How to Choose Between using Oil Paints or Acrylics: Understand their Differences

Published Jan. 16th 2007


Here’s a question: Which are better for artists, oil paints or acrylic paints?

Oil paint brush stroke

Many beginning painters are told to use acrylic paint—but I’m not sure that this is always good advice. And while there’s a certain prestige commonly associated with oil paintings, it honestly doesn’t matter if you use one or the other.

Pros and cons: oil paints vs. acrylics

Oil paints have survived for hundreds of years, so their long-lasting quality is well known. They do tend to discolor with age, something that acrylics don’t seem to do, although acrylics haven’t been around long enough for us to really know.

When it comes to color, oil paints have more pigment in them, allowing richer, more vivid colors. Acrylics may also darken slightly as they dry, while oil paints do not.

The main difference between oils and acrylics is drying time. Acrylic paint will dry within an hour, if not within fifteen minutes. Oil paints will stay wet for days or weeks, depending upon the humidity and temperature.

This is where I’m not sure it’s so good for beginners to use acrylics—I for one am a slow painter, and if I had started out with a fast drying paint, I might have become very frustrated with it. There are some retarders available which slow down the drying time of acrylics, but only for a few hours at most.

The drying time also influences other aspects of painting. Mixing acrylics is more difficult than mixing oils, simply because the acrylics are already beginning to dry. With oils you can mix colors for days on end, producing subtle color variations that you won’t have time to make with acrylics.

You’ll also need to clean your brushes quickly after finishing painting with acrylics—wait too long and the bristles will be full of dried paint. On the other hand, clean-up with plain old water is a snap compared to oil paints, where you’ll need to use Turpentine or Mineral Spirits (both toxic) to clean your brushes and hands.

Acrylic paints are also cheaper than oils, so for students or hobbyists, it’s much easier on the pocketbook. They’re also a bit more versatile than oils. You can dilute acrylic paint with water and use it in an entirely different way, almost like watercolors.

So are oils the right choice for you? Or acrylics?

If you’re a slow painter, deliberate and cautious (perhaps used to spending hours on a single drawing) then I’d recommend oils. You’ll need to prop the windows open and wear your paint clothes, but at least you won’t have to rush.

On the other hand, if you’re concerned about toxicity of the paint, whether around children or pets (or yourself), acrylics might be the choice for you. Invest in all the extras that you’ll need, however, like retarders, pastes, and gels which will give you the biggest range of texture and drying time available.

The other main consideration of course involves cost. Acrylics ARE cheaper. Sometimes oil paintings will sell for more (making it worthwhile), but that’s really not a sure thing. If money is the bottom line, you’ll save a lot by avoiding high end oils.

If you can, find an artist willing to let you dabble a bit with their paint before you make your decision, and then purchase the best paints you can afford.

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