If you started art at an early age, odds are you've tried or even started with watercolors. Watercolors are a great introduction to the world of painting as they're quite inexpensive and easy to clean up.
As we grow older, however, we might move on from watercolors to acrylic paints. You've probably heard that acrylic paint is perfect for beginners and quite easy to learn if you're converting from another painting medium. If this has got you wondering how exactly watercolors differ from acrylic paint, and which one is a better fit for your painting needs, then you're in the right place.
Both painting mediums can produce beautiful works of art.
Watercolors and acrylic paints do come with their own unique properties and characteristics that make for some key differences between them. Knowing what those differences are can help you come up with a more informed decision.
Acrylic Paints vs Watercolor Paints
Let's explore the differences between acrylic and watercolor paints, compare their advantages and disadvantages, then choose the right type of paint for your artistic needs.
So, let's begin:
What are Acrylic Paints?
Acrylic paint is a painting medium first used in the 1950s and has become one of the most popular types of paint today. This type of paint consists of pigments suspended in an acrylic emulsion which acts as a binder for the pigments.
Most acrylic paints use water as a vehicle. When the water evaporates, the pigments left behind stack up onto each other, held together by the acrylic binder. It's this use of an acrylic polymer that makes acrylic paints water-soluble yet more durable than watercolor paints.
Advantages of Acrylic Paints
Because of their composition and water-solubility, acrylic paints gain certain characteristics that artists of any skill level can find pretty advantageous. These advantages include the following:
- Versatile - Perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of acrylic paint is its versatility. Acrylic paints can not only be mixed and blended with other acrylic paints but also with acrylic mediums and additives. This gives acrylic paints unique qualities and lets you achieve even more awesome effects.
- Vibrant Colors - Because they can use natural or synthetic pigments, acrylic paints come in an incredibly wide variety of rich colors. For instance, our Nova Color paints come in over 90+ vibrant colors that you can mix and blend to create a nearly infinite number of shades and tones for all your painting needs.
- Can be Used on Most Surfaces - We here at Nova Color often get asked whether our Nova Color paints can be used on various surfaces. It's even led us to write articles on the subject on our blog (which you should definitely check out). Well, you'll be happy to know that acrylic paints actually stick to any porous surface – like paper, cardboard, foam, leather, wood, concrete, and stone – especially when prepared and primed correctly.
- Easy to Use - Acrylic paints are simply easier to use overall. Another advantage brought about by its being water-based, you won't need to buy toxic or noxious chemicals to thin your acrylic paints. This also makes it easier to remove accidental paint splatters and clean your paintbrushes using just ordinary soap and water.
- Durable - Because of the acrylic resin that binds the pigment together once dry, acrylic paints tend to keep their color longer, even without being sealed by varnish. They're also more resistant to physical damage and, when varnished, can retain their vibrant look for even longer.
- Quick Drying - Since most acrylic paints are water-based, they dry in just a fraction of the time you have to wait compared to other types of paint. Drying time does differ from brand to brand, though. For example, in the absence of any paint extender, Nova Color paints become dry to the touch in about 30 minutes and completely dry between 1 ½ to 2 hours.
- Widely Accessible - Acrylic paints can use natural or synthetic pigments to get their rich coloration. They're also water-based so you can just use ordinary tap water to dilute them. These two characteristics make acrylic paints more affordable and widely accessible to every painter from absolute beginners to seasoned artists.
- Safe and Non-toxic - Most acrylic paints use non-toxic ingredients and are thus completely safe to use even without gloves.
Disadvantages of Acrylic Paints
You can't please everyone and the same is true even for acrylic paints. The same characteristics that make acrylic paints a joy to use for some artists are also the same characteristics that make them a bad choice for others. Acrylic paints' disadvantages include the following:
- Choice Overload can be a Thing - Acrylic paints can come in almost any shade or tone of color you can imagine. To some artists, particularly beginners, this can instead lead to choice paralysis as they become overloaded by the sheer number of possible color options at their disposal. Pro tip: Avoid this by starting with your classic rainbow colors plus a pure white, pure black, and a medium brown color that you can brighten or darken as you see fit.
- Darkens When Dry - Most acrylic paints do darken once they dry so you'll need to take that characteristic into account when using them. Pro tip: Restore your acrylic paints' brightness by sealing them with gloss varnish once they dry.
- May Dry Too Quickly - Since acrylic paints dry quickly, you may need to tighten up your work time, especially for techniques such as blending on the canvas. Acrylic paints can also dry quickly even while in your palette or brush thereby requiring you to replenish or load up more often. Pro tip: Extend your working time without affecting paint adhesion with Nova Color's Acrylic Retarder.
- Not All Surfaces - While acrylic paint sticks very well on porous surfaces, nonporous surfaces (like glass, metal, and some plastics) simply don't take acrylic, or any paint for that matter, very well. That said, it's not impossible to use acrylic paint on these surfaces and you can definitely do so if you prepare and prime the surface correctly.
- Can Be Hard to Remove Once Dry - Acrylic paints are easy to clean with soap and water while they're still wet. However, because they're so resistant to physical damage, you may have a harder time cleaning and removing them once they dry. Pro tip: Never leave unwanted acrylic paint to dry where they're not supposed to be, especially on your paintbrushes. Take time to protect and cover the surrounding area with a tarp or newspaper and always have a spray bottle of soapy water ready.
- Some Cheap Brands - Not all acrylic paints are created equal. Since acrylic paints are easier to manufacture, it's easier to find low-quality options on the market. Feel free to check out Our blog post on the difference between cheap and professional acrylic paints for a more detailed discussion.
