Just to acquaint you, this post is not a battle between these two beautiful painting mediums. This post is going to show you the key differences between acrylic and watercolor paints. Watercolor vs acrylic, how do they differ and which one is better suited for you? Read on!
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Table of Contents
Acrylic paint is water-based paint that’s composed of pigments dispersed in an acrylic emulation. It’s a fast-drying paint and although it’s water-soluble, the paint becomes water-resistant once it dries making them permanent.
The finish is opaque and you can layer on colors from dark to light. Acrylic paint is highly versatile and you can mix water in to dilute to make it resemble watercolor paintings.
Acrylic paint can be painted on a wide range of surfaces such as canvas, glass, plastic, metal, etc.
- Ideal for detailed painting
- Easy to clean up
- Can be painted on various surfaces
- Not easy to blend
- The pigment contains toxins
- Paint is permanent once dry so it can’t be changed or removed
Watercolor paint is a translucent art medium and like acrylic paint, it is water-soluble. The pigment is combined with a water-soluble binder so the paint dissolved when you add water to it allowing you to spread the pigment on your paper with a brush.
- The cheapest paint
- Leftover paint can be reused just by adding water
- You can alter your painting even when it’s dry just by adding water
- Has natural transparency
- Easy to cover a large area
- Requires special paper made for watercolor
- Much more challenging to master
- Mistakes can be difficult to cover or remove once the paint dries
Watercolor vs Acrylic for Beginners
When choosing a painting medium to use, especially if you are a beginner, acrylic paints are recommended. Acrylics are more forgiving and workable when you make mistakes. You can also learn how to mix colors with acrylic paints.
Watercolors are a bit harder to practice. They are challenging and takes time and effort to master the techniques. Mistakes are also harder to change and cover.
The biggest similarity between these paints is that both are water-soluble. Both can be thinned with water and the paintbrushes can be rinsed and cleaned with water. Neither paints will require harsh chemicals for cleaning so they are safe for kids to use.
Both paints are also affordable. Although high-quality art materials will come at a high price, both of these mediums are still a lot less expensive compared to others.
And now let’s tackle the meat of this post. What are the differences between watercolor and acrylic paints? Understanding how these two types of paints differ will help you see what each offers and what their limitations are so you can choose which one to use for your personal projects.
Watercolors are natural paints with a few simple ingredients. Some brands may include synthetic binders so a few ingredients slightly vary, however, most use a natural binder like gum Arabic. The color pigments in watercolors are consistent though some manufacturers include preservatives in their products to alter the colors and durability of their watercolor paints.
Acrylic paints are man-made and their ingredients include acrylic resin, pigment, and binder.
Watercolor paints come in tubes and cakes/pans. The watercolor paint that comes in tubes is in liquid form while the one in cakes or pans is dry and you just have to activate them using water. Usually, watercolor paints that are in tubes are slightly more saturated than the ones in pans. And when you have leftover paints on your palettes, you can use them again by just rehydrating them with water.
On the other hand, acrylic paints come in tubes, bottles, and jars. This paint comes in three levels of viscosity: light viscosity (often labeled “fluid” or “soft body”), medium viscosity (has a similar consistency as oil paints), and heavy viscosity, (often labeled “heavy body”). Light viscosity acrylic paints are better for glazing for a realistic painting, while heavy viscosity paints are for bold brushstrokes and heavy textures. Unlike watercolors, when acrylic paints dry, they cannot be rehydrated and reworked. So it’s important to always close and seal your paints to avoid them drying up.
Both paints are available in two grades: student-grade and professional-grade.
Transparency & Opaqueness
Watercolors have great transparency. They can range from very transparent, semi-transparent, to opaque. This is one feature of watercolors that artists love because no other medium can replicate the glazed and layered effects of watercolors.
Acrylics are brighter and more opaque than watercolors. Being water-soluble, they can also be thinned down with water to get a transparent consistency but the result isn’t as seamless as watercolors.
The Use of White Paint
Generally, you don’t use white watercolor paint. Instead, you use the white of the paper and alter your paint’s transparency by the amount of water you use to achieve your highlights. For pure opaque white highlights, you’ll want to use gouache.
For acrylic paints, you add white paint to the colors you want to lighten or you can use them for highlights. Add white paint in small increments until you achieve your desired shade.
Painting From Light To Dark or Dark To Light
With watercolors, you’ll want to start with the lighter paints first. As you add more layers, the colors become deeper and darker. Also, keep in mind that watercolors tend to dry lighter.
For acrylics, it’s the opposite. You’ll want to start painting with the darker colors going to the lighter ones. And just like the opposite of watercolors, acrylic paints dry darker.
