Most people know that when I say “This painting is oil on canvas” they know what I’m saying is “I used oil paint to create this painting”. That all is easy to follow but I’ve been told by some non-painter friends that although they understand that is the medium that I used, they don’t really understand what it entails and what the difference is if I instead said “This painting is acrylic on canvas.”
It’s a constant debate within the art community, which one is actually better – acrylic or oil. Well let’s start from the beginning to understand oil and acrylic paints a little bit better, shall we?
In the 15th century, artists began using oils such as linseed oil to create a slower drying and more versatile paint (before this, it was tempera which we’re not even going to get into in this post). This particular paint had a natural luminosity to it which gave artists a greater depth to their paintings and broadened their subject matter as well as their colour palette.
So, for the most part, all the old masters (Rembrandt, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo – yes, think Ninja Turtle names) used oil paint techniques, which is why of course oil painting is often seen as superior in quality.
Of course, artists continually chose oil paint as their medium of choice pretty much because that was the only (or at least most widely available) medium there was to choose from. That is, until acrylic paint was developed in the 1940s (yup it’s that new!).
The great thing about acrylic paint is that it is mixed with water which is neater, less stinky, and dries considerably faster.
The not so nice thing about acrylic paint is that is dries considerably faster. That’s right, for some this is a definite pro, for others it’s a con. It does set up limitations for an artist as far as blending goes but this works well for some artists.
The other nice thing about acrylic paint is that it can mimic both watercolour (add more water for a watered down effect) and oil (layering, thickness).
The answer to this will likely depend on the artist you ask because depending on the techniques and effects the artist is looking for, an artist will look for different qualities in their paints.
Each pro for one artist could be a con for another one (like the drying time).
IF YOU ASK ME
Which I know you just did…
I prefer working with oil paintings. I started out working only with acrylics because it was more accessible to me and less expensive. This didn’t change until my 4th year University. Yup that’s right it took me that long to figure out my niche as an artist (so for all you art students out there, just keep working, keep practicing, keep trying new mediums and subject matter and eventually it will lead you on the right path!).
I still use acrylic paint. Just not as much as I use oil. With most of my paintings I am looking for a layered depth, blending, and movement that I feel, I can only achieve to its greatest potential with oil paint.
That being said, I sometimes need my work to dry quickly or I’m not as concerned about blending, in which case acrylic can be sufficient.
Although I prefer the way oil paint feels when I’m painting (it moves just the right way for me), I will not say that oil is necessarily better. I have seen acrylic pieces that are just as beautiful as any oil painting. Like I said before, it all depends on the artist that is using them and what he/she hopes to achieve.
My advice if you are just starting out, is to try both and see what you think! Acrylic is certainly cheaper which is great for starting out. Once you’ve got a good handle on acrylic though I would definitely give oil paint a shot (even if you think acrylic is for you!). It’s a good thing to have some experience in both so you can understand and better appreciate the art forms. And who knows, you might be like me and discover something you didn’t even realize you were missing.