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Oil or Acrylic? What is best to use?

Oil or Acrylic? It’s an age old question and one I’ve struggled with for a while.

As a general rule, and admittedly what swayed me for many years, is that acrylics are cheaper and more affordable than oils. At that rather shallow analysis in my equally shallow youth, I left it at that and for years I painted with acrylics. That’s not a terrible thing by the way, I love acrylics – but I’ve often wondered whether I’m missing out.

Should I use Oils or Acrylics?

Acrylics

There are several benefits to acrylics; they dry quickly, certainly within the hour if not quicker. This was a hidden benefit, which I didn’t even realise was a benefit until I tried oils.

I find them amazing if I wanted a highly detailed scene – I have so much control over the paint and can create nice crisp edges.

Oil or Acrylic

However I struggle to blend well with acrylics, particularly if I’m working on a large canvas – it’s really difficult to work on the canvas as a whole without it drying along the way.

As my art developed I started to get frustrated with the lack of depth I could achieve, and the bright juicy colour that you get when the acrylic is wet, darkens and dulls when dry. I would finish some paintings in a flourish of excitement only to be a bit disappointed when I went back to look at it after it was dry.

Enamel

Still believing at this point that oils were too expensive at this point I started to experiment with spray cans of enamel paint. This was great fun, and for a while I thought this was the solution to my creative need; my skies exploded into a world of colour and texture which I was really pleased with.

Pentire Sunset

After a while I started to get dissatisfied again, my skies were amazing but I couldn’t get the foreground to match the quality I was after. My foregrounds started to look boring and dull in comparison.

So I came back to the same old question, should I try oils? I started to hanker for the juicy glossy thick lush oils, but for ages I couldn’t decide whether I was just looking for another tool to mix things up because I was bored or if it was really going to make a difference.

I took the plunge, I got a small pack of mixed colours and a handful of large tubes of essential colours.

Oils

My initial findings were exciting, oils have more pigment in them, allowing richer, more vivid colours. I was able to get the lush effects I was after. However I quickly discovered the downside; the drying time. This hit me hard initially. I work in layers and I’m used to working on a piece, and coming back to it after a cup of tea and getting the next layer down. Oil paints stay wet for days, or weeks in some cases.

On the flip side, I’ve noticed that I can work on a piece – and come back to it in an hour, realise I don’t like a bit of it and still tweak it, which is quite novel! Also because of this slow drying time, it’s amazing for blending colours together subtly.

Obviously it’s messier when it comes to cleaning up; you need turpentine or white spirits to do so, which is smelly but for me, not a huge barrier.

The third thing I’m really struggling with is the ability to create a crisp edge without affecting the underlying colours. You have to wait for it to dry and it’s all too easy to get into a muddy mess.

You learn to work cleanly with oils, but I was getting really frustrated with how long it was taking to do a single painting where I couldn’t really get a feel for any detail within the image until a couple of weeks after I’d started it. I do tend to have a few paintings on the go at a time, but I was losing the initial glow having to wait so long to keep returning to it. I lose my thought process, which can be both good and bad.

I grew increasingly frustrated with this exciting new medium, on it’s own it didn’t really suit my way of working.

So I did something I thought was a big no no and started to work in all three mediums. I did a bit of searching by the internet and was pleased to discover that I wasn’t completely alone.

My Method

So – Oil or Acrylic? Oil painters will defend oils and acrylic painters will defend acrylics but I have to say that I love a bit of both. My current method now includes four main steps:

  1. Use acrylics and enamels for the under-painting and drafting out the composition with the foundation colours and creative sky.
  2. Use oils and have a bit of fun pushing the paint around the painting and creating various effects.
  3. Back to the acrylics, where I build in the detail where detail is required and I use the acrylics to get crisp clean edges.
  4. Anything goes to finish the work, this is where I do like to take my time and figure out what’s needed to finish the piece.

It’s an exciting mix of mediums – which I can’t wait to experiment with more in the future!

Fern Pit Painting