Acrylic vs Oil Paintings

It’s a question that I had not so long ago; what’s the difference between acrylics and oils?  Is one better than the other?  I used to think that an artist had to use oils to be a top-dog artist, because oils are what we most often hear about when people discuss paintings.

Let’s go over some of the differences.


  • Water based
  • Dry quickly
  • Can be cleaned with just water
  • Use Polymer to increase flow
  • Can require a retarder to extend drying time
  • Tends to dry semi-dull

My apologies for the slightly blurry photo below; this was taken while the paint was still wet, and was taken with a cell phone (bad bad, I know).

Acrylic on hot press watercolor paper
Acrylic on hot press watercolor paper


  • Well, they’re oil based
  • Take forever to dry (at least a day between layers, and a couple days for a full painting)
  • Have to use paint thinner/spirits, along with soap and water to clean
  • Use linseed oil or the like to increase flow
  • Can require drying mediums to speed up drying time
  • Tends to dry with rather vibrant colours

This is a mostly finished oil painting under bad lighting (I never claimed to be a photographer).

Oil painting on artist board
Oil painting on artist board

Some people love the longer dry time of oils (more time to work a painting over and over until it’s just right), while other people hate it (so much wait time between layers!).  I lean more toward the dislike of the long drying time, because I’m someone who wants instant gratification.  Just the other day, I actually leaned over an oil painting I had done about a day and a half previously (dumb) and…. You guessed it – I got oil paint all over the front of my shirt.  Good thing it wasn’t a final painting, or I would have been very sad!

The other point that people tend to debate over the most is the vibrancy of the paintings when dry.  You will notice that above, I mentioned that acrylics tend to dry with less vibrancy than oil.  This is totally true; however, acrylic paintings should be varnished when completed.  If using a semi-gloss varnish, the colours of the acrylic paint will come out just as if they were oil colours.  There’s really no big loss there at all, and obviously, the varnish is there to protect the painting, so it’s not even an extra step in the process.

Oils on artist board
Oils on artist board

Something that a lot of people don’t consider is that oil paints can be used over acrylic paints (or even watercolor)!  True story.  Finishing off an acrylic painting with oils can add that little extra something that people sometimes feel is missing from an acrylic painting.  Keep in mind, though, that water based paints cannot be applied over oil based paints (separation issues – you understand); only oils can be applied over water based.

Fascinating, isn’t it?