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Paint Debate: Oil Vs. Acrylic and when to Use Each

If you’re interested in taking up painting, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is what type of paint you’d like to try first. For fine art painting, two of the key types of paint are acrylic and oil paint. But when it comes to oil vs. acrylic, which one is the best choice for your painting?

To the naked eye, these two types of paint may seem identical, but this is not the case. While both are used to create beautiful works of art, they have some important differences that you should consider as a painter. This guide is meant to demystify these two types of paint in order to help you decide which might be best suited for you and your unique style of painting.

Acrylic Paint

This is a fast-drying type of paint, wherein the paint’s pigment is suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion.

While the paint is still wet, it is liquid soluble; the paint can be diluted and brushes cleaned with water. Once the paint dries, however, it is water-resistant, with a plastic texture.

Acrylic paint can be manipulated with any number of “medium” mix-ins, gels or texture pastes to attain different finishes, from a high-gloss to a dull matte to sandy textures.

Oil Paint

This slow-drying variety of paint features paint pigment suspended in a solid oil, often linseed oil. The oil makes it non-water soluble, so to mix and dilute oil paint, you’ll need some sort of spirit solvent. The paint dries slowly and will ultimately “set,” but applying a solvent will break down the paint.

Key Differences between Oil and Acrylic Paint

Note: These differences primarily reflect traditional acrylic and oil paint rather than alternative versions of each (such as water-soluble oil paint or sticks).


Acrylic paint is water soluble, whereas traditional oil paint requires a paint-thinning solution, such as linseed oil, to mix. (Note: water-soluble oil paints do exist, which would not require linseed oil to mix).

Cleaning Brushes

Acrylic paint brushes can be cleaned with water. Brushes used for oil paint, however, will repel water, making this an ineffective mode of cleaning. Instead, a paint-thinning solution such as turpentine is used to clean brushes.

Speed of Drying

Acrylic paint dries quickly; most portions of a painting will dry in minutes, and even the thickest portions of or applied acrylic will dry in an hour or so. On the other hand, oil paint dries very slowly. Depending on the thickness of the paint, it can take days for a portion of the painting to dry completely.

Quality of Dried Paint

Once acrylic paint dries, it is permanent and cannot be altered; oil paint can be re-moistened with a medium and added to or altered.

Color of Dried Paint

Acrylic paint will typically dry slightly darker than when it looks when wet, which requires a bit of forethought in your painting. This means that you’ll have to mix a color that is slightly lighter than you’d like, as the paint will dry slightly darker. Oil paint, on the other hand, will dry pretty much the same color as applied.

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