Agenor’s Friends, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 92 x 86 inches

I was in an art store affixed to a local art school some months ago when a woman walked in asking the store clerk about the difference between oil and acrylic paints.  She was signed up for a class at the school in which you could use any medium. Since she was new to painting, she didn’t know what to choose. Being the busy body helpful person that I am, I considered offering some free advice. But the very complexity of the question put me into a kind of mental paralysis. So I just stood, blank stare, looking like a nosey store mannequin.

Anyone who has used either medium very much knows they are like night and day. I used to play around with acrylics in high school when they were still fairly new as a medium. Back in that era of my artist life, they posed no particular problem since I didn’t know much about paints anyway, my method was “go with the flow.” And to newcomers in the art world, I say take full advantage of the beginner’s mind and beginner’s luck. Nature loves a rookie.

However, after I had spent years and years painting with oil, I took up acrylic paints again because an artist friend was using them to wonderful effect. I got my palette and soon thereafter was ready to pull my hair out for frustration. The big mistake I made was in trying to make them behave like oil paints:  to make them do the things that I could so easily do with oil.  Well, it don’t work that way.

Cabbage and Potatoes, oil on paper glued to panel


I gave my whole palette to the friend just to get the paint out of my life. Later, though, I bought more acrylics and began to accept that they have their own virtues. In time I made some paintings that I really loved and one painting of which I am especially proud, Agenor’s Friends (top of the post). All that came later of course.

Still life of assorted bottles and props, acrylic on canvas


Ever since that random encounter (I eavesdropped on the clerk’s advice), I have wondered how I would explain the difference in the uses of the two kinds of paint. I have found no particularly satisfying explanation. For one, it really depends a lot on how you approach painting as to which medium you’re likely to find more congenial and someone who has never used either one isn’t like to have an approach yet.

And thus the only advice I know to offer to a beginner is this:

Get one of the kinds of paint. Flipping a coin is a good way to decide. Don’t invest the whole farm. Just buy a beginner’s set. Take a course with somebody who uses that medium. Or find a book. Check out Youtube for demonstration videos. Use whichever one you choose, learn some basics, then after a season give the other one a try.

Know that they are fundamentally different! One dries fast, the other dries slow. But, friends, I cannot impress upon you what a difference that makes!

(This post was inspired by something I saw at another blog. Smile.)

9 thoughts on “Choosing between oil and acrylic paints

  1. I often use acrylics to sketch out values and shapes as an underpainting for my oil paintings. My expectations are so low with my acrylic work. I have seen some really beautiful acrylic work. But my stuff is flat out ugly.

  2. Jill, I produced many things with acrylic that I thought were ugly. Partly there’s the appearance of the paint itself which in some brands can be kind of plastic-looking. Otherwise, though, I think the problem is getting colors and tones accurate. Because you can’t paint wet into wet with acrylics (or only with considerable forethought and difficulty), the color mixing needs to be spot on so that transitions can occur through colors placed adjacent to each other.

    I had a hard time with them until I didn’t. Eventually I just got used to them. I enjoyed using them for large projects as a way of trying something out, knowing I could work as fast as I pleased because the color dries almost instantly. Unlike with oil, I began to put onto the palette only the colors I want NOW. That was not just a practical change, like saving money or something. It was a fundamental cognitive change. I realized that I’m mixing this color, putting it HERE, and then acrylics become more like — say — pastel where the color is like a stick. You pick up this one and apply it and later pick up that one and apply it, etc.

    I love acrylic now, but I hardly ever use it because there’s just so many hours in a day and I like oil pastel, dry pastel and oil paint so much that I use them preferentially.


  3. We all have a natural medium that feels right, does not say we should not try out others…
    For me, my natural medium is water medium, ink, watercolour, gouache. I tried oils because it is suppose to be for being taken seriously, and acrylic, for the ease to use it, but I keep coming back to water medium and I just feel like the kois in your paintings 🙂
    I love that painting Aletha.

  4. Yes, when you find a medium that does what you want it makes sense to pursue your ideas in their natural environment. The debate between oil and acrylic doesn’t even exist for many artists. They use one or the other and not both. Or, in the case of the dedicated draughtsman or watercolorist or devotee to other media — perhaps they use neither.

    My comment was directed to people who are venturing into art and don’t know which of these two paints to try.

    And they are different enough that the decision is not harmed one bit by leaving it up to chance. So flip a coin! Or decide in whatever fashion works for you. Or, indeed, choose another medium altogether.

    The question of “seriousness” in art is a good topic for another post.

  5. I know, it is difficult for people who are starting and don’t know what to use. Good to try and see.
    I will read you about seriousness in art but dont be too too serious 🙂

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