Watercolor vs Acrylic Painting
Whether you’re new to the painting scene or have been creating works of art for years, you’ve likely seen information about both watercolor and acrylic paints. As some of the most popular paint options, which paint type you select depends upon your personal preference and the project, you’re working on.
There are many differences and similarities between watercolor and acrylic painting, and neither paint type is better than the other. Part of the joy of painting and creating art is exploring various mediums so you can find the one that works best for you.
This acrylic and watercolor painting guide will explain everything you need to know about the two paint types. We’ll discuss the similarities, differences, and what kinds of projects work best for both watercolor and acrylic paints.
What Is Acrylic Paint?
Painters have used acrylic paints since the 1960s. It’s water-based and fast-drying. You can adjust how thick or thin the paint is depending upon how much water you mix with it.
Acrylic paint was first made in the 1950s. The paint uses a synthetic resin to bind the pigments. Once dry, acrylic paint is waterproof.
Since an artist can dilute the paint with water, it can resemble an oil or watercolor painting. Because of its versatility can also have unique characteristics that you can’t find with other paint types.
Why Is Acrylic Paint Different Than Other Types?
Before the 1800s, painters had to mix their paints. By doing so, they could achieve their desired thickness and color.
Hand mixing isn’t practical for acrylic paints since it dries so quickly, making them unique. You can purchase it, ready to go, and modify it with water or another type of acrylic medium.
There’s also a more comprehensive range of mediums available for acrylic paints. Acrylic paint can bond itself to a variety of surfaces.
Some of the surfaces you can use acrylic paint on include, but aren’t limited to:
Modern acrylic paints can get reactivated after they dry. Traditional paints are very fast-drying and have been around for over 50 years.
Since traditional acrylic paints dry quickly, you don’t have to wait long to add another layer of paint between your painting sessions. Any painting you create with acrylic paints will be dry enough to ship within a day.
However, because of the fast drying time of traditional acrylic paints, it cannot be easy to blend them. Painters often find it challenging to replicate the “wet in wet” technique typically used with oil paints.
With modern acrylic paints, they have extended drying times. You can leave the paint on a sealed palette and work with it for a few days.
Acrylic paints can be thinned with water, making them water-based. You don’t have to use toxic spirits to change the consistency of the paint. Any wet paint left on the paintbrush can be cleaned off with water and soap.
There are some toxins in the pigments in traditional acrylic paints, just like with oil paints. Other toxins in traditional acrylic paint use a “retarder,” so the paint dries slower. A modern acrylic paint still has a small amount of toxins present.
Once a layer of acrylic paint is dry, it’s easy to paint a new layer on top of it. Keep in mind that once traditional acrylic paint is dry, it is more difficult to alter or remove.
If you use modern acrylic paint, you can apply water to the dry paint to reactivate it. However, it will become more difficult to reactive modern acrylic paint as time goes on.
Acrylic paints are more flexible than the average oil paint. Since painters have used them for only around 50 years, it’s difficult to determine how long the paint will hold up compared to other paint types.
What is Watercolor Paint?
Watercolor paint is comprised of a few simple ingredients. The two main components are as follows:
- Pigment: The color
- Binder: Usually gum-arabic
When water gets added to watercolor paint, it dissolves, allowing you to spread the pigment with a brush quickly.
There are a few other additives included in watercolor paint that help with the following things:
- Extending the shelf life
- How the paint performs
- Altering the paint’s appearance
There are more than 100 different pigments that get used in watercolor paint. They can be synthetic or natural.
Natural pigments get taken from natural sources, including insects, plants, or minerals. Natural pigments aren’t chemically modified.
Synthetic pigments are human-made, but “synthetic” refers more to chemical synthesis. These pigments come from natural sources but are modified, so the material is chemically different. Synthetic pigments are safe when used in watercolor paint.
There are typically two different qualities of watercolor paint available:
- Student Grade: Cheaper and made with alternative pigments
- Professional Grade: More expensive because of higher-quality pigments
You can only use watercolor paint on paper designed for that type of paint.
What Are the Ingredients in Watercolor Paint?
Gum-arabic is the binder that’s traditionally used in watercolor paint, and some brands opt for a synthetic binder instead.
The binder’s purpose is to help the pigment attach to the paper, and it also helps the final color look brighter since it binds the pigment particles together when applied to the paper’s surface. Binder is transparent and makes up around 50% of watercolor paint.
Both synthetic and gum-arabic binders dry pretty quickly. If a watercolor paint gets made with only gum-arabic and pigment, it’ll dry into a hard block.
Watercolor paint also includes a plasticizer and moisturizer to extend the paint’s lifespan, and it also makes the paint softer and dissolve easier.
