The look of acrylics vs oils


Well-known member
I started with watercolor then went to acrylics then to oils. When comparing the three I like how my oil paintings look the best and it's not because I've become a better painter. I haven't..... dammit. :) I almost wish I had just started with oils. Most of the paintings would look nicer. It's funny because when I started I liked the flat looks of watercolors better. They seemed more abstract and gentler or something. Now that I see all three kinds on the wall I just like the look of the oils better. They seem more luminous and present? The watercolors are more polite and the acrylics seem cruder. As tools the WCs are brushes and the acrylics worked like hammers, the oils seem to be in between. It could very well be that I just don't know how to use acrylics. But they just seem kind of blah. It's weird.

Some folks insist that they can look the same. I'm not so sure. Maybe I just haven't seen enough well painted acrylics

And it's one of those things that doesn't translate well over a computer screen. The computer screen seems to equalize them.

So I was wondering if you guys feel the same way. Is there really a "look" to oils that generally cannot be duplicated with acrylics? Do you like the look of it better? Why?
I have a lot to say about this, but I will have to come back to it. I am actually still ill. It comes in waves, so I suspect I'll be fine a little later. Excuse me for my scarceness .I will come back and make lots of comments here. :)
I find watercolours to be the most inflexible of the three mediums. With wc's you must plan ahead and paint from white-light to dark unless you include gouache. WC's can be very time critical and can leave you only minutes to render certain passages. But they are the least expensive and I doubt that some of the wet-in-wet effects can be duplicated in a different medium. Watercolour paintings seem to be valued the least in the commercial marketplace. Doubt has sometimes been cased on the longevity of watercolours, but if you stay away from fugitive pigments and use acid free, cotton lint paper your paintings will outlive most other mediums.

Oil's offer the greatest flexibility. If you really screw up, scrape the paint off, let dry a bit and start again and again and again. Oil on canvas seems to be the commercial marketplaces sweetheart. Sure you can start with 6 tubes of pigment, a large tube of Titanium White and a small pot of Linseed oil, but who does? Paintings on stretched canvas is bulky to store.

Acrylics are neither chalk nor cheese. Flexible: better than watercolour but not a good as oil but it cleans up with water. The longevity of acrylic is still a WIP with 'only' 80 years of experience. I didn't like System 3 acrylics when I tried them way back when. I do use them over watercolour backgrounds. I could live without out if required to.

Acrylics over watercolour works. Oil over Acrylics works. Oil over watercolour works. Other combinations are doubtful.

Thanks for the response Claude but that was not what I was asking about. I know all that. I was asking about how they look to you. To me, oil paint just looks better. I was wondering if others felt the same way and why.
Thanks for the response Claude but that was not what I was asking about. I know all that. I was asking about how they look to you. To me, oil paint just looks better. I was wondering if others felt the same way and why.
Watercolour is the best for wet-in-wet washes. Nothing else comes close for the blends that this can produce.

Acrylic, by itself, looks plastic (of course since it is a plastic) to me.

I can't remember who said it; "Oil was made to paint flesh".
I’m not sure how to assess the “appearance differences“ between oil and acrylic. I only know how oil FEELS and I’ve used it as my primary medium because it’s so easy to manipulate. (I am the master of my medium! Well...”master” being relative....). I’ve done a few watercolors back in the day, and I started with acrylics. And lately, I’m trying to figure out to incorporate latex house paint as a ground. Maybe this is a bad idea...but I like choosing from all the colors in the world and being able to apply them quickly with a roller over large surfaces. So, not only have I’ve used oils on top of acrylic and house paint but also over masonite, linen, cotton, crackle, basswood, burlap, sand, coffee, spray paint, paper transfers...

This blurb is from “The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques.” Apparently, there are just certain things you don’t get from, or can’t do with, the other mediums. Maybe this better explains what you’re sensing or seeing.....?

”...for artists whose styles require the special manipulative properties of oil colors, including finesse and delicacy in handling, smoothly blended or graduated tones, or control in the play of opacities and transparencies, find that these possibilities are the exclusive properties of oil colors.”
Watercolor can look quite luminescent in the hands of an artist like Turner:


But we might do well to remember that Turner frequently employed washes of watercolor in his oil paintings... which makes them a nightmare for restoration artists.

I also love the works of the near-contemporary Chinese artist, Zhang Daquien and the way the paint colors bleed together blurring abstraction and figurative art:


My art school professors emphasized the watercolor method of Cezanne, leaving large passages of white paper untouched.


Watercolor didn't click with me until I discovered Turner's manner of working with layer after layer after layer... which could be rapidly realized with the aid of a hair-dryer. I made a number of passable watercolor paintings during my first year in art school... when I was very much into the Early Netherlandish painters. Unfortunately, this is the only decent image I have of my watercolors as they were all photographed in slides and transferred to digital through a desktop scanner some 15 years ago.


