Monday, April 19, 2010

The Oil vs. Acrylic Debate.

After many years of using water based paints (acrylic and watercolour) I had forgotten how lovely it is to use oil on linen. I have started this above painting in oil to enter into the 2010 Waterhouse- natural history art prize. 

This got me to thinking about the debate of using acrylic paints vs. oil paints and whether one is better than the other. Both acrylics and oils have their pros and cons. I've used both and I must admit I am a bit of a fence sitter, because they both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Here is a list of pros and cons:

Acrylic Pros
  • Acrylics can be cleaned with soap & water
  • Acrylic paints dry fast
  • Acrylic paints can be saved in jars for future use
  • Water can be added to thin acrylic paints
  • Acrylics are not as strong in odor as oil
  • Acrylics can be made to mimic oil, gouache and watercolor
  • Certain mediums can be added to slow drying speed
  • Acrylics can be thinned or thickened easily from water to cream cheese consistency
Acrylic Cons:
  • Not as versatile
  • Fast drying/hard to mix
  • Hard on brushes; may be better to use inexpensive brushes for acrylics
  • You must keep brushes and knives wet while painting to avoid ruining
  • In many cases, a special acrylic palette may be needed to stop paint from drying out
  • You cannot paint over oil or oily surfaces with acrylics
  • In some instances, acrylics perform much like an adhesive, making handling difficult
Oil Pros:
  • Oil paint is known for its vibrant and diverse color spectrum
  • Oil is time tested
  • Oils offer a slow drying time so you don’t have to rush
  • Oils have a very strong smell that some artists like (possibly for inspiration)
  • Oils are easily cleaned with turpentine or mineral spirits
  • Oils may be cleaned with vegetable or certain nut oils
  • Oils are easy on brushes
  • Oils cut down on the need for mediums (good for plein air painters especially)
Oil Cons:
  • Messy/tough to clean up
  • Strong chemical odor
  • More expensive generally than acrylic
  • Hard to work in layers as the drying time is so long
  • Also hard to work wet-in-wet or “Alla Prima” if working in more than one session
    I'd love to know if you prefer one over the other and why.

    Still undecided?  Take the oils vs acrylics quiz.


    1. Great post! I love the effects you can get when painting with oils, but I pretty much had to give up using them because of the headaches the smell was giving me. That and they are so much harder to clean up, and take SO LONG to dry!
      If I can ever afford a nice large airy studio I might try oils again :) Until then, I'll stick to acrylics and my new love, watercolour!

    2. Hi Tracey, I much prefer acrylics because they dry so fast! No time to wait for oils life's too short!!! Thanks for your comment on my blog, I've now added a followers link, so thank you! love your work, take care Lisa:)

    3. Kirsten,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I must admit I am finding that using oils is giving my painting a very lush and rich effect.

      As you mentioned, oils generally take a LONG time to dry, however I've been using a product called "Liquin" by Windsor and Newton, it makes the paint dry fast and I can work on it the next day.

      Oils are harder to clean up and even with odourless solvents they are smelly and working in a ventilated area is a must. Lucky for me my home studio gets cross ventilation.

      It's a tough choice on what medium to use, especially when I find using acrylic, water colour and oils all enjoyable. I wouldn't say one is better than the other, they are just different.

    4. Lisa,

      Agreed, life is too short to wait for oil paint to dry, I guess that is why Windsor and Newton produced "Liquin" :)

      Having said that though, I really like using acrylic and have produced many paintings using this medium, as it is quick, not smelly and easy to clean up.

      If you are interested in seeing more of my work, images can be viewed on my Facebook Fan Page:

      It's really nice to meet you and I look forward to your next post now that I'm following your blog.

    5. Hi Tracey,
      I love a good debate when it comes to oils versus acrylic, I must admit I'm oil bias though. My first painting medium was oil paints. Oils have a luminous quality not found in acrylics. I think there easier to blend and with other colours, and can even do so on the straight on the canvas. They are smooth and the colour seems to go on forever, when acrylics you seem to always be picking up paint. When it comes to drying time, well when it's late at night u can put the painting aside til morning and pick up exactly were u left off blending colours without having to mix up a whole bunch of new paint(thickness of paint may vary). You can always buy heat setting oil paints, that set in mins with a hair dryer or other heating devices.
      So the possibilties with oils a endless, if you can handle the smell and a little extra elbow grease for cleaning.

      Good luck with the 2010 Waterhouse- natural history art prize, I hope you win! :D

    6. Paula,

      I still can not make up my mind on this debate, whatever medium I am using at the time I love slightly more than the others, at the moment I'm leaning towards oils, only because I'm painting with them.

      I'm loving the luminosity and rich colour of oils at the moment, the extended mixing time and dare I say it the smell of oil - it makes me feel like I'm back at uni in the studio with all that productivity and experimentation going on.

      I started painting in acrylic a few years back because I discovered a great medium to use with acrylic that gives extended mixing time and a lovely glossy glaze. As wonderful as this medium is, I forgot just how different oils are to paint with.

      Great suggestion with the heat set oils BTW.