Artwork by Monica Gunderson

Artist Thoughts

Oil Paints VS Acrylic Paints

December 17, 2015 at 7:55 AM

sky with birds flying acrylic painting

Flight © 2015 Monica Gunderson - All Rights Reserved; Unauthorized Reproduction Prohibited

What is the Difference Between Acrylic Paint and Oil Paint?


The History of Acrylic and Oil Paint:

Painting in general has been around for centuries, the earliest paintings found so far date back from around 40,000 years ago. These early paintings have been discovered in various areas around the world and are mainly found in caves or on the side of large rock faces. Prehistoric paintings mainly focused on common animals during that era, hunting stories, and hand stencils. During the prehistoric times, archeologists show that paint was created by powdered minerals, animal fat and blood to create different shades of red, brown, black, and yellow. The first recorded oil painting thus so far is from the caves in Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan, dated as far back as 650 A.D. Painting progressed and evolved through the centuries from the classical period of ancient Mediterranean civilizations of Egypt, Minion, Greece, and Rome to the early Christian monks during the medieval times and the Renaissance up until present. Oil paints have been used as the primary choice medium of artists for centuries and were generally made by the artists themselves or their apprentices, and the oil paint was made from various oils such as walnut, linseed, poppy, hempseed, olive, and other organic oils. Depending on which oil was used could mean either the longevity or preservation to a painting, or the demise of an artwork failing to cracking or yellowing. These oils where then added to ground pigments such as different minerals such as crushed rock (iron ore, charcoal, gypsum), colored glass, mineral salts (zinc, titanium), or living organisms such as plants and even animals.  Over years of trial and error, artists (and their assistants) have discovered the right consistency and the correct amounts of ingredients, carefully crushing the pigments by hand and adding it to the binding oil to create oil based paint. It was not until the mid 1800's that oil paint was manufactured in tubes, and artists could thin the oil paint with oils, turpentine, or other mediums. All in all, oil paint has been around for many centuries, and acrylic paint is relatively a modern medium for artists.  Acrylic paint first emerged during the mid 19th century and was actually first primarily used as a common house paint and was not made commercially available for artists until the 1960's. Unlike oil paints, acrylic is considered as water-based paint where water is used to combine the pigment and acrylic polymer emulsion or acrylic resin and water.   


The Differences Between Oil and Acrylic Paints

Now that we have an insight of some of the history of acrylic and oil paints, what makes them so different from each other? The most obvious difference between oil and acrylic paints is that oil paints are oil-based and are soluble with thinner such as turpentine or linseed oil, while acrylic paints are water based and are soluble with water. Since oils do not undergo the same evaporative process as water does, oil paint tends to dry much slower than acrylic paints. While acrylic paint may take minutes to dry, oil paint can take months to dry. The advantage to the slow drying oil paint is that an artist can take his time with painting, able make changes or corrections, layered or textured painting for special effects, and the artist can even mix colors directly on the canvas. However, an oil painting can take months or even years to complete due to the lengthy drying process. So with oil paint, you can walk away from the painting and come back to it and the paint will still be wet on the canvas and on the palette whereas acrylic paint will dry in minutes or hours depending on the thickness of the acrylic paint. An artist can still begin and acrylic painting and come back, but the paint will be dry on the canvas, and if the artist pallet is not covered appropriately, the acrylic paint left on the palette will also be dry. So depending on the artist, whether you are extremely patient artist, or an impatient one, the choice between acrylic and oil paint can be an easy choice to make. 


