How Are Acrylics Different From Watercolors


How are acrylics different from watercolors? So you have an interest in both paint mediums and are wanting to know about which one is easier, more difficult or if you can possibly blend them together? Well I’m glad you asked as someone who has had extensive use in both.

First off I want to get into, how are acrylics and watercolors alike? Well the first thing is that they are water based. It’s very possible that you could blend them together at some point, or create good mixed media pieces using them side by side, or course I will get into how to proceed with that shortly.

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Acrylic and Watercolors Makeup

Both paint mediums contain pigments and binders that give them their color. However acrylics have a polymer base that gives them their density.and viscosity, read: thickness. When you squirt a little watercolor paint out of a tube, it appears about as dense as my acrylics do, but it stops there once you add water. 

I always loved working with watercolors in the past, they are great for creating delicate and subtle looking objects and scenes, many times I found them relaxing to work with. That being said, I can tell you that watercolors can be unforgiving if you don’t (yet) understand certain concepts like washes. 

acrylics versus watercolors
On the left, a typical watercolor wash, on the right what thinned down acrylics look like, notice they are way more opaque

Acrylics Are “Opaque”

One thing you’ll notice is that watercolor art can have an almost translucent quality to it. Color washes like the image above show this well. Acrylics, although you can thin them down somewhat, always remain opaque and its harder to get that delicate transparent look.

Color lifting is a little easier with acrylics, if you use an extender or blending product to slow the dry time down a little. Because paper is porous and you are dependent on it with watercolors, if you use too much water it could soak through, So color lifting has to be subtle or the paper could start “pilling” (showing fuzzy fibers which can be annoying). 

So you can spend a little extra time being “experimental” with acrylic paints and not have pushback, since most likely you will be working on a canvas which won’t have loose porous fibers that can come off like paper does.


Watercolors are intended for use exclusively on paper. They are not made to adhere to anything else. Honestly, you can use acrylics on almost any surface (within reason.) You can use acrylics on paper, of course it depends on the type of paper – to get good results. Watercolors are not versatile in this way. If you try to use watercolors on something nonporous, they will promptly “bead up” on the surface.

Yes, believe it or not I attempted to do a watercolor on a canvas panel, I did manage to make something of it but the results were not what they could have been. 


Another thing about watercolors is you can re-dampen them. In other words, they dry quickly, but not permanently due to the fact they can be re-moistened. Acrylics will dry permanently and you cannot re-wet them once they dry completely (although if you use a special type of palette, you can protect your dispensed paint as you go and even keep it a little longer as long as it is somewhat moist.) Acrylics tend to dry from the top down (you can see by the way they look to develop a “skin” on top but underneath is still fresh paint.

That’s exactly why finished watercolor paintings are always under glass or similar when displayed, you have to protect them because once you accidentally get water or any kind of moisture on a painting – yikes…it’s toast. You also cannot apply sealant or varnish to them for this reason, compared to acrylic art once it has dried permanently you can varnish it later on. I keep all of my watercolor art in a special portfolio so I don’t have to worry about potential “oopsies” happening. A few that I have hung on the wall, if not glass, a frame with a polyview clear sheet.


Another thing you may notice is that watercolors come in small tubes, that are about 0.2 size. They are also available in what’s called “cakes” or “pans” and you may recall having a paint set in which they were all these oval shapes you moisten to get them going. The “cakes” are round or rectangular and condensed. Personally paint from tubes is more vibrant and rich and you can do more with them than the cakes.

how are watercolors different from acrylics
Examples of watercolor paint “pans” and tubes.

Cakes are kind of student-grade or entry level but they are also good for travel when you want to take less stuff and less mess. Acrylics only come in tubes, as well as bottle and jars, there is not condensed “cake” form of acrylic paint. There are markers formulated with paint in them but they are sometimes oil or solvent based. not water.

General Use and Cleanup

Both acrylics and watercolors can be vibrant, and clean up with water, I try to avoid letting acrylic paint runoff go down the drain much due to the fact that it develops that skin to it which can wreak havoc on plumbing. Watercolors this won’t be a problem because they don’t have those same polymers present. They’re easier to clean up, too.

Do You Use Different Brushes?

The kind of brushes suited to watercolors is a little different than those for working with acrylics. I always used soft bristle brushes (the bristles are almost always white and synthetic) when I worked in watercolors, as softer bristles are well-equipped to handle the nuances of water washes and other nuances the medium requires to excel at it. I use medium/firm bristle brushes with my acrylics as I am handling a wider variety of blends and textures.

Final Thoughts…

So the TL:DR of the acrylics/watercolors debate is this….

Both are awesome mediums. Both of them are water soluble and can create beautiful, vibrant artwork. Watercolors take more discipline, however, through application as I described in paragraphs 4 through 7.  It is possible to combine the two mediums depending on the substrate you are using (I would use paper.)

You can re-wet watercolors, acrylics, not so much. You can use acrylics on almost anything (of course, I talk about that part a lot…)

Don’t be afraid to try both mediums, just get those brushes wet. Hope this info helps, and good luck to you!

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