How are Artists’ Acrylics Different From Oil Paints?


Are you researching art mediums and trying to learn more about oil paints, acrylics (or others….?) Trying to find out what makes each one distinctive? If you’re starting out and you’ve always wanted to know if and how painting in acrylics differs from working with oils, you’ve come to the right post.

Some artists think oils are the  superior medium. I for one, studied painting in college and we worked in oils.  However it’s a myth that acrylics cannot replicate the beauty of oils. The people who say this (not judging them, I probably thought that way too, once) may have picked up some low-grade brand of paints and were disappointed.

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are acrylics same as oil paints

Based on education alone, I later was able to take what I learned in my classes and apply it to acrylics. I hope some of the advice I present here will help you do that too.

Here are two small paintings I did in about 2003. One of them is in oils and the other is in acrylics. Can you tell which is which just from looking at them side by side?

how are acrylics different from oil paints

I have them both hanging up together in the same room, mainly because the subject/theme is so similar, and I’m hard-pressed to tell the medium apart. Intellectually, I know because I painted them, of course. The painting on the right is the one in oils and was one of five paintings required for my coursework to be completed.In addition to paints and brushes, I had an ample supply of two other products – turpentine and white gesso – that I worked with.

Composition of Oils and Acrylic Paints 🎨

Well, it all comes down to the formula in each. Let’ s start first with the different paints’ ingredients.

Oil Paint

The constituents of oil based paint is mainly a suspension of color pigment (usually oxide based) and linseed oil . Without going too much into a history lesson here, it gained popularity around Renaissance Europe as a more preferable medium to temperas due to their superior blending abilities.

You will need an oil-based substance to thin or change paint texture. One negative here is that solvent products like turpentine are flammable. There is also an “odorless” paint thinner (it does live up to its name but its still flammable!) Because its clear and transparent, it’s easy to mistake it for water unless it’s clearly labeled.

oils vs acrylics
My paint collection…both mediums

Acrylic Paint

Acrylics developed much later on the scene – (think mid- 20th century. ) Their makeup includes plasticizers, color pigment and a polymer emulsion. As a fun fact, it was originally developed as a form of latex house paint before making its way into the art studio. The chemical makeup gives acrylics their ability to blend together, adhere easily to various surfaces (other than canvas) and only necessitate water for mixing and cleaning.

If you’ve taken an interest in paintings with acrylics, you’ll be pleased to know that you won’t be needing to use turpentine, a solvent-based product used for paint thinning, mixing or brush cleaning. That’s because acrylic paint is water-based, so you’ll need exactly that, good ol’ H-2-0.

Acrylics are commonly labeled as “heavy body” or “high viscosity” – which translates as richer color pigment.If you were ever letdown by a brand that didn’t have the coverage you were hoping for, it may have been a “low viscosity” type. Here are some brands that I use and like the best.

Acrylics Dry Quickly…Oils Take Their Sweet Time ⌚️

Time is on your side a little more with oils….If you’re interested in techniques like “impasto” and the building of layers, it can work very well for this. Exactly how long it takes to dry can depend on humidity levels, room and studio temperatures, and seasons. I live in Georgia, which has a lot of relative humidity, and even in the winter I found that my oil paintings were almost dry in one week’s time. Summer, about three days (!)

Some people don’t like this, now me, I never minded waiting for a painting to dry. My only fear was that something like a stray piece of debris would land on it before then, or if I accidentally bumped up against a work in progress I’d get that paint on myself 😢

With their speedier dry time, acrylics can be a little more challenging for this, but…You can include formulated gels and other emulsions to change or modify the texture depending on the effects you are looking for.

You may also like: Why Do Acrylics Dry So Fast

Oil Paints Are Smellier…👃

Oils do have a distinctive odor to them. It is not foul by any means but it is distinctive. One reason I always pulled out my acrylic set when I got the urge to “practice” is that I didn’t want to offend my roommate, because, well, you know, some people are sensitive.

No judgement there…Acrylics don’t have much of a scent to them at all, if any (unless they get really old, and in that case they may be unusable).

Acrylics Look Darker When Dry

Due to color shifting, you may notice a difference in appearance of acrylic colors prior to and after they become dry. My acrylic paintings always looked a little darker when drying. I didn’t see that happening with oils so much.  Sometimes my work would take on a “matte” look (nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to see a little more shine…) I found that I could liven them up, as well as protect them for the long term, by making use of varnish.

Can You Mix Oil and Acrylic Paint Together?

Short answer, no due to their varying composition. Long answer – in a few circumstances, it may be feasible. One example: due to the expedient dry time of acrylics you could build up a new layer in oils  if it has dried already. I have done this before to see what would result and I must say it looked great.

But don’t do the other way around, especially if you like to paint in thick layers, you won’t know for sure if it is dry enough to create a new layer, as with oils it could take weeks or months before it has finally “cured”.

One more small exception – in recent years, a certain brand of “water mixable” oil paints has come out on the market. I did have a set like this, and I can safely say they did live up to their name. I kept them mixed in with my regular acrylic paints and didn’t notice any difference when I was working.


Oil paint almost always is sold in tubes. Once way way back in the day, I got to observe a product labeled as oil based “paint sticks” but I don’t see that these days.  (Feel free to correct me in the comments section if you find out otherwise.) Acrylics also come in tubes too, but you can also find them in bottle or jar form, amounts tend to vary from 2 oz to 8.

comparing oils and acrylics


To recap…as I have made a lot of points here:

Oils, pros…Slower drying, which can help you buy a little time when working with intricate color blends. Glossy appearance on its own.

Cons...Having to use turpentine, may accidentally smear paint before its finished drying

Acrylics, the pros…You only need water, color blending and techniques can be easily replicated.  Cons…the expedient dry time, which may not be a problem depending on what other products you apply in addition.

Now, on to you! I hope this article has enlightened you well on the subject of oils and acrylic paints. Good luck and happy painting to you!



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