As far as coloration goes, acrylic paint is long lasting and unlike oil based paint, is unlikely to fade. Acrylic paint colors tend to be more vibrant, crisp, and bright, it does not yellow or crack, and will look about the same for many years if it is properly taken care of. However oils are corrosive by nature and will fade and yellow over time and could also possibly crack if the oil paints are not used correctly when layering not to mention that each color of oil paints have a different drying times. This means if you layer faster drying oil paint over slower drying oil paint, the paint will most likely crack. Think of what happens when you add a thin layer of acrylic paint over Elmer's glue. As the glue dries, it expands, and as the glue expands, the dried acrylic paint that is layered on top of the glue does not expand with the glue and so it cracks. To ignore cracking when layering oil paints, there are several techniques such as adding a siccative or a drying agent over the oil paint, and also a technique known as "fat over lean". This means that for every layer the paint should contain more oil than the layer below it. An oil painter may also use other materials besides oils such as resins, cold wax, and varnishes. So again, there is more time spent on an oil painting by ensuring correct combinations of oil is added during the layering process to ignore cracking,


Acrylics are also less toxic than oil paints. When working with oil paints in a confined area, one could be overwhelmed with the fumes from the paint thinners, so be sure to open up the doors and windows and work in a well ventilated area when working with oil paints. Not only are the fumes from the oil paints and turpentine dangerous, but even the pigments that are still in use today are known to be highly toxic. Some of the poisonous pigments that are still in use today are commonly used in colors such as yellows made with cadmium, and vermilion, reds made with mercuric sulfide or cinnabar, whites made with lead carbonate, blues made with cobalt, and violets made with cobalt arsenate. When using oil paints, some artists even wear latex gloves to ignore toxins from the pigments in the oil paint from penetrating their skin.  Skin exposure to the oils and solvents can cause allergies or contact dermatitis, in addition to pigment toxicity. On the other hand, acrylic paints are actually very safe to use, and can be used in an unventilated room and is also safe to use when there are children or even when pets are around. Even though some of the pigments may be the same used as oils such as cobalt blue, the only way that these become as a concern is when the acrylic paint is used as airbrushing, sanding, or if you accidently ingest large amounts of it. Other than that, when just painting with the acrylic paint, if there are any toxic pigments used in the paint, there is no real danger. Even so, be sure to read labels and be safe when you're creating!


Cleaning brushes and paint area is another difference between oil paint and acrylic paint. Acrylic paint can be fairly easy to clean, as long as the acrylic paint is not allowed to dry on the brushes or artist palette. If the acrylic paint dries on paint brushes or palette, one would have to soak the brushes and palette in soapy water with vinegar and then carefully clean the old paint out. However, acrylic paint washes out easily when artists' brushes are properly taken care of. All that is needed to clean acrylic paint out of an artist brush is to rinse it in water between each new application of color and then when painting is completed, wash the brushes with water and soap, let dry. For oil paint, brushes need to be cleaned with either turpentine or mineral spirits, and if the oil paint is left to dry on the artists brushes, they will need to be soaked in turpentine or mineral spirits. Both of these have toxic fumes and should only be used in a well ventilated area. There is a less dangerous odorless mineral spirits, but they still contain small amounts of aliphatic hydrocarbons and should be handled with care.


As you can see, there are many pros and cons for each, whether it is oil paint or acrylic paint. It all depends on the preference of the artist and what techniques they are seeking. Personally, I prefer to use acrylic paints because it is pretty versatile and can be used to appear as oil, acrylic, or watercolor paint. In addition, acrylic paint can also be used on many surfaces such as wood, glass, canvas, paper, metal, plastic, plaster, papier-mâché, and etcetera. Not to mention that I enjoy that it does not take too long to dry. It may take me a month or so to complete a painting, but I just do not have the patience to wait for each color or layer of oil paint to dry correctly before I mess with it some more. Some days I even get impatient with waiting for my acrylic paint to dry! Even though acrylic paint may dry quickly, it does not mean that you can't fix mess ups, just paint back over it and try again. I have tried oil painting, but it is just not my thing right now. Maybe I will pick it up again later, or perhaps I will just stick to my acrylic paintings.


Artist Monica Gunderson *~


Tags: acrylic painting Musings of an Artist painting
Category: Musings of an Artist Protection Status

Privacy Policy Terms and Conditions Copyright Policy Shipping and Handling 
FAQ Payment Plan

Monica Gunderson Fine Artist

Modesto CA