What’s the Difference Between Oil Painting and Acrylic Painting?

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Estimated reading time: 2 min

When you first start out painting, one of the initial decisions to make is not what you will paint, but what you will paint with. Three of the most common paint choices are watercolours, oil or acrylic paint. Distinguishing between watercolours and the latter two is relatively easy, but what about oil paints and acrylic paints? What are the differences and how do they affect the final result on canvas?

The Differences and a Brief History

If you were to squeeze both of these paints out of their respective tubes, it would be hard to tell which is oil and which is acrylic.

However, the makeup of these paints is rather different. The chemical composition of oil paints was developed in the 12th century and includes pigments suspended in oil, most often linseed oil. The composition is not compatible with any water. Instead, white spirit or turpentine should be used to clean or thin the paints.

Acrylic paints are by far younger than oil paints and less than 100 years old. The pigments of this type of paint are suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion rather than linseed oil. This allows the paint to combine with water to be thinned, making them considered suitable for newcomers to painting.

The Outcomes on Canvas

Due to the difference in paint composition, the two types of paints also react differently when applied to a canvas. Oil paints can take days to fully dry while acrylics usually take just a few minutes. If you prefer to finish your paintings quickly, it is much better to use acrylic paints. However, realistic paintings usually work better with oil paints.

Another difference when on the canvas is the lightfast of these paints. Lightfast is a word that refers to how well the paints hold up when exposed to natural light over a long period. Oil paintings are not as resilient against natural light as acrylic paintings. This is why many older paintings look faded and need touch-ups. On the other hand, acrylic paintings have exceptional lightfast.

The Key Takeaways:

1. Oil paints date from the 12th century while acrylic paints are less than 100 years old

2. The different compositions make using acrylic paints easier for beginner painters

3. Oil paints take a long time to dry while acrylic paints dry in just minutes

4. Oil paints are usually better to create realistic works

5. Acrylic paints have better lightfast meaning they hold up better in natural light compared to oil paints

Recommended Oil and Acrylic Masterpieces

Because oil paints are so old, they were around when some of the best and most famous masters were alive. Therefore, some of the greatest paintings of all time were made with oil paintings. For example, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and the Mona Lisa were both made using oil paints.

This doesn’t mean there are no famous paintings made with acrylic paints. In the last 100 years, many great artworks were used with acrylic paints, such as British artist David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash and many of Andy Warhol’s creations. 

What Type of Paint Should You Use?

If you are new to painting, it is recommended to opt for acrylic paints as these will make the process of painting much easier. If you want to create abstract and modernist paintings, then you may want to stick with acrylic paints even when you progress as an artist. For those that want to create realistic and super detailed paintings, working towards or even starting with oil paintings is a good idea.

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