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

By Dan in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

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

Oil paint brush stroke

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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.

One key idea that artists often forget is that drawing and painting are tied together. If you want to create oil paints or acrylic paints, having a great drawing foundation is very important.

If you are looking to create a solid foundation for yourself to draw or paint better, check out our new guide How to Draw EXACTLY What You See.

Pros and cons: oil paints vs. acrylic paint

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.

Oil painting supplies are more expensive than acrylics, so for students or hobbyists, it’s much easier on the pocketbook to stick with acrylic paints. As a bonus, you can use acrylic paints two ways: right out of the tube like oils, or diluted with water which lets you use them in an entirely different way, almost like watercolors.

So is oil paint the right choice for you?

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. A starter set of oil paint from Blick will cost about $30, and you can expect to pay $8-$10 for each natural hair bristle brush you purchase—you’ll probably want three or four of those at least.

To save a little money, make your first few paintings on paper instead of canvas. Just pick up some gesso to coat your paper with first, and don’t forget that Turpentine for cleaning up. (It’s available at any hardware store for much cheaper than your typical art supply store).

Or do you want to learn how to paint with acrylics?

If you’re concerned about toxicity of the paint, whether around children or pets (or yourself), acrylics might be the choice for you. An acrylic paint starter set will cost less than $15 for 12 colors, but you may end up needing to invest in some extras as well, like retarders, pastes, and gels, for the biggest possible range of texture and drying time available.

Brushes won’t set you back as much either, since you can use synthetic hair brushes for acrylic paint—they typically cost from $5-8 per brush. And the cleanup is free if you’ve got running water.

As you can see, 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, that will help a lot. Then just purchase the best paints you can afford.

NOTE: You may also be interested in EE's step-by-step drawing guide for artists. Click below to learn more!

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