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Oil Painting or Acrylic Painting?

Oil Painting or Acrylic Painting

Deciphering the Difference

Recently, the gallery’s framing manager asked me recently, “How do I know if this is an oil painting or acrylic painting?”  I shouldn’t have assumed my staff knew the differences.  With my background in business, I too am learning much about paint, art techniques and art mediums.  I knew there were some visual differences, but I owed the staff more then just an uneducated reply.  I also owed it to our customers to be knowledgable about the artwork on display in the gallery.  I have spent a lot of time visually examining images to be sure they are appealing to our customers, but I also need to share other aspects of the artwork with them as well.  So let’s explore some characteristics and differences of acrylic paint and oil paint.



oil painting or acrylic painting

Oil painting close up

Oil Paint

Oil based paint has been around for centuries and has history on it’s side.  What does that mean? The artwork that was created with oil paint is still around, if not damaged by handling or weather.  The oil based paint has a long drying time, letting an artist work with and manipulate the paint during more then one session of painting.  Since oil paint has more history, established artists tend to paint with it out of tradition and security that it will last.  On the negative side, oil paint is more expensive, therefore oil paintings tend to cost more.  Also, it may fade a bit over a very long time and is more toxic.  It is also more difficult to clean from brushes, necessitating mineral spirits or turpentine.




oil painting or acrylic painting

Acrylic painting close up

Acrylic Painting

Acrylic paint has not been used as long as oil paint, but has shown to be very stable.  It drys quickly, allowing artists to finish a piece and have it ready to sale or shipping in a matter of hours.  Acrylic paint is water based, making clean up safe, fast and easy.  Acrylic paint does not fade, keeping its true color.  The costs form acrylic paint is much less then oil paints, so many artists are drawn to the smaller supply costs.  On the negative side, the fast drying doesn’t work well with a slower painter.  The colors do not have as much pigment, so it tends to be more opaque.





So what’s the visual differences between the two types of paint?

When looking at a painting, the first thing to notice is whether or not the paint lies flat on the canvas.  Most oil paintings will have raised paint on the canvas and look very thick from the artist building layers of color to create their image.  Although, this is not always true since skilled painters can lay thin layers of paint so smoothly that you don’t see any paint strokes.  If the oil paints is smooth and flat, you can often see a fading around the edges of an image that blurs into the color behind it but still covers that base color.  With acrylic paint, the edges are more crisp but often you will see other layers of color behind it.  Acrylic paint usually isn’t raised off the canvas, although there are thickening agents artists can use to make it have a raised affect and have more coverage over the base color.  Also, artists who use acrylic paint may also use various other mediums to add dimension to their works.

oil painting or acrylic painting

Acrylic on wood panel

One way artists who use acrylic paint but want the paint to act like oil paint is to use wood panels.  This technique allows the paint to sit on the wood, as opposed to soaking into the canvas threads.  The smooth wood lets them manipulate the paint compared to the canvas grabbing the paint.  The paint still drys faster, but the results are very different then using canvas.  As in this photo, you can see how each paint color lies on top of each other instead of blending together or being being transparent.

Most of the information above I have just learned by talking with our gallery artists over the last few years.  Although, I did learn some great information when I did some research to be sure I was on the right track.  Below are some links for you to read and learn more if interested.  Please feel free to email me if you have other art questions you would like answered, kim@thecarongallery.com.




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