Technique Tuesday: Oil vs. Acrylic

Technique Tuesday oil acrylic

Today’s Technique Tuesday topic is often a hotly debated one in the art world; many artists and art appreciators have very strong feeling one way or another about the type of paint they prefer between oil and acrylic. Before we get into this discussion, then, let’s get one thing very clear.

Great art is not all about what you paint with. It’s about how you paint with it.

In this post, we’ll just be talking about the practical differences between each medium, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. As with many things, this choice is often going to come down to the personal preference of the artist. What’s “best” is often just a matter of opinion. There are a wide variety of materials to use to create art, but when it comes to creating relatively opaque paintings (as opposed to the more translucent effect of watercolor), today’s most popular paints to use are oil and acrylic.

The basics: oil paints consist of pigment suspended in an oil, usually linseed oil, where acrylic paints suspend pigment in acrylic polymer emulsion. Oil paints date back quite a ways, but they really became popular during the height of the Renaissance. Acrylic paints, on the other hand, only came onto the scene around 1934! Their popularity began to really increase in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

AH Acrylic Collage
(left to right) Andy Warhol, “Big Campbell’s Soup Can 19c” (1962), David Hockney, “A Bigger Splash” (1967) Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (1969)

Versatility: Acrylic paints take the upper hand in this category. Although they can be used straight from the tube, acrylic paints are also water soluble, and depending on how much water is used, acrylic paint can be applied to appear very similar to watercolor, very similar to oil paints, or even just take on qualities unique to acrylic alone. Acrylic can also easily be used on virtually any kind of surface, and unlike oil paints which possess a natural corrosive nature, the surface does not need to be treated beforehand to protect it. Oil paint has its own range of versatility, certainly, but it’s just not quite as wide as that of acrylic paint.

Drying Time: Acrylic paint dries a lot more quickly than oil paint, and depending on how the artist likes to work, this can be a great advantage or an obstacle. Oil paints can be applied to an artist’s palette and dipped into for hours, even days, as the medium stays soft and pliable. Acrylic paint will dry very quickly on a palette, often before the artist even has a chance to use as much of it as they wanted to! This requires more frequent application from tube to palette, and sometimes a waste of paint. When it comes to applying the paint onto the painting surface, whether or not it quick drying is desired comes down to an artist’s preference. Oil paints give an artist more flexibility for taking their time to create a work, including taking breaks and coming back to it and still being able to manipulate the paint. If an artist is painting with oils in a technique called glazing, which involves building up paint in very thin layers, then the slow drying nature of oil paint can be a disadvantage since it requires much more time to complete the work, as they’re waiting for each layer to dry before continuing. Some artists prefer this time flexibility, and will choose to work on more than one painting at a time to accommodate for the drying time of each. With acrylic paints, however, thin layers, or “washes”, can be built up quite quickly, and layering paint becomes a much faster process. This does mean, though, that an artist must work quickly when blending paints on the surface itself, as acrylic paint doesn’t give much time for this.

Color shifting: Because of their composition, acrylics will dry slightly darker than they appear when first applied. This can be tough, especially with portraits or other compositions where getting the colors just exactly right is important to the artist. The artist may mix what appears to be the perfect color, only to find that when the binder in the acrylic paint dries, it turns from white to clear, and therefore the color darkens slightly. With some practice, artists can get used to this and adjust the mixed paint accordingly, knowing it will shift, but it is still rather inexact this way. Oil paint, on the other hand, has no immediate color shift. What you see when you’re painting is what you’ll get when it’s dry. The caveat here is: oil paint will maintain its color….for a time. Oil paints have a slight yellow tinge to them because of the oil, and with the passing of years, oxidation can cause the paint to take on a more yellowed effect (this does take quite a long time, though). This is just a characteristic of oil paints, and must be taken into account by users. Laboratory tests show a lot of promise for acrylic’s durability over a long stretch of time, but the catch is, they’ve been around less then a century. Time will tell whether they truly do last well, but all signs indicate that they will.

Flexibility: The drying time we discussed comes into play again when looking at flexibility of the paint. Acrylics dry much faster; this means that if an artist uses thick oil paint to create an impasto effect, even when the outer layer of paint has “cured” and is dry to the touch, the inner part of the thick paint strokes may still be somewhat wet. Improper consideration of drying times of the paint can lead to cracking in the paint’s surface over time (yikes), though these days artists have found that there are certain additives which can speed up paint drying time for oils and therefore help to avoid this. Acrylic is much more flexible, simply because of its composition, and has only been known to crack under extreme cold temperatures.

Safety: To spread the paint more easily on the painting surface and achieve the desired texture and drying time, oil paints are mixed with a solvent or resin. These materials are also used in the cleaning of the brushes. The most effective and traditional solvents are turpentine or white spirits, but these create heavy fumes, which are dangerous to breathe in. This danger can be offset with preparation and proper ventilation, or by using alternative thinning materials with less odor (although these can often be much less effective). Acrylic paints, on the other hand, are odorless and non-toxic, and can be thinned with water. A properly prepared artist can paint safely with either option, but they do need to be aware of the necessary precautions for painting with oils!

Examples from Principle Gallery:

In the last week, we’ve had three incredible events here at the gallery and we all got a chance to learn more about both oil and acrylic paints. Last Sunday, we welcomed artist GC Myers to the gallery for his annual artist talk, and learned some more about his process in creating his vibrantly colored acrylic landscape paintings. Acrylics are especially conducive to creating the bright, saturated colors seen in GC’s artworks, and we were thrilled to receive a large number of new work from him that day, all featuring these lovely vibrant colors. Here are a few cool examples, and you can check out the rest on our website here:

9915183 Seeker of Light
GC Myers, “Seeker of Light”
9915230 Perpetua
GC Myers, “Perpetua”
9915234 Floating Melody
GC Myers, “Floating Melody”

The other two events from this past week involved the opening of Casey Childs’ solo exhibition, “Observations.” Friday night, we held an opening reception for the incredible show, which features brand new oil paintings, alla prima oil sketches, and stunning charcoal drawings. We were so pleased to have Casey himself join us for the opening, not to mention come back the following afternoon to give a live oil painting demonstration in the gallery! We watched fascinated as in just over three hours, Casey painted a beautiful portrait from a live model. Check here to see Casey’s whole show, including these beauties:

Girl with Braids HR
Casey Childs, “Girl with Braids”
Henna HR
Casey Childs, “Henna”
Repose(d) HR
Casey Childs, “Repose(d)”

And here is a collage to show you the stages of painting during the amazing live painting demonstration! We hope to have many more live demonstrations during the Saturday after the opening of upcoming shows–keep an eye out for announcements!

Childs Demo Collage
Casey Childs, “Portrait of Gail” during creation

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