What's the difference between Oil and Acrylic?

What is the difference between Oil and Acrylic paint?


Oil Paint:  The chemical composition features pigments that are suspended in oil (typically linseed). These paints require softening before use by blending additional oil into them (walnut/poppyseed, etc) and the use of another oil, linseed normally, to be able to paint them on a surface.  They also require their own set of brushes. The paint costs significantly more, the brushes cost significantly more and paint takes a significantly longer time to dry than acrylics or watercolor.

Acrylic Paint:  introduced in the 1950s, are pigments bound with a synthetic acrylic polymer emulsion,  ultimately plastic/latex.  An artist can use them straight from the tube and thin them a bit with water if needed. Other things can be added to acrylic to create different effects, such as molding paste to thicken it. This is great for adding texture into paintings. They require their own brushes as the oil and acrylic don't mix.  They are significantly less expensive than oil paints, the brushes are far less expensive and they dry much faster. Because water is used to thin them and paint with, an artist doesn't need to have expensive bottles of oil on hand. 


More on Acrylics and Oils

OK, so what does that mean when it comes to art?  I get asked a lot of questions about this. Which do I prefer?  What's the difference?  Which is easier to work with? They both have pros and cons.

Acrylic paints dry fast.  This is a pro when one needs to get a painting finished before an upcoming show or is on a deadline.  They also come in a wide variety of bright colors and are readily available in large sizes.  I like working with acrylics when I am outdoors at a show at a vineyard because I can paint on the spot knowing it will be dry before I leave.  It is also a con that it dries fast.  It is so hot in California sometimes that I am literally watching paint dry and cannot paint fast enough to blend the paint.  If I don't want it to blend, that's great! But when I do impressionism, the paint is blended on the canvas and this makes painting difficult. It also wastes paint because there it is drying on the palette before I can get to it. If I can work fast enough and complete a painting while at a show, sometimes a person has watched me paint it and wants to purchase it right then.  I can varnish it immediately and it will dry in about 20 minutes and the collector can take it home straight away. 

Cost:  A plus of acrylics is that they are much, MUCH cheaper than oil paint.  My guess is that if it existed way back when, the masters would have used it.  I read somewhere that Monet hated spending money on paint. That they are so much less expensive means that I can charge less for the artwork done in acrylic because the materials cost less.  This is great for the customer who is on a budget or is purchasing gifts for friends and has allotted a specific amount.  It's great for travelers who want a small gift or artwork.  Sometimes an acrylic painting still takes a long time to paint but as an artist, I try to pass the value to the customer as best as I can and still be able to survive myself.

With oils, way back when, artists would have to go collect flowers and plants and pound them into a fine powder, then mix them with other elements and then add oil!  Fortunately, we have machines for that now, but they are still far more expensive.  For example, a 16 ounce tube of acrylic paint costs about $6.95-9.95.  A ONE-ounce tube of oil paint at the lowest grade (which is still great but has less pigment so an artist has to use more of it to get a darker color) costs about the same. This is why a 4 x 4 Oil painting costs about five times more than a 4 x 4 acrylic painting.  The professional-grade paints cost more.  The top of the line (meaning highest pigment values and consistency of the paint) can cost between $72 and $135.  For one tiny ounce!  An artist has to have at least five tubes (primary colors) in order to mix them into other colors. We all have more than that and especially white.  We have to always have several tubes of white on hand for mixing. Titanium White is the one we all run out of first!  Because it is expensive, the artist better know how to mix paint.  With acrylics, you just put the paint down, dab your brush in water and start painting. Oil paintings are thick and a little dry.  They have to be mixed with oil in order to paint with them.  So an artist has to have not only the paint but the oil as well.  There are different oils, linseed, poppyseed, walnut oil.  They all have different qualities and setbacks.  Linseed oil tends to yellow a bit but is great for making the paint feel like butter and the painting has that "masters" look because that was the primary oil used in the past.  Walnut oil does not fume up the studio with toxic smells.  Poppyseed oil dries slower and has very little color in it. These oils are not inexpensive and an artist has to have an ample supply on hand. 

