HomeArt ArticlesConcepts & AnalysisDifference Between Oil Paintings vs. Acrylic Paintings

Difference Between Oil Paintings vs. Acrylic Paintings

Even artists who stand face to face with an intriguing piece of art sometimes have trouble deciding whether it's an example of an oil painting or an acrylic piece. However, there are distinct differences between oil paintings and acrylic paintings. Contemporary painters need to decide which medium they'll utilize based on these differences plus personal preferences.

Classic vs. Modern

To many artists and art lovers, oil paintings are synonymous with a classic medium, while acrylic works are a modern art form. Think oil, and the first thing that comes to mind is a masterpiece. Think acrylic and see bold, contemporary colors.

Painting with oil on canvas probably originated in the 13th century and continues to be a favorite option for many. The current medium dates to the 15th century and Belgian Jan van Eyck. He found that by mixing pigments with nut oils and linseed, he could create a vibrant palette with a reasonable drying time.

Other artists, especially Leonardo da Vinci, perfected oil painting as a medium for depicting forms, figures and details. Renaissance oil painters experimented with proportion, perspective and anatomy to show realistic images and the intensity of human emotions.

During the Baroque period, the way light and shadows appeared in oil paintings conveyed intensity of emotion. Monet's Impressionist works -- in particular, his Impression, Sunrise -- employed oil pigments. Painters like Picasso and Matisse continued to experiment with oil into the 20 th century. Oil paint sticks used by artists such as Anselm Kiefer have since become popular.

Although the earliest form of acrylic was acrylate, formulated in the 1880s, acrylic paintings did not make a debut until the late 1940s, after retailers sold a polymer-based acrylic house paint. Within a decade, artists began to use acrylics because of their quick-drying benefits. Over the years, manufacturers developed acrylic paints with bolder, richer pigments.

Many artists prefer acrylic because it enables them to produce soft effects for watercolor themes and the sharp effects normally associated with oil paint. Andy Warhol's pop works show the wide range possible with this medium.

Recent painters have opted to use acrylics with pencil, charcoal, wood, canvas, paper and linen. They continue to discover possibilities using acrylic paint, which really hasn't completely come into its own yet as a medium.

Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Vive La Différence

So exactly what are the differences between oil and acrylic paintings? Here are some of the most important ones:

Realism. Some of the most unforgettable paintings are oil portraits. This medium is associated with realism. Paintings have bright colors and rich, intense layering.

Transparent finish. Acrylic paintings have a smooth, transparent, contemporary finish. The medium produces a shiny look with unique blends of colors. However, the texture is flatter than that of oil paintings.

Drying time. Oil paints dry much more slowly than acrylics. Some artists like the extra time for alterations.

Cost. In general, acrylic paints are cheaper. However, if an artist opts to slow drying time, the required additives are an extra expense.

Ease of removal. Removing acrylic paint from hands and tools only requires washing them. However, completely removing oil paint requires turpentine.

Durability. Given the brief history of acrylic paintings, it's difficult to say exactly how they will fare over the long term. However, oil paintings tend to discolor and even crack eventually. The technology behind acrylics suggests that they should last longer than oil-based creations.

Making the Choice

Novice painters often wonder how to pick a medium. Answering five basic questions should help a painter decide when to choose oil paint and when to work in acrylic.

Do you usually work quickly or at a slower pace? The versatility of acrylics means it's possible to paint on anything from canvas to card stock. Since they also dry very fast, they're a good choice for quick workers. Oil paints stay wet much longer and give the artist who needs a longer period to revise more time than acrylics would. Oil paint is still wet and pliable the next day, making it possible to blend the colors on the canvas. The down side is that unless the painter has purchased a pre-primed canvas, it's necessary to take time to prepare the surface of the canvas for oil paints.

Do you prefer hard lines or subtle blends? For those who like graphic composition, acrylics could be ideal. They allow reworking areas quickly and produce clean, bright colors easily. However, blending can be difficult because of how fast the paint dries. This makes it difficult to achieve the desired final result when working on the canvas as a whole. Oil paints are known for ease of blending colors. Additives can keep surfaces wet for weeks. However, trying to come up with a crisp edge without disturbing the underlying tones usually means waiting until the following day. Early attempts can result in a muddy look if colors mix.

How do you feel about a color shift? The high-tech design of acrylics suggests they should look the same centuries after creating a painting. The binder found in oil paint turns yellow over time, but acrylic polymer doesn't. However, with acrylics, the color dries darker than when applied because the white binder becomes clear. Initially, oils appear to stay the same color. However, after they've been on the canvas for a while, matte and glossy areas appear.

Do you prefer thick paint or thin layers? Artists who prefer thick, impasto paintings generally prefer acrylics because the thick paint dries fast. Acrylics also let a painter work thinly with transparent glazes to create a watercolor look. For those with plenty of time, oils permit working with thick paint if it has a few days to dry before adding a glaze. Some shades take longer than others to dry.

Do you have a small work space? Acrylics have no smell, are non-toxic and clean up with water. This makes them ideal for small work areas and painting around children. Using oil paints can produce overwhelming fumes from thinners and turpentine.

The basic element that distinguishes the creation of oil paintings from acrylic paintings is time. Beyond that, a painter's choice of one medium over the other is largely personal preference.

About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, and avid reader. She written on contemporary and classical art in various print publications, and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school.

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