What are Watercolor Paints?
Watercolors, also known as "aquarelles", are one of the earliest forms of painting media known to humankind. They've been around since the ancient Egyptians and were used as an ornamental form of painting in 4,000 B.C. ancient China.
Today, the term "watercolor paints" encompasses other painting mediums like gouache, acrylics, and chalk. Strictly speaking, though, watercolor paints simply consist of finely-ground pigments suspended in a water-based solution.
Let's use the stricter definition of watercolors as we move forward.
Since watercolors use water as a vehicle – similar to acrylic paints – they tend to dry within 1 minute to 15 minutes, depending on how thick the paint layer is and how much water you used with it.
Advantages of Watercolor Paints
Watercolors are some of the earliest forms of painting media used by artists around the globe. They possess certain characteristics that some artists find advantageous. These advantages include the following:
- Water-based - It's in the name. Since watercolors are water-based, it's easy to change their viscosity with water, and cleaning them off is a breeze - even after drying.
- Safe and Odorless - Watercolors are safe to use and odorless. This means you can use them even in tight enclosed spaces like your bedroom or basement.
- Comes in Solid and Liquid - Watercolors come in a variety of colors in both standard paint tubes as well as dense blocks of color. This can change the feel of the paint as well as the portability of it.
- Quick-drying - Since watercolors rely on water, they tend to dry fast letting you carry on with your work sooner.
- Affordable - Watercolors are a staple in every art store and come in a range of prices fit for any budget.
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Disadvantages of Watercolor Paints
You may have noticed that watercolor paints' advantages nearly echo that of acrylic paints', which isn't surprising since both painting mediums are water-based. What sets them completely apart, though, will have to be watercolors' disadvantages, which include the following:
- Dries Too Quickly - The same fast drying time that makes watercolor paints a boon to some artists is also the same which makes it a bad choice for others. Because of their very fast drying time, working with watercolors leaves no room for mistakes. This can be a problem because…
- Techniques can be Hard to Master - Painting with watercolor requires utmost control over the extremely flowy paint. Watercolor techniques can take a long time to master so novices can expect to go through a lengthy process of trial and error.
- Requires Special Paper - While you can use watercolor on any type of paper, you only get the best results if you use paper specifically made for use with this medium.
- Less Durable Outdoors - Watercolors can crack and lighten in color when left outside in direct sunlight. This makes them a poor choice for outdoor murals.
- Reactivates With Water - Beginners may find watercolors confusing to work with because they tend to reactivate with water. This means impatient painters often end up with muddied colors rather than the effect they wanted.
What's the Difference Between Acrylic and Watercolor Paints?
Now that you've gained a deeper understanding of both acrylic and watercolor paints, how exactly do they differ from each other? To make it easier to compare these two popular painting mediums, let's look at them through the following factors:
1. Color Vibrancy and Opacity
When it comes to the richness and opaqueness of color, acrylic paints take a clear advantage.
This can be attributed to what acrylic paints are made of. As you know: Acrylic paints have their pigments suspended in a polymer emulsion. This polymer emulsion binds the pigment particles together once the water dries, thereby allowing acrylic paints to hold their color and brightness over time.
Watercolors, on the other hand, are made with pigments suspended in a water-soluble binder (like Gum Arabic). This water-soluble binder isn't as strong as acrylic paints' polymer binder which is why sometimes watercolors appear washed out or muted.
2. Mixing and Blending
Mixing and blending is somewhat of a toss-up and here's why:
It's possible to mix and blend acrylics or watercolors to create a wide range of colors and effects.
Generally speaking, though, watercolors are easier to mix and blend because they can be diluted with water to create different levels of transparency and saturation plus they can be reactivated after they dry. However, since this technique can be hard to master using watercolors, it may be difficult for beginners and give muddy results much easier.
Acrylics, on the other hand, dry quickly and are more difficult to blend once they have dried. However, you can easily extend acrylic paints' working time without affecting their adhesion by adding either acrylic medium or acrylic retarder so their quick drying time shouldn't be much of a problem.
3. Health and Safety Considerations
Both acrylics and watercolors are generally safe to use as long as they're used as intended by the manufacturers and with health and safety in mind.
For instance, acrylic paints' synthetic polymers can release harmful fumes when heated or burned, so it's important to keep them away from open flames or sources of heat.
Watercolors, although generally considered non-toxic, may contain heavy metals in some of their pigments making them hazardous when ingested or inhaled.
4. Cost and Accessibility
When it comes to cost and accessibility, watercolors take the win.
Watercolors are usually cheaper, easier to clean up and require fewer supplies, which can make them a more cost-effective option for some artists.
While acrylic paints cost a bit more than watercolor paints, they're also more versatile and can be used on a wider range of surfaces. High-quality acrylic paints are also more widely available than watercolors, which can sometimes be difficult to find in art supply stores.
Acrylic and Watercolor Paints: Which One is for You?
Acrylic paints are more vibrant and opaque than watercolor paints. They're also more versatile, easier for beginners, more durable, have a longer working time, and are more durable.
Watercolor paints have easier color choices, are easier to mix and blend even after they dry, dry quicker by default, and are cheaper than most acrylics.
So, between acrylic and watercolor paints, which one is right for you?
We'll have to go with acrylic paints on this one. While it's certainly possible to make spectacular paintings with watercolor paints, acrylic paints just have more advantages overall.