The additives also work to prevent watercolor paint from drying too fast. Watercolor washes can also get applied far easier.
The plasticizer is typically glycerin. The moisturizer used in watercolor paint is glucose, such as honey or corn syrup.
A tiny bit of brightener can sometimes get added. It’s white or transparent crystals that enhance the pigment’s color. It can also adjust the paint’s lightness when it dries.
The Advantages of Working With Watercolor Paint
The pigments in watercolor paint stay suspended until the water dries and evaporates. Water tends to dry fast, so an artist working with watercolor paint needs to move quickly as well.
Since the paint is water-based, it can be less messy than working with other types of paints. It also has a low toxicity level and doesn’t have a strong smell.
Watercolor paint dries quickly so that you can move on to the next step in your art project. You don’t have to wait a long time between each layer you add. Some painters use a hairdryer to make the drying process go by faster.
Watercolor paint has a low barrier to entry and is easy to work with. Since they’re easy and lightweight to transport, you can take watercolor paints with you anywhere.
You also don’t have a lot of waste when working with watercolor paint. If there’s any leftover on your paint palette, it’ll dry. Just add water the next time you paint to reactivate it.
Watercolor Paint Characteristics
When purchasing watercolor paint, there are a few things you should look out for. This will help you determine if the watercolor paint is high or low-quality.
One thing to keep in mind is permanence or lightfastness. This will tell you how long your paintings will last. You want the paint not to fade quickly when it’s exposed to light.
The ratings for lightfastness are:
- ASTM I: Excellent
- ASTM II: Very good
- ASTM III: Not sufficient
On watercolor paint packaging, it’ll list the rating. You should select paints with excellent or very good lightfastness, so your painting lasts a while.
Transparency is also another feature you should look for when buying watercolor paint. While all watercolor paint is transparent, they have various degrees of transparency.
Completely transparent watercolors are more luminous and brighter, and this is because light can pass through the paint, reflecting off of its surface. Exclusively transparent watercolor paints give artists the best results.
Opaque watercolor paints are chalky and thicker, and they’re best used in moderation. The transparency level of the watercolor paint is listed on the packaging.
What’s the Main Similarity Between the Two Paint Types?
Both watercolor and acrylic paints are water-soluble, and you can use water to thin down both paints and clean your brushes. You don’t have to use specific solvents to rinse your brushes, just water, and soap.
The Differences Between Watercolor and Acrylic Paint
Acrylic and watercolor paint might be water-soluble, but they aren’t applied in the same way. It’s essential to know how they’re different so you can select which paint type is best for the project you’ll be working on.
Most watercolor paints are made with a few natural and simple ingredients. As we discussed before, the binder typically used in watercolor paint is gum-arabic. Before the 18th century, hide glues and sugars were used.
Acrylic paint is manufactured using a pigment, a binder, and acrylic resin. It hasn’t been around as long as watercolor paint.
Watercolor paints come in either tubs or pans with watercolor cakes, and the consistency between the two types of paint isn’t that different. Having your paint in a pan makes it easy for artists to jump in and get started painting.
Acrylic paint comes in jars, tubes, bottles, and tubs. It’s essential to keep the lids and caps closed tightly, so they don’t dry out.
There are three different viscosity levels for acrylic paints:
For paintings that require a lot of brushwork or heavy texturing, you should select one that has a higher viscosity. For more realistic paintings, a lighter viscosity acrylic paint would be best.
Surfaces You Can Paint On
As we mentioned earlier, a paper is specially designed for watercolor paint. The paper is textured and can adequately absorb the paint, and it keeps the pigments and water from bleeding through to the surface underneath the paper.
There are three different surface types for watercolor paper:
- Hot Pressed: Smooth and good for paintings with fine detail
- Cold Pressed: Medium texture that’s compatible with many applications and techniques
- Rough: Heavily texture that’s ideal for a loose painting style
You can purchase watercolor paper in loose sheets or a portable pad.
Acrylic paint is incredibly versatile and can be used for various arts and craft projects. In addition to the surfaces we talked about earlier, you can use acrylic paint on:
- Air-dry clay
The critical thing to remember is to prep whatever surface you paint on beforehand. Some of those surfaces have a protective seal, making it impossible for the acrylic paint to adhere to. The seals need to be removed before you can start painting.
One material you can use to prepare a surface for painting is gesso. Gesso is a primer medium that works to seal a porous surface, such as a canvas. The result is a smooth surface that you can easily paint on.
Watercolor Painting Tips for New Artists
Whether you’re looking to improve your technique or just starting with watercolors, knowing the basics of the artform is essential. Watercolor is fun but sometimes unpredictable, and below are some essential tips to help you get started.
