • Jars of water: use jars or mugs you find around the house. Or get some handmade pottery to jazz up your space. These beautiful containers from Etsy come with a brush rest on them. Rest your brush flat instead of leaving it upside down in water to prevent bristles from splaying.
  • Paper: Canson Heritage paper is a great, high quality paper (it’s also vegan). Hot pressed paper is smoother, less absorbent and better for fine detail work. Cold pressed paper is more absorbent (so can take heavier washes of colour).
  • Palette: a watercolour palette isn’t always necessary—you can just use a ceramic plate. Plus, many pan sets come with a mixing area. But if you’d prefer to organise your tube colours properly, it can be useful. I recommend the Mijello plastic palette. It’s lightweight so you can travel with it, it has wells for squeezing tube colours into and it comes with a lid so you can preserve colours and mixes. 
  • Watercolour pencils: these are optional but great for sketching before painting. Lines will dissolve when paint is added on top. Also, if you’re more comfortable sketching details, rather than painting, then use these for drawing accurate sections.

For a more detailed guide on the supplies you need for watercolour painting, check out our tutorial

Acrylic painting supplies

Which painting medium? acrylic painting supplies
  • Paint: choose heavy body for thick texture, soft body for detail. Open Acrylics dry slowly if you want to blend the paint for longer. A set of acrylic paint is a good bet when you’re first starting out. Golden’s Principal set contains primary colours that you will be able to mix a range of tones and hues from.
  • Brushes: synthetic fibre brushes are much more suitable for acrylic painting than natural hair. Isabey Isacryl are soft and springy, perfect for moving fluid paint. Princeton Catalyst Polytip brushes are stiffer and a brilliant option if you’re working with heavy body paints.
  • Surfaces: Cotton canvas is lightweight and inexpensive. Linen is lightweight and strong—most suitable for painting on a large scale. Wooden panel and Gessobord provide the smoothest surface, this is the best choice for rendering ultra fine details. Paper is the cheapest option.
  • Palette: Stay wet palettes are sealable and have a wettable sponge insert to keep colours from drying. 
  • Mediums: an optional extra, change the drying time, fluidity, transparency, texture and surface finish with a medium. Read more about acrylic mediums here.
  • Easel: another optional piece of equipment. Easels are great for if you’re working on canvas, panel or on a larger scale. H frame easels are most sturdy, while tabletop easels are most budget friendly.
  • Brush soap: clean brushes with water while the paint is wet, but brush soap helps to remove all paint residue from bristles. This means they will perform like new for longer.

Want to learn more about the materials you need for acrylic painting and how to use them? Check out our acrylic painting supplies guide.

Oil painting supplies

oil painting supplies
  • Paint: for beginners, brands such as Winsor & Newton and Gamblin provide a balance between being excellent quality and good value for money. Oil paint is expensive, but you can cut costs by being selective about which colours you choose and learning to mix from a limited palette.
  • Brushes: Both natural and synthetic brushes work well with oil paint. Synthetic brushes are usually cheaper. They’re springy and can range from soft to stiff. If you add extra medium (like linseed oil) to your paint, I recommend getting softer brushes like Escoda Primera Teijin. Princeton Catalyst Polytip brushes are wonderful for moving paint straight from the tube.
  • Surfaces: canvas, wooden panel, Gessobord and paper are all brilliant options for oil painters.
  • Solvent: Use turpentine, odourless mineral spirits or oil of spike lavender to thin paint. However, this isn’t actually a necessary material to use. Oil paint can’t be thinned with water, but you can make it more runny by adding extra linseed oil. Use brush soap at the end of the session to remove paint from the bristles. Read about how to thin oil paint for a more thorough look at this topic.
  • Mediums: make paint thick and matte with cold wax. Or reduce the viscosity with linseed oil to make colour spread further on the canvas.
  • Varnish: varnishing is an optional last step in the painting process, but necessary if you want to keep your artwork in good condition. Gamblin Gamvar varnish can be applied as soon as the painting is touch dry.
  • Palette: large, flat, smooth surfaces make great palettes for oil paint. Tempered glass is easiest to clean (scrape dry paint away with a flat razor scraper). 
  • Easel: a good studio easel is expensive, but useful if you’re working on a large scale. H frame easels are the most sturdy. Tabletop easels are a budget friendly option.

Read our oil painting supplies guide for a more detailed look at the materials and equipment you need. If you’re on a budget, check out our oil painting on a budget tutorial.

