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Oil-based vs Acrylic Paint

As painters, we find ourselves looking up to the greats. We tend to imitate their idiosyncrasies and use what it is they use in the pursuit of being better.

For as long as we can think of, famous painters like Da Vinci or Van Gogh have been using oil-based paint. But is that really the best choice for us? Can oil-based paint really make our paintings better?

Let’s find out!

What is oil based paint? Well, it’s basically a compound mixture composed of pigments infused and suspended in oil. It was first developed in the 12th century and was used extensively to create noteworthy pieces like the Mona Lisa or the Starry Night. Basically it’s what all the acclaimed painters were using.

Fast forward to the mid 1900’s and a new kind of mixture was created. In the 1950’s, the first batch of acrylic paint was commercially sold. It was cheaper, more consumer friendly and instantly popular.

The mixture of an acrylic paint composed of pigments that were suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion. And unlike oils, the painter wouldn’t need special chemicals to thin and clean acrylics—water works perfectly fine.

Aside from that, Oil-based and Acrylic paints have several differences. However, there is one difference that affects every aspect of the painting process—that difference is time.

Oil-based paints take more time drying than acrylic paints. You have to work fast with acrylics. The pigments in acrylic paints can dry in 20 to 30 minutes while the pigments in oil-based paint range from 24 hours to twelve days to completely settle in the canvas.

Time really affects the painting process altogether, and choosing between oil-based paint and acrylic paint is synonymous as deciding how much time you will give for a certain piece.

As painters, we have to consider most of the factors before we start committing to our work. Choosing the kind of paint can be the most basic decisions we’ll be forced to make. However, that decision can ultimately change the course of our paintings.

With that in mind, here are several things to consider when choosing between acrylic and oil based paint:

1. The Cost

In whatever we do, we should always consider the costs. It’s not different in painting or in art in general. That’s the more financially responsible thing to do.

In these modern times, you’ll find that oil-based paint is more expensive than acrylic paint. Today, you can get an professional grade acrylic 5oz tube of paint for around $16.02—while professional grade oil-based paint will cost you around $19.46.

Keep in mind that these kinds of expenses accumulate and you’re not only paying for the paint. You’ll also need brushes and canvases. And more importantly, you’ll be spending a considerable amount of time when painting.

2. The mixing process

One thing that experienced painters consider when choosing between acrylic and oil-based paint is the mixing process.

Don’t get me wrong, a season painter can yield similar results when using either kind. However, because acrylic paints dry faster, it can be more challenging to mix colors.

If you’re new to color-mixing, we recommend oil mixing. It can be extremely forgiving in these situations since it can take time to dry. Consequently, oil-based paints can be a great tool for experimenting with colors.

3. Color Shift

If you didn’t know yet, some paints change colors—or at least they’ll not be what you expect—when you put them on the canvas. This is called color shifting and is extremely common in acrylic paints.

We must keep in mind that when acrylic paint is still wet on the canvas, it can appear lighter than when it dries. Consequently this can affect your process in terms of deciding on what values and colors to use.

This is not a problem for oil-based paints since they will look the same from the time the brush hits the canvas until it dries.

4. Blending and Lines

What we mean by this is the ease of painting, blending colors and making lines. When we’re choosing which kind of paint to use, we should also remember what we’re trying to paint.

Oil-based paints tend to be more vibrant compared to acrylics right out the bottle.

Naturally, because of their slow-drying nature, they have the potential to have softer lines and more seamless blends—which are often sought after in realistic pieces.

Acrylic based paints, however, have the potential to have harder lines and crispier edges—and it will be harder to create more seamless transitions.

5. Layers

As painters, we’ll often find ourselves making layers since it is the foundation of creating contrast and tonal values.

Choosing which of the two paints can greatly affect your process in making layers. Remember, acrylics dry faster than oil-based paint.

With that in mind, we can conclude that acrylic paints are more flexible and efficient in making layers. Since it dries quickly, you can build up the paint faster, and ultimately, you can complete your desired layer right away.

Because oil-based paints take more time to dry, if you are using the glazing technique, you will have to wait more to add more layers to the canvas. This can be inefficient and tedious. However, if done right, you can create beautiful luminous and glazing illusions. There is a way around waiting for your paint to dry. You can start with thin layers and paint thick layers over top to instantly create a realistic luminous effect.

6. Lightfastness

Have you ever seen old paintings? If you have, notice how they turn yellow. That’s the effect of lightfastness. It is basically a property of a colorant like a dye—or in our case, the pigment—that measures how resistant it is to fading when it is exposed to light.

According to studies, acrylic paint never changes. It’s even said that acrylics remain the same for 200 to 500 years.

Oil-based paints, however, fade over time. In some cases, they yellow. This is because their pigments dull when exposed to light. That’s why those old paintings are displayed meticulously as to not expose them directly to sunlight.

7. Chemicals and your health

This may be the most important thing you should consider when choosing the right kind of paint.

Some oil based paints may carry several chemicals that can be hazardous to people. Hence, we recommend you paint in a well ventilated room when using oil-based paint.

Acrylic paint is different. Since most of them are water based, they should be safer than those oil-based ones. Hence, acrylics can give the painter more liberty in terms of where they want to paint.

However, like most things, we shouldn't take chances. There may be some chemicals in acrylics that can still be bad for us. Hence, we encourage you to check the product description or reviews before actually opening them—regardless of what kind of paint you use.

There you have it! Six things you should consider when choosing between acrylic and oil-based paint.

Choosing the right paint is the next step we should take to be better painters. It really doesn’t matter what the next person chooses, just as long as you’re comfortable with what you’re using—and as long as you’ll get what you’re looking for.


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