5 Reasons Why You Should Try Painting with Acrylics Instead of Oils
For many artists, the idea that acrylics belong in a kindergarten classroom rather than an established painter’s studio begins in art school. Professors have been known to drill art students with unspoken rules like “don’t paint a large sculpture red,” “don’t put a circle in the middle of a composition,” and “serious painters use oils, not acrylics.” This final generalization, passed down from one pompous painter to the next, is, in many ways, a grave misfortune.
Since its invention in the mid-20th century, acrylic paint has provided artists with an alternative to toxic, pricey, slow-drying oil paints. But its quality was not entirely ideal at first. “One of the reasons people historically didn’t work with acrylics is because when they were first created, they were really chalky, really matte, and weren’t loaded with a lot of pigment,” explained Rhéni Tauchid, an artist and author of the 2018 book Acrylic Painting: Mediums & Methods. “But that has changed.” Over time, it has become an exceptionally safe and vibrant material for painting.
Acrylic is made with plastic, so its quality has become more and more refined as plastics have evolved. For example, thanks to the advancements of clear plastics, acrylic paints now boast bright, saturated hues.
Despite the medium’s rough start, however, famed artists still took note of the paint’s unique qualities, and began incorporating it into their palettes regularly.
“As people get to know more about what they can do with it, they will become more accepting of acrylic paint as a professional medium,” Tauchid noted. So, in the spirit of leveling the playing field between the revered traditions of oil paint and the relatively new plastic medium, we’ve compiled some of major advantages of using acrylic paints.
1. You only need a few simple tools
Acrylics are not a high-maintenance medium. While you’ll need many (at times expensive) supplies to begin oil painting (paint, solvents, mediums, brushes, rags, gesso, canvas or board, and a ventilated space), you need just four simple tools to get started with acrylics: the paint itself, a brush, a cup of water, and a surface (commonly known to artists as a support).
Out of those tools, Tauchid recommends investing the most money into your paints—the higher grade your acrylics are, the more pigment they’ll contain. A good support is also a vital element to your artwork. “When you’re building a house, you have to build a really good foundation, and then everything follows from there,” Tauchid explained. As for brushes, she advises that you don’t need too many, and recommends those with synthetic bristles, instead of raw animal hairs. The choice has little do with morality—synthetic bristles simply take better to acrylic paints.
For artists who are used to oil paints—which often requires solvents like turpentine, a safe disposal tool for toxic materials, and the time-consuming task of removing paint from brushes––cleaning up with acrylics will feel like a breeze. If you’re using a palette, you can easily scrape off any excess paint, then run a wet rag over its surface to finish removing the residue. Or, you can let the palette dry and peel the paint off.
2. You can control its consistency and texture
One of the most significant aspects of acrylics is how malleable they are. If you incorporate a medium––an additive that thins or thickens your material––acrylics can take on the qualities of other paints. For example, if you add an acrylic retarder with your paint, it will decelerate the drying time so that it acts more like an oil-based paint. You can also add mediums to make your acrylics crackle, shimmer, or dry even faster.
To better understand how mediums will change your paint, Tauchid advises familiarizing oneself with five key terms––viscosity, rheology, luster, relative coverage, and texture. Each of these elements makes up a fundamental part of how paint acts: viscosity is the consistency; rheology is the flow; luster is the sheen; relative coverage is the transparency; and texture is the tactile quality.
If you’re a painter who is new to acrylics but familiar with another medium, like watercolors, using mediums can be a good way to adapt to acrylic paint’s behaviors. By manipulating the paint with mediums, you can transform the way it looks and acts to comply with your preferences.
3. Acrylics allow you to paint anywhere
You’ve probably heard stories about artists who are so committed to painting that they used their bedroom as their studio. But one of the most costly aspects—for both your finances and your health—is that oil paints require a ventilated area. Oil-based paints carry many hazardous health concerns, and if there’s no ventilation, solvents like mineral spirits and turpentine fill the air with fumes.
So, if your budget is too tight for a ventilated studio space, or if you simply want to paint in your kitchen or living room, acrylics are a great option. Since they’re water-based, “there’s not as much in there that gives off gases, and you don’t have to use solvents with them,” explained Tauchid. While you might rush to scrub oil paints off of your hands in fear of irritation, acrylics are easier on the skin. Along with cost, their safeness is another reason acrylic paints are so commonly used in schools.
4. Acrylics dry fast, so you can layer colors quickly
One of the reasons Hockney was so attracted to acrylic paints was because of how quickly they dry—you can put down a layer of acrylic paint, and in a few hours, it’s dry enough to put down another layer. For his flat depictions of arid landscapes, Hockney exclusively used acrylics, because their matte quality and fast drying time allowed him to rapidly layer bright hues, without muddying his colors.
Since you can pile colors on top of one another so quickly, you can even complete a technique called glazing with great speed. “You can create beautiful glazed surfaces where the color and the texture is built up over subsequent layers; you can get the effect of something like an
5. Your paintings can become sculptural
Another malleable aspect of acrylics is their ability to take on three-dimensional form. “An oil paint, watercolor, or wax-based paint’s purpose is to be stuck to a surface and remain on that surface,” explained Tauchid, “whereas an acrylic can be peeled off of a non-stick surface and used as a soft sculpture material, so it surpasses the realm of paint and goes into the realm of sculpture and collage.”
Although the idea of paint becoming a sculpture may seem far-fetched, there are many artists who specifically use acrylics to build large amounts of sculptural texture on their surfaces. The late collaged bits of acrylics onto his canvases, taking into consideration their reflectiveness, transparency, and color. Whitten, like many other artists, saw in the medium a tried and true benefit: “They’re more versatile than any other paint medium, and not just oils,” Tauchid explained.