Acrylic Paints vs. Oil Paints: What’s the Difference and Which One Is Right for You?
Wondering which type of paint is best for your next artwork? Acrylic paint and oil paint both have benefits and drawbacks to consider, from drying time and ease of clean-up to the cost of materials and the paint’s final look. In this blog, we’ll cover the differences between acrylic and oil paints to help you figure out which is right for you.
A Side-by-Side Comparison: Acrylic vs. Oil Paints
The main difference between these two paints is the binder that holds the pigment together: Acrylic paints are water soluble, meaning they can be dissolved with water, while oil paints aren’t. (We’ll go into more detail on pigments and binders down below.)
You might have heard that acrylic paint is always thinner and more watery than oil paint, but that’s not always the case. Acrylic and oil paints both come in different viscosities. While oil paint is generally thicker, there are thinner oil-based paints, and acrylic paint comes in a full range of consistencies from pourable liquids to heavy-bodied paints that have a thick paste-like texture.
Generally speaking, acrylic and oil paints require different drying times, materials, techniques, and safety precautions. We’ll answer common questions about both paints below.
1. Which Paint Dries the Quickest?
As we mentioned above, acrylic paints are water-based, and this makes them quick-drying compared to oil paints. An oil painting takes anywhere from several days to months to fully dry or “cure,” while an acrylic painting can dry in just a few hours, depending on the number of layers or size of the painting.
If you’re hoping for a quicker drying process, acrylics will be the best choice for you. However, if you’re working on a large painting and don’t mind a long drying time, or want to use various blending techniques over several days, oil paints can work well too.
You can also add different substances to both types of paint to make them dry slower or faster. An additive you mix into paint to make it dry faster is typically called a "drying medium" whereas an additive that slows dry times is called an "extender medium."
2. Which Paint Is Easier to Blend or Mix?
Each type of paint can be blended or mixed to make interesting colors and effects, so there isn’t necessarily a winner here.
If you want to work on a large piece of art and continue to have the ability to blend, oil is the more flexible choice because it retains moisture much longer than acrylic. Working with oil paint will ensure you have a smooth, easy-to-glide texture for a long period of time.
Here’s a helpful tip to keep your acrylic paints easy to blend and mix for longer: Keep a spray bottle of water near you and re-wet the paint if it’s drying too fast or you need to do some more work. Just make sure you don’t use too much water, as this will take away some of the rich color and make it look more like watercolor paint.
So, when it comes to mixing and blending, it just depends on your preference and how long you want to be able to work with your paint.
Want to pick up some new ways to make colors and apply paint to the canvas? Try out these 14 acrylic paint techniques specifically for beginners.
3. Which Paint Is Easier to Clean Up?
Cleanup isn’t as fun as creating, but it’s a necessary part of the art-making process. Overall, cleaning acrylic paint is much easier and less time-intensive than oil paint. There are a few different reasons for this.
First, water alone isn’t enough to clean oil paint because the oil naturally repels the water. Second, oil painters often thin their paint and clean their brushes with solvents like turpentine, which you definitely can’t wash down the drain.
And third, many painters add strong substances to their oil paints to get certain effects, like a matte or shiny finish, which can’t be cleaned with water alone. You’ll need to use linseed oil, artist’s soap, paint thinner, or other specially made products to properly clean your paint brushes.
Cleaning up acrylic paint is simpler because it’s water-based. In most cases, warm water and a bit of soap (if needed) will do the trick. Acrylic paint is safe to wash down the drain — although you wouldn't want to pour out a bottle of acrylic paint or anything like that — so you can clean your brushes and other tools right in the sink at home. You can learn more about how to care for your brushes in this blog.
4. Which Paint Is More Toxic?
The short answer is that, overall, acrylic and oil-based paints are generally safe and non-toxic when used on their own (no other substances added). To know for sure though, check your paint material’s labels. Most paint has a label from ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials), which will tell you which products are dangerous.
Most companies will also explain unsafe ways to use their paint, such as spraying, inhaling, or ingesting. When in doubt, look on the manufacturer’s website.
There’s more to toxicity than we’ve covered above so let’s look at both paint types in more detail:
Is Oil Paint Toxic?
Oil paint on its own isn’t inherently toxic or dangerous. Toxicity really comes down to the makeup of the paint you purchase and the substances you mix or clean your paint with when creating your art.
Broadly speaking, oil paints are made of two things: pigment, or the color, and a type of vegetable oil. These vegetable oils aren’t toxic, however, some pigments can be toxic especially when they’re in powder form. Some pigments with higher toxicity levels include:
- Lead white
- Barium yellow
- Burnt or raw umber
- Cadmium red, orange, or yellow
- Chrome green
As wet oil paint dries, the oil comes in contact with the air and creates a hard film of paint. A skin forms over the surface and the paint underneath will dry over time. Used alone, oil paints don’t release chemicals into the air as they dry.
The potential for harm begins when you add solvents or mediums. For instance, products containing petroleum distillate, commonly found in paint thinner. During the drying process, these harmful chemicals will evaporate into the air you’re breathing.
So, if you’re working with harsh chemicals when oil painting, be sure you’re in a well-ventilated area such as a studio with a ventilation system above your work area, or a room with lots of open windows and fans running. Be careful not to get chemicals on your skin or in your eyes or mouth.
Is Acrylic Paint Toxic?
Generally, no, acrylic paints aren’t toxic. Acrylic paints use the same pigments as oil paints, but use a different, non-toxic chemical called propylene glycol to suspend the pigments. When acrylic paint dries, chemicals are released into the air, but they aren’t toxic to breathe.