Oil paints dry slowly.  I mean, slooooowwwwww.  This is a pro and a con.  Landscapes particularly can take longer to paint if the artist is putting a lot of detail in it as opposed to doing abstract types of art.  Because it does not dry fast, the paint will blend together on the canvas if an artist keeps painting on it.  This is good when one wants to blend. It's bad when one wants contrasting colors.  Then he has to wait a few days before adding a new color so that it doesn't just blend in with the color already there.  Because it dries slowly, it isn't a good option to use at shows.  People like to see the artist paint.  But what if I'm outside?  It's windy.  There is dirt flying around,.  Hair, bugs.  All of it can wind up in the painting.  ARG!  It can get blown over and destroyed.  If it does get finished, how does one transport it?  In the car?  It's wet.  The fumes will kill you if you stick it on the dashboard to get it home and all the while hoping it doesn't slide and hit something and get paint all over the car and/or get destroyed.  Couldn't sell it.  It has to be varnished.  Why varnish?  To protect it from dust/dirt/grime.  Varnishes are added once dry and most can later be removed.  Like a hundred years later by a restorer it could be removed without damaging the painting and then a new varnish applied. Most professional artists varnish their paintings as it adds longevity, value, and preserves the quality of the color.   Also, acrylic paint just dries.  Oil paint is oxidizing as it dries so the painting starts to look duller and duller as it is drying.  When the varnish is applied, all the color is revived and stays there under the varnish, it is like when there is something like a stain on the floor or clothes and you go to clean it and add water, and suddenly it is brighter.  So there are pros and cons to oil.  I love oils because of the consistency, the blending ability, the way it moves across a canvas or paper.  It is my favorite.  But I like acrylics too for specific paintings.  I do have to charge much more for the oil paintings though otherwise, it's just not cost-effective. The expense goes out in a chunk and then the artist paints all year and stores it and can't sell it for another year.  So how does he survive so he can continue painting?  Prints.  Photos can be taken immediately in high resolution (thanks to current technology)and the prints can be made available now. Back in the 1300s, artists had sponsors.  They were housed and fed while they learned their craft and were commissioned to do works for the church, etc. A marvelous read is The Agony and the Ecstacy which is a biographical work on Michaelangelo.  I could not put it down! If you read it, I suggest googling old world maps to get a vibe for the areas, I was lost until I did that and got some definitions. Today, we have prints! The artist survives on print sales.

I will often have several paintings going at once.  Perhaps I do the sketching, then another, and then go back to the first and put in a background and then go back to the other.  In this wise, my paint does not get waisted sitting out.  It will dry if left out and become unusable.  Some paintings take several months to paint with oils.  Then, they must be stored under a special material that won't stick to the painting and also prevents it from getting dust on it. It is recommended that an oil painting be allowed to dry for 6 months to a year before varnishing it. So figure the artist spent six or eight months painting it, then stored it so it could dry properly, then varnished it and stored it again, then matted and framed it.  So, two years work roughly for one painting!    Palette knife paintings can also be harder to do because the artist has less control and needs a particular type of skill to be able to achieve a great painting with knives.  These are all just things that factor in.  I find that I prefer oils when creating a palette knife painting because it goes on smoother.  acrylics can dry too fast and the paint can sort of bunch up or not blend the way I want it to. 

Sometimes, an artist isn't considered "a real artist" if he paints with acrylic.  This is an art world viewpoint.  The critics will decide who is a real artist and who isn't.  I have seen some amazing paintings in acrylics that sold for tens of thousands of dollars because they were so spectacular and the artist was so good.  Some critics might think it isn't even art unless it is done in oil.  Value could be perceived to be more if it is in oil.  Oil is considered "fine art" whereas acrylics might not be, but this is only by a select crowd that is determining the fate of all artists with lofty opinions. Many fine artists specialized in acrylic paints.  Conversly, acrylics could also be considered a revolutionary product because they allow more people to paint and dry faster so they further art exponentially. 

Prints are sometimes considered "just a print." Picasso and Andy Warhol revolutionized the art world by creating prints people could afford with lithographs and linocuts and back then, it was an arduous process. That is why those particular types of prints are still costly and maintain their value. It was literally a collaboration where a producer paid for the process, the artist paid the production people and supervised the process.  Lithographs were done on stones.  Porous limestone.  And they had to etch something into a stone, then say there were going to be 50 of these made, do fifty with the first color.  Then wash the stone, then add the second color, and so on, which is why lithos are often only one color. We literally do not make them like that anymore.  We have more advanced technology.  Does it make it less valuable?  Perhaps in a vintage collector's eye.  The idea was to make art available to all people instead of only a few who could afford to commission famous artists for portraits, etc.  The first prints were done in copper.  It is soft, so when it got pressed, the artist could only get about 20 prints from the drawing that was etched into it before the etching itself would smear into the copper and the plate would no longer be usable.  As technology advanced, more and more prints became available.  Renior with his etchings of common people and his way of shading was amazing.   I have a print of Monet's Vethuil Sur Seine and I am in love with it!  It has a prominent place in my kitchen just above where I store all of my art supplies.  I would never be able to afford the original, probably even if I lived back then! Right now, it still cost me a bit even though it's just a print and it is unsigned.  It is beautiful.  That's the whole point. Even if one could afford an original, there is only ever ONE.  This makes the print process a huge advancement.  Art enhances life, so the more people have access to it, the happier the world is!  At least that is my viewpoint on it.

These are just a few differences between oils and acrylics and a few side notes from me.   There is a plethora of information about the differences for those who want to research and know all the specifics. I hope you enjoyed my notes!


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