Choosing Oil, Water or Acrylic Paints

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You have always loved drawing and now you want more.

Color is suddenly important and learning how to use it to create a painting is the next goal you have in mind.

Deciding what type of paint to use can be a daunting task if one does not have the information to make an informed decision.

It all sounds so exotic, creative and expensive. Spending time researching the various mediums available is time well spent and saves disappointment and dollars.

As you explore the various types of paints and accessories available, think about what you wish to accomplish. Consider the kind of paintings you want to create, your lifestyle and the time and space you will allocate to your new avocation. Grandiose images of a paint-cluttered atelier may dance through your head, but most of us do not have the luxury of great amounts of time or money to devote to a hobby.

Acrylic Paint

This paint is an all-around product that can emulate both watercolor and oil painting. Acrylic paint, and its companion products, are generally non-toxic and are easy to clean up with soap and water.


Because acrylic paint dries so quickly, it is perfect for the person who has limited time and space to apply to their hobby. It is easy to set up on a kitchen table or corner of a bedroom. Since it dries quickly, it is convenient to store works in progress.

When dry, acrylics are impervious to moisture. This allows multiple layers to be painted in a relatively short space of time and makes it a good choice for murals.

Acrylic paint may be used as it comes from the tube, much like an oil paint, or it can be thinned with water to the consistency of watercolor paint. When used alone, or with paste medium, it can be built up in impasto layers for thick texture. Thinning it with water allows it to be applied in a translucent layer as a watercolor and may be layered for glazing. Water-soluble paints require nothing more than water for clean up, so it is an easy to care for medium. Resin is used in the production of acrylic paint, and the adhesive nature of this substance makes it suitable for use in mixed media collage work.


Because it dries very quickly, there is no loitering permitted. The speed of the drying time can be reduced with the addition of a retarding medium. Water may be sprayed on the surface of wet paint to delay the paint in drying.
Since it is waterproof when dry, there is no lifting of color as there is with watercolor. Once it is on the sheet, there is no going back.


As in all art supplies, there is a wide range of prices available to the consumer. Since it is a water-soluble product, there is no added expense of solvents, oils or specialty cleaners needed. It also has the ability to emulate different types of paints, so the student can expose himself to several types of painting styles with the purchase of only one type of paint. This makes it a very cost effective medium to use.


Watercolor is a compact medium for the person with limited space to allocate to his craft. There is no need for an easel, and a paint box containing all tools and paints necessary may be as small as a box of crackers.


Along with its compact character, watercolor dries very rapidly and allows the artist to stop and start at will. Erratic paint sessions are never a problem for the watercolorist.

Watercolor can be re-wetted and much of the paint may be removed for modification or repainting. The paint remains useable indefinitely. Since it is activated with water, dried tubes may be reclaimed or the artist may opt for dry pan paint.


Watercolor is painted on paper, and as such is a more fragile piece of artwork. It must be displayed under glass to preserve the paper and protected from direct sunlight and moisture.

Watercolor paper is limited in size. The artist intending on producing huge paintings will be limited to 40 inches by 60 inches, as this is the largest manufactured watercolor paper.


Watercolor can be inexpensive, as there are few accessories to purchase. Tubes of paint are small, so the cost of the individual colors is not significant. Paper is available in blocks, tablets or individual sheets, depending upon the artist’s needs.

Completed work must be mounted and framed under glass. This can be costly, but there are do-it-yourself methods of mounting and framing watercolors to reduce expenses.


Traditionally, oil painting is considered the epitome of artistic expression. Of course this is a misnomer, but many students aspire to learn oil painting as an ultimate goal. It is not more difficult to learn, but there is a significant expense in fitting out a tabouret with all the associated materials necessary. There is also a need for a proper workspace to accommodate the slow-drying work-in-progress and proper ventilation for the fumes from products used in the painting process.


Oil paint dries very slowly, so work can continue on an area over a long period. When dry, it is permanent, so subsequent layers can be added without disrupting the previous painting. It is used in the impasto method to develop texture, or thinned to a transparent glaze to modify subtly the hue of prior layers. It is also the most long-lasting medium, as evidenced by paintings enduring for hundreds of years.


Since oil paint dries very slowly, this can be a hindrance as well. Speed painting just does not apply here. The painting may be complete, but as it may take months to dry, there is little that can be done with it but wait.

The chemicals used for solvents, as well as some of the pigments in the paint, are toxic. There are health risks that must be weighed before choosing to study oil painting.


Oil paints are available in a wide range of prices. As with any other type of medium, it is always wise to choose the best quality one can afford. Select a small number of primary colors to begin with to minimize initial costs. Do not skimp on brush quality. A few top-quality brushes will be far more cost efficient than inexpensive ones that will need to be quickly replaced. Brushes must be kept properly clean to extend their life, which is also a way to keep costs down. The student may begin his studies painting on canvas board or gessoed Masonite, which are less costly than stretched canvas. Oil medium and solvent may be purchased in small quantities initially, and an inexpensive plastic or metal tray can serve as a palette.

Oil painting may be the most costly of the mediums, so keeping purchases to a minimum is advisable until the student has decided that oils are his paint of choice.

Diving In

Once the student has made a choice of the type of paint he wishes to explore, there are any numbers of books, videos and on-line sources to begin his studies. Many communities have classes available at local colleges, and arts organizations offer small classes for beginning artists.

Local art supply stores make purchasing supplies easy, but on-line sources may have far better pricing. Comparison-shopping is important, as prices can vary considerably. Pay for a good quality of materials and save money by purchasing a minimal number of colors, brushes and other supplies.

Fear of failure is common for beginning artists. Expect to have challenges. Some things will come easily, while others simply elude comprehension. Practice is the key, and repetition is important to mastering a technique.

If you find you are not suited to a particular medium, move on to another. The most important thing to remember is to have fun and enjoy yourself.

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