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Painting: Watercolour vs. Acrylic vs. Oil

March 3, 2010

One of the first decisions you will need to make as an artist learning to paint is which paint to use. There are three main choices, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. First let’s look at the pros and cons of each, then I’ll give you my opinion on where it’s best to start.


watercolour-paintsThese paints are water soluble and clean up easily with warm water and a bit of soap. Even after the paint has dried completely, it can be re-activated with water. This means that  you brushes will survive if you forget to wash them right away after a painting session! This also means that your paints can be used again and again, without any wastage. The most common painting surface for these paints is watercolour paper.

Watercolours are said to be the hardest paints to master. Because of their transparency, you can’t just paint over an area if you make a mistake. Watercolour techniques involve working in layers from light to dark, and you can use water to dilute the paints and create transparent washes.


acrylic-paintsAcrylics are also a water-based paint, but unlike watercolours, once they dry they stay dry. The brushes clean easily with soap and water, but must be cleaned right away. If paint dries on your brush, it will not come off! This also means that any paint left on your palette at the end of a session will dry out and become unusable unless you can seal it.

Acrylic paints have a very shiny, plasticy finish. They dry flat, in spite of any texture they might have when wet. They also dry slightly darker, making it difficult to mix the colours for an already dry section of a painting.

One great thing about acrylics is their versatility. When diluted with water, you can create washes much like watercolours. When used straight from the tube, they behave more like oil paints. They also dry very quickly, letting you re-work a painting without having to wait. Of all the paints, acrylics are the most immediate.The drawback, however, is that this makes them difficult to blend smoothly.


oil-paintsOil paints behave very differently from watercolours and acrylics. They are oil-based, which makes clean-up more complicated. You will need to have some kind of solvent or turpentine to clean your brushes. This substance can be dangerous (flammable) and needs to be disposed of properly.

The other difference in oils is that they take a long time to dry. In fact, they don’t actually dry at all. With watercolours and acrylics, the drying process involves the evaporation of the water within the paint. Oil paints, on the other hand, actually have a chemical reaction with oxygen, which causes them to harden. It can take weeks, to months, to even a year for to complete the process. Often, your paintings will feel dry to the touch within a day or two, but will not be dry underneath.

The great thing about this is that it lets you paint wet into wet for extended periods of time. It also means that if you forget to wash your brushes, they will probably be salvageable the next day!


The most important differences in oils, watercolours and acrylics to me are their drying times and the clean-up. But how do you know where to start?

This really depends on what you’re wanting to do. If you want to paint quickly and have a lot of versatility, go for acrylics. If you want to be able to work slowly and are committed to the solvents, try oils. If you like the idea of building layers, give watercolours a try.

I really believe it’s important to play and I would urge all of you to play around with each of these types of paints. You will learn the most this way and the experience will help you decide which you like better. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to do this; you can usually pick up student sets for cheap. Until you know what you like, that’s all you need.

I started painting with acrylics. The clean-up was convenient and the immediacy of the paint allowed me to learn quickly. I’ve since dabbled in watercolours and done some oil painting as well. I found that the transition from acrylics to the other paints was very easy. While watercolours aren’t for me, I there are elements of acrylics and oils that I love.

If you’re really stuck, try acrylics and go from there! Don’t forget to check out my introduction to colour theory.

Happy painting!


From → Painting

  1. thanks for those precious informations

  2. Great post! I bet you put a lot of research into it.

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