Oils, Watercolours, or Acrylics: Which is Better?

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Before you start using any new medium in art, you need to figure out what makes it unique and distinct from other mediums. Thus, the time has come for a battle between three heavyweights of the painting world — watercolours, oils, and acrylics. Which is better?

It doesn’t matter whether you are an enthusiastic hobbyist, a complete beginner or want to create a varied, rich portfolio of artwork, it can be fun to experiment with various kinds of paint. It can also help you learn the basics of painting and expand your knowledge of it if you’re a rookie.

In this post, I’ll talk about the characteristics of each type of paint to help you decide which to use, before giving my verdict on which type is best for beginners and some tips to get you going. First, though, let’s discover what makes one sort of paint different from another.

What makes the three paints different?

All paints contain pigment. The differences in the types lie in how the pigment is carried in the binding medium of that specific paint. The binding agent is what gives a type of paint its characteristics and holds the pigment together. It’s also what gives paint its texture and consistency.

Acrylic, oil, and watercolour paints will all yield comparable results, but if you look closely, you will find slight differences. This shows that using each paint must have a unique perk and may lend itself to different painting techniques.

Now, let’s find out more about oil paints.

Oil paints

As you might have guessed from the name, this type of paint contains oil. The oil is the binding agent in the paint. This means oil paint dries slowly when applied to canvas, leaving only the pigment behind. One of the important characteristics of paint is its drying time. It can take anything from 2 to 12 days for this sort of paint to dry. This means you will have more time to work on it and rectify any mistakes you might make.

Oil paints are:

  • Durable.
  • Easier to blend and mix than other paints.
  • Expensive. Canvases are pricier than watercolour paper too. For this reason, novices sometimes avoid oils.
  • Great if want to create deep shadows and bright highlights.
  • Good if you want to produce a 3-D effect in your paintings.
  • Easy to apply to canvas.
  • Sometimes toxic because of the solvents used.

The longer drying time of this paint is great if you want to pay attention to detail because you can take your time with this paint and try out lots of distinctive styles.

Oil paints are usually made using linseed oil. The oil acts as the binding agent for the pigment so that you can work with it. You can water your paint down by adding turpentine or white spirit when you deem it necessary. This will thin the paint and should make it easier to apply to your canvas. If you want to make the paint appear glossier, you can add some varnish. When the paint dries, the extra gloss will show.

The richness of this paint is second-to-none and you can use oil sticks to draw directly onto your canvas, thus allowing you to discover a tactile, expressive form of art.

Oils are often used on canvas or thick boards, but can also be applied to wood, specific metals, and ceramics. When using them, you should ensure that there is a good balance between the amount of oil and the amount of paint thinner you use.

Soon, I’ll talk about acrylics. For now, let’s turn to watercolours.

Tubes of oil paint and paint blended on a surface.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Watercolour paints

These are made by combining pigments with a water-based solution. Watercolours, therefore, have special properties that oil paints lack. They dry much quicker, so you will have less time to correct any errors you make.

Watercolours are:

  • Less durable than oil paints.
  • Less expensive than either acrylics or oils.
  • Will fade in sunlight.
  • Easier to clean than oils.
  • Harder to blend than oil paints.
  • Great if you want a matte finish.
  • Are easily transported and are the easiest paint to use, so are often chosen by beginners. Conversely, this is thought the most difficult medium to master, making watercolours somewhat of an enigma.

It’s worth noting that using watercolours will produce muted colours that are not as vivid as you could achieve with oils.

Watercolours are often used to create still life, portrait, and landscape paintings. You can also use watercolours to create small versions of more complex paintings.

It’s time to find out more about acrylics.

Acrylic paints

This is the most recently developed kind of paint. It is water-based with polymers and acrylics added, along with other ingredients depending on the mixture. One of its most notable properties is its drying speed. It dries faster than either oils or watercolours, and when the water has evaporated the acrylic paint becomes water-resistant. This means that you have almost no time to address any mistakes you may have made. For this reason, it may not be the best type of paint to start with if you’re new to painting.

