What Is the Difference Between Watercolor vs Acrylic? How to Pick the Right Paint for Your Work of Art

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Jane Taylor in Entertainment

Last updated: 14 January 2020, 03:51 GMT

You're ready to create your next masterpiece. Perhaps it's a family portrait or a stunning sunset. But one question must be answered before you begin: should you use watercolor vs acrylic?

Which paint you choose determines every aspect of your project. In order to start correctly, you should fully understand the pros and cons of each type of paint. While there are a wide variety of paints on the market that you can use, we'll take a look at the differences between watercolors and acrylic paints.

The Main Differences Between Watercolor vs Acrylic

Both are incredible tools in the hands of a gifted artist, but there are also several important facets to consider when dealing with watercolor vs acrylic. Many of them center around the use of water, the versatility of the canvases and the skill level required to master each.

The Use of Water

Both watercolors and acrylics are water-soluble, but the way they utilize water and how it affects artistic composition is completely different.

Watercolors are more transparent, and while acrylics can be used to simulate watercolors, the only acrylic can be used as very thick layers. Due to the nature of its composition, water plays a much larger role in watercolor vs acrylic.

Working With Light to Dark

With watercolors, you start out with light colors and gradually layer and work your way toward darker colors. Your lightest shade with watercolors will use a lot of water.

Think of it as a series of layering. Strokes of watercolor build upon other strokes, creating an almost transparent effect. It is very difficult to make watercolors lighter, so you should start light and gradually lead your way toward darker colors. With acrylics, it's the opposite. You start with dark colors and work toward the light.

Another difference in the shades deals with the way watercolor vs acrylics dry. Watercolors will tend to dry lighter, while acrylic paints dry darker.

Use of Transparency

Typically, watercolors are intended to be used as a transparent type of paint (even though watercolors can be opaque).
Because of this transparency, you typically do not add white to watercolor. Usually "white" is the color of the paper. It is also possible to get white into the painting by lifting off the paint or scratching it in.
While acrylics can also be transparent, they're not intended to be used this way. They're also much brighter due to the way they are applied. To add white to acrylic painting, you simply add white paint.

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Differences in How They Are Made

With some exceptions, watercolors, in general, are natural and based on compounds that occur in nature. Some watercolors, however, may utilize a synthetic binder. They may use honey, glycerin, and some preservatives to alter the color of the pigment. Watercolors come in tubes and pans.

Acrylics are strictly man-made paint. They have a pigment, binder and acrylic resin. Acrylics come in jars, bottles, and tubes.

There are a wide variety of types of acrylic paints. A few are mentioned below:

  • Standard paint

  • Long-lasting, slow-drying

  • Fluid acrylic paint

  • Thick-bodied paints

  • Re-workable paints

The natural source of watercolors are different from the synthetic source of acrylics and perfectly illustrates the facets of watercolor vs acrylic.

The Type of "Canvas"

Acrylic can be used on many different surfaces, while watercolor can only be used on paper. Even then, it should ideally only be used on watercolor paper because that type of paper is specifically designed to absorb the paint. That's a major difference in watercolor vs acrylic.

The watercolor paper must be stretched before it's ready to be painted upon. Fortunately, many artists purchase pre-stretched watercolor paper in blocks. These are ready to use instantly. However, if you decide to stretch your own paper, you should realize that it takes about a half-hour in order to get it primed and ready for painting.

Cleanup after watercolor is very simple and takes around 10 minutes. Brushes are easily cleaned by swishing around in freshwater, and dirty water can easily be dumped down a sink.

Because the paint dries so fast on the watercolor paper, the paintings can be filed away as soon as they are dry. By contrast, acrylics can be used on different types of surfaces, including:

  • Wood
  • Canvas
  • Watercolor paper

This is another useful piece of information in the watercolor vs acrylic debate.

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What Are Some of the Pros and Cons of Using Watercolors?

On the plus side, watercolors are typically inexpensive. They are also easier to use to paint larger areas. Because of their transparency, a small tube of watercolor paint can last a long time and be used to create a lot of paintings.
In addition, watercolor dries quickly. If used correctly, it has a nice saturation of color.

One of the cons? Watercolor is difficult to use. While it may seem deceptively simple—after all, you may have used watercolors as a child—in order to create a quality painting, you have to achieve a mastery of watercolor. This can be difficult and takes a lot of practice. Watercolor is very unforgiving in the fact that it is very difficult to cover up a mistake. Remember that one small, misplaced drop of water can ruin a large part of the painting.

What Are Some of the Pros and Cons of Using Acrylics?

Acrylics have a lot of the good points of both watercolors and oil paints. It's an interesting aspect to consider in the watercolor vs acrylic debate. Generally, acrylic is a great choice for beginners because it is easier to cover up mistakes. Because they're water-based, they are easy to clean up and get out of brushes.

The downside? Unlike their natural counterparts, acrylics often have toxic pigments. It can also be challenging to mix acrylic paint because it dries extremely quickly.

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What Type of Paint Should You Use For Your Project?

The answer to this question is not as simple as deciding watercolor vs acrylic. The answer is that it depends on a variety of elements.
Essentially, when deciding upon a paint you should consider:

  1. Your level of skill. Some paints, like watercolors, may be easy to start with but extremely difficult to master.
  2. The "look" desired, Consider the overall feeling you're trying to impart with your work. Are you going for a bold splash of color or are you wanting something softer and less definitive? Remember that watercolor is often best at presenting an image that is more "cloudy" and muted.
  3. The cost of starting a project.
  4. Storage: how much space do you have to allot to your project and paints? Do you have a studio to work in or are you using a room in your house?
  5. Toxicity: remember that some paints are more toxic than others, and sometimes will need to be used in a well-ventilated area.
  6. Clean-up: how long do you want to spend cleaning up after painting?

Still Not Sure Which Paint to Use?

Look at some of the experts who use the same medium you're considering. Examine them and see if you like their use of color and composition. Then, you may wish to try that same medium.

For those considering acrylic, you may wish to check out the works of Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, and Roy Lichtenstein. Those who are thinking about watercolors would do well to study Winslow Homer, J.M.W. Turner, and John Singer Sargent.

How Long Will Your Piece of Art Last?

This is a difficult question primarily because there are so many variables involved, such as the quality of paint, the type and quality of paper, and the humidity and amount of light to which the piece is exposed. However, in general, acrylic will last longer than watercolor.

Granted, there are watercolor pieces that have lasted for 100 years. However, those were in museum-level conditions.
Acrylic, on the other hand, can last centuries.

This reveals a financial aspect to the watercolor vs acrylic debate. Because watercolors typically do not last as long, they do not demand as high a price as acrylics.

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There are a lot of differences in watercolor vs acrylic. The bottom line is there is no one paint that is better than the other. Each has its own set of pros and cons. There are several factors to consider when deciding which one to use. These include how much you wish to invest in the project if you prefer to use natural paints versus man-made paints, and how long you want your piece to last.

Deciding which paint to use depends upon an extensive array of factors, but primarily centers on the "feel" the artist decides to create and the level of his or her skill. If you're not sure which medium to use, feel free to experiment before you commit yourself to use a particular one in a large project. You may also wish to take a look at some of the "master" artists' work in these mediums to help you make a decision.

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