This article will discuss the following:
- The pros and cons of acrylic painting and why you might consider using acrylic paint in your artwork.
- Examples of how I use acrylic paint in my art.
- The best acrylic paint brands.
- The different types of acrylic paint, and the different ways to use it.
Why is Acrylic Paint Good?
There are many attributes that make acrylic paint desirable for artists. But here are a few of the top reasons many artists prefer acrylic over oil paints.
#1 They are Less Toxic Than Traditional Oil Paints
Oil paints have two main toxicity problems. Oil paints are fat soluble and volatile, and so the chemicals can be easily absorbed through the skin. Further, the paint thinners that you use are volatile and release toxic gasses which you then breath if you don’t have appropriate ventilation.
Acrylic paints are water soluble, and therefore don’t easily pass through the skin. I have read that some toxins may still be absorbed with prolonged exposure. Over all though, acrylics are much safer than oil paints. If you are still concerned about your safety you can wear gloves.
Even though acrylic paints are safer than oils, it is important to remember that the pigments still contain toxic materials, especially the pigment. Just because the paint is acrylic doesn’t mean that it is automatically for kids, nor that you can spread it on toast and eat it, if you are a starving artist. Don’t eat your paint please…
#2 Acrylic Paint Dries Faster than Oil Paint
Acrylic paint dries so fast, it isn’t even funny. This is an advantage over oil paint because sometimes you need to wait for your painting to dry in order to add a new layer.
I like to think of the fast drying time as saving your progress. Once the paint layer is fully dry, it is firmly set in place, and the paint won’t move. You are now free to add on top of it without your paint lifting off leaving annoying bald patches, or the paint mixing in with the paint under it.
If you want your acrylic paints to dry even faster you can buy a cheap hair dryer from Amazon and blow warm air onto your painting surface. Make sure not to leave the hot air in any one location for too long, or your painting could burn! This actually happened to a woman in my class when I was studying painting in college. She was so sad.
Faster drying times mean that you can finish your paintings faster and make more money!
#3 Acrylics are Easier to Clean Up After Use
Because acrylics dry fast and are water soluble they are very easy to clean up. You can easily scrape off the dried acrylic paint from your pallet with a razor blade. Or if you place your paints on a slightly damp paper towel, you can just throw away the paper towel when you’re done.
The acrylic paint generally washes off your hands with soap and water.
Do not rinse large amounts of acrylic paint down the drain, as the pigments can be toxic. Further if the paint dries in your pipes they could cause horrible problems for your pipes!
#4 Acrylics are Cheaper than Oil Paints
16oz of Gamblin Oil Paint Burnt Umber costs $51, while 16 oz of Nova Color Acrylic Burnt Umber is only $8.50.
Now let’s imagine that you have a huge canvas to fill. If you are confident in your ability to paint with acrylic, why wouldn’t you use the cheaper acrylic option?
That being said, acrylics can be one of the most challenging mediums you ever use. It will take time and practice to get to the point where you are confident enough to use acrylics as if they were oil paint.
Can you use Acrylic Paint on Top of Oil Paint?
No you can’t use acrylic paint on top of oil, but you can use oil paint on top of acrylic paint. In fact I would encourage it! This has to do with the chemical nature of oil and water. Oil floats on top of water, while water will sink in oil. If you paint acrylics onto oil paint you get some truly horrendous results.
I love painting with oils on top of acrylics. What I like to do is complete most of the background in my paintings in acrylic, and then paint all of the finer details with oil paint afterwards. Sometimes you just need to use oil paints to get that smooth creamy feel. You can also save a ton of money by finishing large portions of your painting in acrylic and then finishing up the details in oils.
Here is an example of my painting in progress using this technique. You probably can’t tell that I used acrylic for the background. Everything in the foreground is oil paint.
#5 Acrylics are More Versatile Than Oils
Acrylics can be just as versatile with Oil Paints with the use of various additives. There are hundreds of additives and varnish you can buy that give you a wide range of results.
You can buy additives that add texture like sand, or even like old cracked vintage paintings. You can buy thick gels for impasto painting. There are gessos in various colors, or you can add your own color to white gesso. Matte Medium can be used to give your painting a matte finish or it can be used as a retarder. There are various drying retarders; and there are matte, eggshell, and high gloss varnishes. And you can mix many of these chemicals to create your own custom substance.
I know that some artists like to mix slow dry mediums with matte medium.
I personally like to add a small amount of color to my varnishes. This unites the entire painting very well.
#6 Acrylic Paints Are Nearly Indestructible When Dry.
