Should I Use Acrylic or Oil Paint?

Both types of paint have pluses and minuses depending on the artist

Woman selecting tubes of paint in art shop, profile
Selecting Your Paints. Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images

For a new or inexperienced painter, the decision about what kind of paint to use is an important one. Most will be deciding between two types of paint: Oil or acrylic.

Oil-based paints, which are made with linseed or other types of oils, have been used for hundreds of years by famous artists around the world. Oils offer vibrant colors and subtle blending. Acrylics, made up of synthetic polymers, are their newer cousins used by painters in the modern era.

Practically speaking, the biggest difference between oil paints and acrylics is the drying time. Some oils can take days or weeks to fully dry, whereas acrylics can be dry within a matter of minutes. Which is better? It depends on a painter's individual preference, and what they're trying to achieve with their work. 

Why Choose Oil Paints

If you like to push the paint around and get it right, oils give you plenty of time. Oil paints were used by painters in India and China centuries ago and became the medium of choice among European painters before and during the Renaissance. 

Oil paints have a distinct, strong odor that may be off-putting for some. The two substances used to clean up oil paints -- mineral spirits and turpentine -- are both toxic. Each of these has a distinct odor, as well. 

More modern varieties of oil paints are water soluble, which makes it possible to clean them with water, and reduces their drying time. They'll still take much longer to dry than acrylic paints, however. 

Why Choose Acrylic Paints 

Acrylics are made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. The first famous artists to use acrylics were the Mexican muralists of the 1920s and 1930s, including Diego Rivera. Acrylics became commercially available in the 1940s and 1950s and were popular with American painters of that time, such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney

Painters who like to use a knife to texture the paints in their work find acrylics' fast-drying properties ideal. 

Acrylic paints are water-soluble, but don't leave them on your brushes for too long; they become water-resistant when dry. That can mean a crusty mess on brushes that haven't been cleaned right after use. 

If you act while the paint is still wet, brushes and other equipment used with acrylics can be cleaned with hot water. And for artists still experimenting with their style, acrylics can be diluted with water to produce very different looks, similar to watercolor paints. 

Oils Versus Acrylics 

A big mark in the plus column (especially for new, younger painters) for using acrylic paints: They're significantly less expensive than oil paints. Acrylics come in different viscosities as well, allowing for a bit more versatility in the end result. But oils' lengthy drying time offers opportunities for blending and mixing of different colors not available when using acrylics.

Acrylics have fewer pigments in them than oils, so oil paintings will tend to have more vivid colors after they've dried. But oil paintings tend to yellow with age and may need to be protected from direct sunlight. 

Whatever medium you choose, let your personal artistic vision be your guide. There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to picking paint, so experiment with both and see which one makes the most sense for you.