Art Curator, Art Expert, Artists, Emilya Colliver

'The Australian Art Curator Blog' - The Difference Between Oil And Acrylic

What’s the difference between Oil and Acrylic?

Learning about “art” in the broad sense of the word is a big undertaking – and understandably it can seem quite daunting to people who are just starting out. There is such a rich history to understand, with different movements (styles), artists, and media, so when approaching your education (informal or otherwise) breaking it down into manageable pieces is always the best way.

I think it’s really important to understand a few basic concepts, and this can easily be directed by the type of art that you enjoy. One key aspect is the materials that your favourite artist(s) use, and learning about why they have chosen that particular medium.

Most people who have been to an art gallery or museum would have come across a painting that has used oil or acrylic paint – at a glance they both share similarities, but delving a little deeper there is a lot of differences in the process and end result.

There is a lot of prestige around the use of oil paints, and for hundreds and hundreds of years some of the most highly regarded artists around the world have used them. The paints themselves are extremely durable with the end results lasting centuries in some cases. The paints are a lot richer, producing vivid and vibrant colours and a lot of depth is created with the nuance that is available to the artist.

Acrylic paint is quite a new material, and works produced using acrylics haven’t been around for long enough to make a comparison to a work like the Mona Lisa, for example, which has experienced some discolouration over time.

The big difference for the artist during the actual painting process is the drying time, acrylic paint will dry within an hour or two, meaning the artist needs to adapt their process to suit the material and have a very clear idea of what they are trying to produce because of the limited opportunity for revision. With oil it can stay wet for weeks and weeks, and you can see with some artists who use the paint as almost a form of sculpture – laying it on very thickly with a palette knife - that you could almost cut into it and it would still be wet underneath! Obviously the climate plays a huge part – humidity and temperature all influence the drying time but there is a vast difference in the two time periods.

This quality also affects the ability an artist has to mix their paint – obviously with a faster drying time acrylic paints can be somewhat limiting in terms of exploring a colour range or experimenting with mixing colours. With oil paints, you can (obviously) use different types of oils to change the way the paint behaves and have some flexibility with the process.

Cost is a consideration for the artist, acrylic paints can be picked up quite cheaply and very widely so are an attractive option for artists who are just starting. Oil painting is a significant investment in materials (paint and oil), but there is an element that it is creating a more significant piece of work that can be modified or changed throughout the creative process – a more permanent piece that has perhaps has a more considered technical element to it.

Practically, acrylic paint has a lot of benefits for artists that can’t be discounted! Cleaning up acrylic paint is a breeze compared to oil paint – which is a lot like house paint in its stubborn-ness!

Ultimately your preference in material both as an artist or a collector is a very personal choice, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to these decisions and the works that are produced with the two media are constantly evolving!