When acrylic paints dry, the polymer molecule chains bind together to create incredible hard and durable, yet flexible, surface. It is waterproof, and difficult to scratch. As with any pigment is is susceptible to fading colors due to UV radiation. You should coat your painting with a protective varnish.
While acrylic paints are very tough, measures should still be taken to protect your art from excessive moisture and exposure to the elements. Including the sun.
#7 You Can Paint on Nearly Any Surface with Acrylic Paint
Oil paints are by their very nature corrosive to many substances. If you were to paint with oil paint on your walls, for example, the oil would seep through into your drywall and it would eventually crumble and fall apart, that is if your drywall were not coated in a protective layer of gesso or matte medium first. If you tried to paint with oils on untreated paper, the same thing would happen.
With Acrylic paint you can paint on almost anything without too much concern. The paint isn’t going to destroy most substrates, unless you are planning on painting on bread or something. Once again don’t eat your paint! You can paint on good thick paper as long as the paper is properly sized. Meaning the paper has an additive that doesn’t allow too much water to soak into the paper at once. If you plan on painting on anything I would recommend using a gesso or primer first, so that your application of paint will be as smooth as possible.
I would recommend using stretched water color paper, if you want to use paper. You can stretch your paper yourself or buy it pre-stretched.
If you are concerned about the archival quality of your artwork, you should always make sure that whatever you’re painting on has a neutral pH level. That means that whatever you are painting on should be neither basic nor acidic. Painting on such surfaces will inevitably damage your art with time.
As a bonus tip. You can paint on paper with oils if you first protect the paper by coating it with about three layers of matte medium, just to be safe. If any oil gets into the paper it will eventually destroy it.
Here is a picture of one of my illustration projects of oil on paper using this technique.
Cons of Using Acrylic Paint?
#1 Acrylic Paint Dries Very fast
One of the benefits of Acrylic Paint is that it dries very fast. One of the disadvantages of acrylic paint is that it dries very fast.
If you are just starting to use acrylic paint, one of the first things you will notice is how frustrating it can be when you can’t blend your paints smoothly when the paint gets dry in about 5 minutes.
The paint will even start to lift off of your surface leaving annoying bald patches, when the paint gets sort of tacky but not all the way dry.
However the good news is, that with drying retarder you can extend the open time of your paint and get some great blending done before your paint dries.
I typically like to add about 5% retarder to my paints before I start using them. I store my paint in 16oz condiment bottles with tightly sealed caps.
You can easily do the math. If you have 16oz of paint (Or if you are filling a 16oz container). Multiply 16 by .05. This will give you .8oz.
Then you just get a kitchen scale, and make sure you take into account the weight of the container you are using. Add .8oz of retarder. Then add your paint on top of the retarder, and shake well.
Adding retarder to your paint will give you about 5 more minutes of open time, and will help your paints not dry out on your pallet.
I keep a separate bottle of pure retarder that I apply liberally to a surface that I want to keep open for much more time.
Be careful though, if you add too much additive to your paint, the bonds in the paint will dry weak. This can cause your paint to flake off, or lift off later during your painting. As a rule of thumb you should never add more than 20% of any substance to your paint, whether it be additive or water. That’s my advice, other artists might have a different percentage but I say 20%.
#2 Some Acrylic Colors are Still Toxic If you Ingest Them
While you aren’t going to easily absorb toxins from a water soluble paint, as you would from an oil based paint, you still don’t want to eat the colors. A lot of the pigment used in acrylic paints are toxic. Cadmium used in many red and yellow paints, for example, can result in kidney, bone and lung disease. So if you are looking for a child safe set of paints, make sure that the packaging specifically states that the paint is non toxic. And please teach your children not to eat the paint regardless.
#3 You Still Don’t want to Breath Acrylic Paint
As long as you’re using a brush or roller to apply the acrylic, no need to worry about fumes. However if you intend to spray the paint using an airbrush or aerosol can things could become problematic.
It is never fun, or healthy, to breath paint particles or aerosols. Doing so can cause serious damage to your lungs and airways. And once again even though the paint is less toxic than oils. Many of the pigments are dangerous. Breathing cadmium can lead to long term respiratory illness, and flu like symptoms.
Not to mention it is never fun blowing rainbow colored snot for weeks on end. Just use a respirator and be safe if you plan on spraying acrylic paint!
#4 Acrylics Paints are not Time Tested
Acrylic painting are not time tested. What I mean by that is that they simply haven’t been around as long as oil paints. Therefore we don’t know how they will hold up to the ravages of time.