5. How Does Each Paint’s Finish Look?
The paint’s finish, or how it looks when it dries, is a big factor when deciding between acrylic and oil-based paints. Depending on the type of artwork or surface you’re working on, you may prefer a certain finish over another.
Acrylic paint provides a flatter, more matte finish. Acrylic colors are usually dense and dry darker than they looked while they were wet. If you want a shinier finish, there are glosses you can add to your paint when you start painting or as a final layer to give it a sheen.
Oil paint naturally provides a high-gloss, smooth finish that can look really delicate, but in reality, is extremely durable when dry. Oil paint can be great if you’re using a lot of painting techniques that require depth and texture.
If you’re working with oil colors and want to achieve a matte finish, you’ll have to use additives. Some additives that will lessen the gloss finish include alkyd medium, such as Liquin, or adding a matte varnish as a final layer on your piece.
One thing that both acrylic and oil paint have in common is that they’re generally not opaque; they’re either transparent or semi-transparent. This means that regardless of which paint you’re using, if your end goal is to have a solid-looking finish, you’ll need to paint multiple layers.
In most cases, you’ll need to wait for each layer to dry before adding more so your new layers don’t mess up the previous ones. Here, acrylic paint is a great choice because it offers a shorter drying time.
6. Which Paint Lasts Longer on the Canvas?
There are many elements that can degrade a painting, like light and moisture. Of the two, light is the bigger threat to your painting’s color. All paints have varying degrees of lightfastness and some colors fade with light exposure more quickly than others.
Generally speaking, oil and acrylic paint contain the same pigments, so they share the same lightfast qualities, This means they’re affected by artificial light and sunlight in similar ways. Framing your painting with UV protectant glass can keep your painting looking fresh and vibrant for longer.
Now, let’s talk about moisture. Oil paint is water-resistant, while acrylic paint is waterproof when dry. You can even clean an acrylic painting with a damp cloth. That said, moisture isn't half so much a threat to the paint itself as it is to the wood stretcher bars, fibers of the canvas, or paper surface the painting is created on.
While oil and acrylic paintings can both stand the test of time, acrylic paintings last longer when sealed with a varnish or other protective coating and maintained a bit more over the years than oil paintings.
7. Which Paint Is More Expensive to Get Started With?
Price is one of the key differences between oil and acrylic painting. The process of oil painting is simply more expensive. This is because there are expenses beyond the paint itself, like solvents or special brushes.
Additionally, most oil paints require a primed canvas, which you can either purchase or make from scratch with a paint medium such as gesso. And don’t forget, you’ll need to be in a space with proper ventilation if you’re using toxic additives.
If you’re just starting out with painting, there’s no real need to go all out and purchase oil paints along with all of the bells and whistles needed to properly use them. Acrylic paints are much more accessible and affordable. The only real medium you’ll need to add to your painting process is water.
A Closer Look at Acrylic Paints and Oil Paints
When it comes down to chemical makeup, acrylic paint and oil paint are different but share one key component: pigment. Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Acrylic Paint?
Acrylic paints are made up of pigment and a vehicle the pigment is suspended in. Then, depending on the brand, there can be a mixture of silicone oils, defoamers, stabilizers, and metal soaps.
When acrylic paints dry, the components of the vehicle evaporate into the air. In most cases, these components are safe to breathe in, but be sure to double-check that your acrylic paints are labeled as “non-toxic.” For instance, Painting to Gogh’s acrylic paints are non-toxic and safe for adults and children.
Types of Projects That Acrylic Paints Work Best For
Acrylic paints are versatile, affordable, and easy to work with. Artists who use acrylic paint can do many of the same projects as those who use oil paint, such as painting on canvas, but acrylic has a wider variety of materials you can use it on. Some ways to use acrylic paint in your art include:
- Abstract paintings on canvas or paper
- Sponging and painting on clay, stone or plaster
- Creating landscapes or larger objects on fabric, such as a T-shirt
- Color block designs
Feeling creative? Check out these acrylic painting ideas for beginners.
What Is Oil Paint?
Oil paints are also made up of two components, pigments and a vehicle that the pigment is suspended in. Unlike acrylics, the vehicle in oil paint is often a highly refined vegetable oil like flax (otherwise known as linseed oil), safflower, poppy, or walnut. The oil is also what makes the paint’s drying time longer.
What makes oil paints unique from acrylics is that there are many additives you can mix with the oil paint to modify the viscosity, or thickness, of the paint. This is where solvents, like turpentine or mineral spirits, and varnish come into play. These additives are also where oil painting can become toxic, so if you’re using oils in this way, be sure to work in a well-ventilated area, or consider wearing a face mask.
Oil paints are water-resistant, which makes them great in terms of longevity but can cause problems for first-time painters, or kids who are using them and getting paint all over.
Types of Projects That Oil Paints Work Best For
Oil paints are ideal for more experienced painters or painters who want to experiment with more advanced techniques. Some types of projects oils work best for include:
- Tonal portraits
- Landscapes and clouds with deep colors
- Textured paintings (using a palette knife)
- Surfaces like canvas, paper, wood, and metal
Give Acrylics a Try With Painting to Gogh!
All in all, acrylic paint can be a great place to start if you’re just getting into painting or if you’re going to be painting with kids. It’s easy to use, non-toxic in most cases, and requires minimal materials. Even better, when you order an acrylic painting kit from Painting to Gogh, it ships right to your doorstep and includes everything you need, including a tutorial video you can pause or rewind at any time.Browse our selection of acrylic paint kits and tutorials to start creating.