Oil, I would agree, is the most versatile and the most sensuous. The quote "Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented" is quite on the mark... and surprisingly, It was Willem DeKooning who made that statement. Then again, DeKooning;s early works were quite sensuous... where the surfaces of later paintings are often far more matte and crusty.

The range of surface handling of oil paint is phenomenal. Vermeer's jewel-like surfaces must be seen in person. But then again, the same can be said of Peter Paul Rubens' sweeping impastos, brilliant colored glazes, and thin washes... or Morandi's or Antonio Lopez Garcia's approach that appear ancient and aged:


Acrylic usually appears far more plastic. One of my art school teachers... my mentor actually... made the conscious choice to use acrylic because he found oil paint to seductive... while acrylic was far more difficult to master... unless you are after a flat and plastic look... as in Pop Art:


Acrylic also allows for far more artificial colors ala commercial advertising... if that is what you are after.

I used oils for years... and loved the sensuality of the medium... and even the smell...


... but when I returned to figurative art after a hiatus of some 5 years making abstract collages... I began with charcoal and then pastel... and soon found I loved the medium (pastel). After a while, I felt the need to bring some passages of paint into my pastels. Oil was out of the question. The pastel dust and slow-drying oil would not work at all... I did try it once and had to sand down the oil passages because they were too sensuous... and shiny... and overpowered the pastel.

13. Speak No Evil.small.700.jpg

But damn! I did love that Cadmium Red!

I use a very matte acrylic commonly employed for decorative art projects because it has a surface that I feel goes well with flat look of pastel. It also has a tooth that works well as a primer under pastel. I still love the look of oil paint... but I use the media that work best for me. I honestly can't imagine painting all the linear elements and patterns in my works using oil paint.
Doesn't make a lot of difference in my paintings because I paint very smoothly in oils too. :)
Of course, we all know that how these paints act and look are due to their chemistry. Their physical nature.

....when light enters the hardened oil paint film, it passes through several distinct layers of mostly transparent paint. And sometimes, before being reflected back out to the surface, it bounces off of one of the colourful pigments, and back down to the layers below, and then out. Sometimes it will bounce on the boundaries of the separate glazes before bouncing out to meet your eye. And this is what gives oil paintings their glow and their deep deep blacks. The dancing behaviour of the light in the complicated multiple layers and their colour pigments.

Oil is able to contain more pigment and oils are generally both more transparent and more opaque than their acrylic counterparts.

Because oils contain more pigment, glazing layers can be thinnner for a given value which allows more light to penetrate.

and they blend more gracefully


Watercolors are better because.....

Acrylics are better because ......

Oil paints are better because......

ummmm, oh yeah

pastels and gold leaf are better because.....

OliveOyl puts a vote in for latex house paint and doll parts. Whatever it is she uses. ;)
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Sno I like motorcycles and especially BMWs but the squirrel I love. Perfect. I'll take a wild guess and say acrylic.

Squirrels rock.

Doesn't make a lot of difference in my paintings because I paint very smoothly in oils too.

I don't doubt it Sno. I used acrylic for a good number of years and I use it now. You can always employ a medium that slows the drying time and allows for smooth blending. I'm after the opposite. In the Winter I have frequently used a blow drier to speed up the drying time. What I am speaking of is not the image but rather the surface of the paint itself. Oil just looks different than acrylic. "Different" and not better or worse.
In the flesh, not over the internet, I can usually tell the difference between oils and acrylics. I'd say 99% of the time. Oils have a richness in color that acrylics don't. The color is always living. Acrylics dry a bit dull. I will admit that really really excellent acrylics can fool you though. Bottom line, it depends on which media you like working with more. I'll guess acrylics will last as long as oils in the long run. Will they stay as bright though? Who knows?
So sno, you feel that your oils and acrylics look the same, have the same depth/luminosity after varnishing?

I've varnished my acrylics and then they just look like shinier deeper valued acrylics.

There is a lot going for acrylics including they will last longer and won't change as much as oils, according to accelerated againg tests.

I like them because I can use them like watercolors if I want, as thin washes. That and the fast drying can make it easier for quick layering.

Some say that oils have more pigment. I'm not so sure, and at any rate acrylics seem just as saturated if not moreso.
Just saying that the finish is quite similar because I paint smoothly with both. The color is what I choose. I am painting mostly in oils now but painted for several years almost exclusively in acrylics. Portraits of people I've always painted in oils but pets were painted in acrylics for some time. I did see that you took a venture on which was which in the images I posted but I'll wait for a few more to take a guess and then I'll tell you. :giggle:
Golden acrylics have a very high pigment load, are available heavy-bodied or fluid, and gloss or matte. As mentioned they also make what they call open acrylics, which have a long open time like oils, but I got sick before I could try them. I would never use any other brand (save when I made my own from dry pigment and Kremer acrylic dispersion). They're the best.