The oldest oil paintings have been around for thousands of years and they have held up very well despite their old age.
Some of the oldest paints include a depiction of Budda found in 2008. It is dated sometime before the 12th century making it older than 1000 years.
Portrait of the Boy Eutyches is a mixed media piece that uses different pigments mixed in waxes and oils. This painting dates back to 100-150A.D., making it almost 2000 years old. It is remarkably well preserved.
Acrylic paints on the other hand have only been around since the 1940s. None of the modern pieces created with acrylic paints have been tested for as long as oil paints. While the science out there suggests that acrylic paints, because of their incredibly tough chemical bonds, might well outlast oil paints. We simply don’t know, because they haven’t been around long enough to gather any empirical evidence.
#5 Acrylics are sometimes not considered “Fine Art”
Because of the newness surrounding acrylic paint, some people don’t consider it to be fine art. I don’t think that this is a common problem today as acrylics have become more accepted in the art community.
Some of the most respected artists, such as Jackson Pollock, used acrylic paint.
The argument that acrylic paintings shouldn’t be considered fine art, is nothing more than silly gate keeping.
Many successful artists use acrylic painting today.
The Best Acrylic Paint Brands
The best paint for you will depends entirely on how you intend to use it. Some people want a cheap safe option for their kids. Other people are artists who want to learn and experiment. Some artists are interested in the quality and application of the paint.
I am interested in high quality pigment coverage and smooth application. I buy large quantities of liquid paint from Nova Color. Their paints are high quality, they have great coverage, and it is less expensive in big quantities. I also use Heavy Body Liquitex paint for a less smooth application, and more pigment concentrated areas.
Before I discovered Nova Color, I used exclusively Liquitex Heavy Body Professionals. I love having both a heavy body option for more concentrated pigment and mixing, while having the option of using the liquid Nova Color brand for smooth and silky application.
If you are just starting out and you want a cheap option to experiment with, I would recommend Liquitex Basics. Basics have less pigment concentration and so you can buy it more cheaply. It is basically a student grade paint. That being said a lot of professional artists still use Basics to fill in large backgrounds precisely because it is cheaper than the professional option. Whatever works for what you need. I personally like full coverage in my paint, I find that you sometimes have to go over areas several times to fully cover an area, and the application isn’t as smooth. For some people this doesn’t bother them.
If you are looking for a cheap option for your kids, I would also recommend Basics, if they are more mature and won’t eat the paint and get it all over themselves.
If you’re kids are very young I would just go to Walmart and get something that specifically says it is for your child’s age group and that the color is non-toxic. I think this is very important, because many sites online claim that all acrylic paints are non toxic, that simply isn’t the case. If you eat the paint, or breath it, they can still make you very very ill.
If you have any acrylic paint recommendations feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll review them and maybe add them to the list.
Types of Acrylic Paint: Opaque, Translucent, or Transparent
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! There are three types of paint in terms of transparency. And each has a different use. I wish I would have known this way sooner. When you choose the brand of paint you want make sure you look on the bottle or website to see if it is Opaque, Translucent, or Transparent. All brands make these three types of paints, and each has a different use.
#1 Opaque Acrylic Paint:
Means that you get 100% coverage. The paint does not allow light to pass through it; therefore, anything under this paint is completely covered up. You use this to form your solid objects. You can also use it to cover mistakes and start over. The point is, nothing can be seen under this paint if you are using it 100% pure.
#2 Transparent Acrylic Paint:
Transparent paint allows light to pass through and you can see objects beneath your painting. This paint is for adding glazes, or tinting objects in a painting without completely obliterating them.
You can create an entire painting out of black and white opaque paint, and simply add color using transparent paint glazes. Some people like to use this method because it is easy to keep values under control.
Many artist also like to use glazing because it creates a nice jewel-like effect with your paint, as the light passes through the transparent paint.
#3 Translucent Acrylic Paint:
Translucent paint is somewhere between opaque and transparent. You can use it for mixing with either opaque or transparent colors. You can glaze with translucent colors, as long as you don’t use too much pigment, as this will eventually cover up whatever is underneath it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you’ve found why you might use acrylic paint. It truly is an extreemly versatile, safer option than oil paints. And as I’ve discussed it is fantastic to use both acrylic and oil paints together to get your desired effect, at a reduced price.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you follow these steps you will drastically improve your drawing skills with continuous practice. If you enjoyed it please share with your family and friends on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure to subscribe to get updates on new articles and my paintings. Feel free to leave comments below. And check out my portfolio of other works.