Surfaces You Can Paint
When using watercolor, it’s highly recommended to paint on watercolor paper. This is the kind of paper designed to absorb the watercolor paints properly. You can also use regular paper but the colors will bleed and it won’t be pretty. It’s best to paint watercolors on thicker paper for optimal results.
Unlike watercolors, acrylic paints are not only limited to paper, they can be painted on various surfaces including canvas, glass, wood, fabric, metal, cardboard, and more. Surfaces for acrylics need to be primed and prepped first before using.
While both are water-soluble, both paints differ on how you use them with water.
Water plays a big role in watercolor painting as the amount of water you use will greatly affect the outcome of your work. Watercolors are used in layers and the finished artwork remains flat.
Acrylic paints can also be used like watercolor, but you can also use them like oil paints to create textures and opaque layers on wood and canvas. Acrylic paints allow you to use the impasto technique so you can create various artworks in different styles and techniques.
Watercolors can dry fast especially when you only use a small amount of water, and the leftover paint you have can be used in your next painting session.
Acrylic paints are quick-drying so you will need to work fast because dried paints cannot be reworked and changed.
Acrylic paints dry faster than watercolors, however, your environment and how thick your layers of paint are will affect the dry time of your work.
Which Paint is Safer?
While both paints are non-toxic and safe for kids, watercolors are the safest.
Some acrylic paints can contain toxins. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission said formaldehyde and ammonia in paints can cause irritation in the respiratory system when ingested.
While watercolors are safe and non-toxic and don’t cause symptoms if you ingest small amounts, some high-quality pigments include harmful ingredients like zinc, cobalt, and cadmium.
Which Paints is Cheaper?
The cost actually varies from store to store, brand to brand, and the like.
Due to the sizes of the tubs and bottles that acrylic paints come in, they may seem cheaper than watercolors. However, watercolor paint sets can also be relatively inexpensive because you will more likely use less watercolor than acrylic paints, making them longer lasting.
The real price difference comes down to the paintbrushes because high-quality brushes for watercolor are more expensive than acrylic brushes.
The Best Acrylic Paints
For high-quality paints, artist or professional-grade is the best. With vibrant pigments, beautiful consistency, and performance, here are some of the best acrylic paints on the market.
This 48-tube set is a great tool for artists looking to start their journey into the world of acrylics. The colors are bright and vibrant that will make every artwork shine.
This product is sold as a set or individually so you don’t have to worry when you run out of your favorite shade.
This set is perfect for artists who already know their acrylic paints by heart. With 57 colors in their line, you can choose the colors you want to include in your color palette as they can be purchased individually.
Stunning colors, lightfast with a velvety satin finish. This acrylic paint is loved by artists because it performs like a traditional acrylic paint yet it dries slower and you can reactivate the paint making it very versatile to work with.
Arteza is a trusted art supply brand and this acrylic set by the brand is one of the best acrylic paints. With 60 colors in a set, you will have a variety of shades in your arsenal to make your best artwork yet!
The Best Watercolor Paints
There are several brands that produce the best watercolor paints and we’ve made a whole article about it: The Best Watercolor Set for Beginners. For reference, the following are some of our favorite picks.
Winsor & Newton is a popular brand, and its sub-brand Cotman is perfectly made for beginners. Although this is a student-grade paint made with synthetic fillers, the quality and permanence of each color are very impressive.
With 24 colors in half pans, this watercolor set is a wonderful travel companion for artists who are always on the go. This watercolor paint set boasts of its high transparency and that means it’s great for making a glazing effect and layering, plus the colors are bright and pigmented.
Despite it being a student-grade watercolor paint, this tube set of 12 colors exceeds its status. Its reviewers rave about its quality and how it produces such pigmented and vibrant colors. The paints blend and mix well together, dry quickly, and the colors remain vivid once dry.
If you want to have a wide array of colors in your arsenal, this watercolor set can be what you’re looking for. This paint set is one of the most ideal sets for beginners. Aside from the wide selection of colors, it’s of very good quality plus it comes with a cost-friendly price!
Choosing which paint to choose between acrylics and watercolors is a choice to be made with the nature of your project in mind. Both come in student-grade for beginners (which are cheaper) and artist-grade that has high-quality pigments (which are more expensive). Both paints are water-soluble but have significant differences that will affect your learning curve if you are just starting out to paint.
Considering the things we stated above, let this information be your guide in picking your painting medium. The choice between which paint to use will ultimately be yours depending on your preference and level of skill. Each paint is special and has its unique features and benefits.
We hope this article has helped you figure out which paint to use on your art projects. If you liked this article, tell us what you think in the comment section below and share this with your friends!
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