What are the advantages of oil vs acrylic vs watercolour

Oil painting advantages

  • Create luminous, vibrant, archival quality artworks.
  • A range of techniques can be used, such as impasto (thick texture) and glazing (thin layers).
  • The long open working time of the paint makes it suitable for blending and painting wet on wet.
  • The smooth, buttery feel of painting with oil is unmatchable.
  • Oil colours do not noticeably change after drying, as acrylic and watercolour paint can change from wet to dry.
  • Apply multiple layers for wonderful depth and the appearance of realism.
  • A finished oil painting may be considered by some to have more inherent value compared to other mediums.
  • Mistakes are easy to correct with oil, simply paint over a section with an opaque colour like titanium white, or remove with something absorbent like a cotton ball while the paint is still wet.

Oil painting disadvantages

  • Materials can be more expensive than other mediums.
  • Slow drying time can be an obstacle for some painters, although you can use a medium to make paint dry faster. 
  • Some materials such as solvent can pose a health risk. It’s not necessary to use solvent, read our guide on how to paint solvent free.
  • Some materials, such as paint are flammable. Put oil soaked paper towels and cloths in a sealed container filled with water. Then dispose at a local hazardous waste disposal facility. Enquire at your local council about where to dispose of the waste if you’re not sure. Read our studio safety guide for more information.

Acrylic painting advantages

  • Materials are generally cheaper than oil.
  • If you like working quickly in multiple layers, the fast drying time of acrylic could work to your advantage.
  • It’s a versatile medium. Add additional additives and mediums to paint to slow drying time, change viscosity and texture. Read our acrylic techniques guide to see the range of effects you can achieve with the medium.
  • The medium can be archival, look at the lightfast rating of the pigments you are using. If it has a ASTM lightfast rating of I, this means it has the optimum permanency and it will last.
  • Acrylic paint is durable and flexible when dry. This makes it more suitable for working on surfaces that can warp, like cotton canvas than oil paint. Acrylic paint is an archival medium. But this does depend on the brand of paint, type of surfaces you choose and whether you protect it with varnish.
  • Paint is water based so you don’t need solvent or medium to thin it.
  • The paint is water resistant after it’s dried, so colours will stay in place and you can create multiple, separate layers.
  • It’s relatively easy to learn, as long as you can grapple with the fast drying times.

Acrylic painting disadvantages

  • It dries quickly, which can pose a challenge if you want to carry out techniques like blending. However, Golden Open Acrylics solves this problem as they can stay wet for around a day. 
  • If you let acrylic dry on your brushes, it can be tricky to remove. Read this guide about how to remove dry acrylic paint from brushes.
  • Some acrylic paints have a stickier feel when using them compared to oil. 
  • Colours can sometimes dry to be darker than when they’re wet. However, Winsor & Newton acrylic paints maintain the same colour values from wet to dry.

Watercolour painting advantages

  • Visually, the results are beautiful and unique. A watercolour painting is distinguishable when compared to acrylic and oil that can look like each other.
  • It’s the easiest to clean of all the mediums as paint is soluble when dry.
  • You need the fewest supplies to get started. You don’t really need more than one or two brushes, a few different colours of paint and some watercolour paper.
  • Supplies are also way cheaper than other mediums.
  • There aren’t any toxic chemicals in watercolour materials. However there is an exception if you choose to include pigments such as cadmiums and cobalt in your palette. 
  • Use the transparency of the paint to create wonderfully luminescent pieces.
  • Painting with watercolour feels completely different to painting with oil or acrylic. It’s more about control, restraint and knowing when to stop. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch colours dance across the paper.

Watercolour painting disadvantages

  • Artists are more limited in the range of techniques they can use. For example, you can’t build texture with the paint, or layer hundreds of separate glazes on top of one another.
  • It’s a difficult medium to practice as a beginner. There’s less room for error and results can be more unexpected, due to its unpredictable nature. It’s less easy to control the outcome because of its low viscosity and transparency.
  • It’s not a versatile medium, in the sense that there are fewer different types of surfaces and materials available to achieve a variety of effects. However, this is improving. For example, you could paint on Yupo (a type of non-absorbent paper) to achieve clean lifting effects. Paint with a thickening medium to achieve a small level of texture. Or paint on Aquabord (a type of archival wooden panel) to give a new dimension to your artwork.
  • It is soluble when dry. If you’re trying to create multiple separate layers of colour, you will need to add a water resistant medium to the paint to avoid colours mixing together.

Overall, which is the best paint medium for beginners?

The best medium for you, depends on the effects you want to achieve and what aspects of the painting experience you think you will enjoy the most. 

If you’re attracted to the idea of blending paint on the canvas for days at a time, creating smooth gradients and realistic effects, explore the idea of trying oil painting. For those who love large, vibrant textural works, either oil or acrylic would be a good choice.

If you enjoy the unique, delicate style that can be created with watercolour, give it a try. For those who are on a budget or have limited space to paint in, watercolour would be a great option. If you’re looking for other art mediums to try, check out our guide. In it, find examples of 20 different art mediums with tips on how to get started with them.

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