Acrylics paints:

  • Are easy to clean when dry.
  • Water-resistant when dry and thick layers will not easily crack. The paints will be more flexible in warm weather, but not as malleable in cold weather. This also means that you won’t have to fear spoiling your work when spilling something on your painting.
  • Have no odour.
  • Produce bright, permeant colours.
  • Are quite expensive.
  • Must not be mixed with oils or turpentine, but only with acrylic emulsions. You can add water to thin acrylic paint if it is too viscous.
  • Are more versatile than either oils or watercolours.

This type of paint can be altered using additives. These will change the way the paint behaves when applied to a canvas. This means that you can choose what additives you want to use to get the finish you desire, whether you seek the glossy, rich finish oils can give, or the more natural, matte look watercolours afford. Depending on the kind of acrylic you use, you can alter the texture, drying time, and transparency of the paint. It is also possible to wet acrylics to make them workable again, allowing you to add more layers and colours.

Acrylics are convenient if you’re going to be painting in your home. You must remember to use a sealant or fixative to prevent the paint from peeling or chipping.

A rainbow of acrylic paint.
Photo by Katie Rainbow ud83cudff3ufe0fu200dud83cudf08 on Pexels.com

You can use acrylics on wood, canvas, paper or even glass and ceramics. Remember to buy outdoor acrylic paint if you want to work on an outdoor project.

It’s time to find out which paint is best for novices and why.

Which is best for beginners?

It’s best to plump for either watercolours or acrylics if you are new to painting.

Here’s why.

Watercolours are often the first choice for those just starting out because compared to oils and acrylics they are cheaper, and easier to prepare and work with. They are one of the oldest types of paint used — a similar type of water-based paint was invented in the Stone Age.

Novices commonly avoid oils because the paint and materials you need can be prohibitively expensive. Even so, they are fantastic if you wish to learn how to blend paints and add depth and different tones to your work. You will have more time to work on your painting, but it will take much longer to dry than either acrylics or watercolours.

If you want to work with a more versatile medium, try using acrylics. The fact that it dries quickly may be an asset if you’re painting at home. Even though it’s harder to blend than oil paint, acrylics are easy to use and are less of an assault on the senses than oils. You need fewer materials to start using acrylics, but you can add more accessories as you become more advanced.

You can always start with acrylics or watercolours colours and then graduate to using oils when you fully understand the basics of painting. If you are dead set on painting with oils, my tip is to use student-grade oil paint as a starting point.

Before I wrap things up, I’ll share a few tips for working with each type of paint.

Painting tips for beginners

These might just help you get started.

Watercolours

  • Work from light to dark.
  • Make sure you have the correct water to paint ratio for the effect you’re trying to achieve.
  • You can apply watercolours onto wet or dry paper. If you apply them to wet paper, you will create a fluid, fun, less predictable result. When you apply paint to dry paper, you will have more control and be able to create crisp edges.
  • Always mix more paint than you imagine you’ll need on your palette, that way you won’t run the risk of running out of a shade you like.

Oils

  • Use an oil medium when you start out so that you can achieve seamless blending and shading.
  • Let one layer of paint dry completely before laying on more paint. Not doing so will cause the pigments to change.
  • The first layer of oil paint should be a thin base layer that you can build on. It should consist of equal parts oil medium, paint and solvent. Decrease the amount of solvent you use in each subsequent layer.
  • Keep your bushes damp if you’re painting for more than one day, then wipe them off before you continue painting.

Acrylics

  • You don’t need to use an acrylic medium when you begin using acrylics. Water will suffice. You can use a spray to avoid adding too much.
  • Try completing your painting in stages, using one or two colours at a time. That way, you can complete each segment without rushing.
  • Remember to apply fixative or sealant to stop your work from cracking a peeling over time.

Wrapping up

I hope you now have more of an idea of what type of paint you want to begin experimenting with — whether it be oils, watercolours, or acrylics — and that you know a little more about the properties of each medium. Follow the tips I’ve shared to give yourself a running start.

Go ahead and explore. Be creative and you’ll soon be producing beautiful paintings you can be proud of!

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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