Artsy Club Logo

Comparing Painting Mediums: Oil, Acrylic, and Watercolor


Oil paints are known for their rich colors and slow drying time, allowing for detailed blending. Acrylics are versatile, quick-drying, and can mimic the properties of both oil and watercolor paints. Watercolors are transparent and fluid, perfect for light, delicate works. Each medium has its own set of techniques and is chosen by artists based on the desired outcome and working style.

Comparing Painting Mediums: Oil, Acrylic, and Watercolor

Table of Contents

Oil painting has been a revered art form for centuries, with its roots tracing back to the early 15th century. The technique of using oil-based pigments was pioneered by the Van Eyck brothers, who are credited with bringing the medium to prominence. The rich colors and durability of oil paints made them a favorite among the Old Masters, including Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Characteristics of Oil Paints

Oil paints consist of pigments suspended in drying oils, such as linseed or walnut oil. They are known for their luminosity and depth of color, which result from the light passing through the layers of paint and reflecting off the white canvas. Oil paints dry slowly, allowing artists to work with the paint for longer periods, blending and making adjustments as needed.

Techniques and Uses

The versatility of oil paints allows for a range of techniques, from glazing to impasto. Artists can build up layers of paint, known as 'fat over lean,' to create a rich texture. Oil paints are often used for portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, where detail and depth are desired.

Acrylic Paints

History of Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paints are a relatively modern invention, first developed in the 1940s and becoming commercially available in the 1950s. They were initially designed as a durable, water-resistant paint for industrial use but quickly found favor with artists for their versatility and ease of use.

Characteristics of Acrylic Paints

Acrylics are water-based paints that dry quickly to a flexible, water-resistant finish. They can be diluted with water or modified with acrylic mediums to mimic the properties of oil or watercolor paints. Acrylics adhere to a wide range of surfaces and are favored for their ability to be used in mixed media works.

Techniques and Uses

Acrylic painting techniques are diverse, ranging from thin washes similar to watercolor to thick, textured applications. They are suitable for a quick painting process and are often used for abstract art, murals, and crafts due to their fast drying time and adaptability.

Watercolor Paints

History of Watercolor Paints

Watercolor painting has a long history, with evidence of its use in ancient manuscripts. It became popular in England during the 18th century, with artists like William Turner pushing the boundaries of the medium. Watercolors are appreciated for their portability and ease of setup, making them ideal for plein air painting.

Characteristics of Watercolor Paints

Watercolors are known for their transparency and fluidity. They are made of pigments suspended in a water-soluble binder, usually gum arabic. The white of the paper shines through the layers of paint, giving watercolor works a luminous quality. They dry quickly and can be reactivated with water.

Techniques and Uses

Watercolor techniques include wet-on-wet, where water is applied to the paper before the paint, and dry brush, which creates sharp, textured lines. Watercolors are often used for landscapes, botanical illustrations, and other subjects where a light, airy feel is desired.


Working Time

Oil paints offer the longest working time due to their slow drying properties, making them ideal for blending and layering. Acrylics dry quickly but can be kept workable with retarders or by working in thin layers. Watercolors have the shortest working time, as they cannot be reworked extensively once dry.

Color and Finish

Oil paints provide a glossy finish and rich, vibrant colors. Acrylics have a more matte finish but can be varnished for gloss, and their colors are bold and versatile. Watercolors are valued for their delicate, transparent colors and the unique effects achievable with water.

Versatility and Accessibility

Acrylics win in terms of versatility, as they can be used on various surfaces and in different styles. Oils and watercolors are more specialized, with oils requiring a primed canvas and watercolors needing high-quality paper. Acrylics and watercolors are more accessible to beginners due to their water solubility and ease of cleanup.

Durability and Preservation

Oil paintings are long-lasting when properly cared for, but they are prone to cracking and yellowing over time. Acrylics are durable and resistant to environmental factors. Watercolors are the most delicate and require careful preservation under glass to protect them from moisture and fading.


Oil, acrylic, and watercolor paints each offer unique benefits and challenges to artists. The choice of medium depends on the artist's technique, style, and the desired outcome of their work. Understanding the properties and historical contexts of these mediums enriches the appreciation of the art created with them and informs the choices artists make in their practice.

Published On: Saturday, November 11, 2023
You May Also Like
Art's Impact on Personal Development and Growth

Art's Impact on Personal Development and Growth

Published on February 20, 2023

Abstract Art Exploration: Creative Techniques and Ideas

Abstract Art Exploration: Creative Techniques and Ideas

Published on June 9, 2023

Balancing Art and Academics: Strategies for Students

Balancing Art and Academics: Strategies for Students

Published on July 30, 2023

More Articles
Watercolor Painting Classes for everyone.
Offline in Mysore. Online around the world.Call +91 9900066350EXPLORE OUR PROGRAMS