Invest in the Right Materials
Having the best materials in your toolkit will help you immensely as you start your watercolor painting journey. Quality materials will help you achieve the results you’re looking for without getting frustrated. The right paper, paint, and paintbrushes will set you up for success.
Ensure You Have the Right Water to Paint Ratio
Depending upon your project and what you’re trying to achieve, your water to paint ratio will change. Adding too much water can cause your colors to be too light, and it can also result in your paint spreading more than you want it to.
Not enough water can cause thick colors. You might also see streaky brush strokes. They won’t lay down or flow properly.
If you’re painting a large wash, you’ll want to use more water. If you’re working on an area with a lot of detail, you’ll need less water.
An excellent rule to paint by is to have a lot of water nearby. You’ll also want a palette to mix your paints and add the amount of water you need to the colors on your palette.
Then, use a piece of paper to evaluate the color saturation. That way, you can see if you need more or less water before you paint your project.
Paint From Light to Dark
When painting with watercolors, you’ll want first to put your light colors down. Then, work toward your darker colors. Be patient with the process.
Once you put down a dark color, it’s difficult to undo. Light colors won’t show up if you cover them with a dark color.
You’ll also want to keep in mind what parts of your painting you want to keep light or white. Those areas will come from the paper, not from paint.
Pay Attention to Dry Time
How long your paint dries depends upon what you want to achieve. If you want the colors to bleed and blend into one another, you can put layers on top of paint that’s still wet. Don’t overlayer your wet paints since the colors can get muddy.
Be patient if you want to add new details or layers of color over your base coat. You’ll want to ensure the bottom layer is completely dry first, and if it’s not, you won’t have defined shapes and edges.
Acrylic Painting Tips for Beginners
Taking an acrylic Painting course or following an online tutorial is a beautiful way to learn skills. In addition to purchasing high-quality paints and brushes, below are some of our favorite tips for beginners.
Keep Your Acrylic Paints Wet
Beginner painters often work slowly on their paintings. While it’s lovely to paint carefully, you might not notice that the paint on your palette is drying. When you add more paint to your brush, you’ll discover that it’s unworkable.
To avoid remixing your color, paint the largest parts of your project first. Work as quickly as you can with a large brush. Save the smaller brushes and details for the end of your painting. Work the more general areas first before getting into the specific work.
You can also keep a plant mister nearby to spray your palette with water, which will help keep them from drying out. You can also directly spray water onto your paper or canvas.
Learn How to Mix Your Colors
Acrylic paints typically look darker when they dry, especially if you’re working with inexpensive paints. You can apply a few lighter paint layers to achieve your desired paint color if this happens. Additionally, layering can enhance your painting.
Student-grade acrylic paints are typically more transparent than professional-grade ones. To help counteract this effect, you can add a small amount of titanium white to whatever color you’re working with. You can also add some gesso.
Adding titanium white or gesso helps lighten the color a small while increasing the opacity. You can also add a similar color that’s more opaque than your primary one.
Stain Your Canvas Before Painting
If you’re painting on a canvas, it’s best practice to stain it beforehand. The stain should be neutral tones, and you don’t want a color that’s too vibrant or strong.
You can take yellow ochre and mix it with a bit of blue. Then, using a lot of water, wash it over the canvas.
Painting on a stained canvas will help you judge the tones and values of your painting, and it’ll also aid you when you paint dark colors on your canvas. It can be challenging to paint large dark areas directly on a glaring white canvas.
Allow for Dry Time
Don’t let your impatience get in the way of you creating a beautiful painting. While most acrylic paints dry quickly, it doesn’t mean you can start adding another layer of color immediately after, and some layers can take more than 20 to 30 minutes to dry.
While you’re waiting for it to dry, clean the brushes you’ve used already. It will take a more extended time for a thicker layer of paint to dry. You can also use that time to plan out your next step carefully.
How to Choose Watercolor Paintbrushes
A lot of the time, what paintbrush you go with depends upon your personal preference. When exploring paintbrushes for watercolor painting, you’ll find that they come in various sizes, hair types, and shapes. It can be confusing trying to figure out what kind you need.
The hair type you select for your paintbrush affects the brush’s cost, resilience, and performance. You want your brush to hold a decent amount of water or paint inside of it, and you’ll also want the brush to keep a fine point at the end.
The paintbrush should also distribute the paint evenly and smoothly on the paper’s surface. After each use, the paintbrush should spring back into its original shape, and it should keep this shape for an extended amount of time.
Some watercolor paintbrushes can get expensive. You’ll want to determine your budget ahead of time before you start shopping.
While shopping online is a popular choice, it helps to go into the store to hold the different types of brushes in your hand. You’ll also have the opportunity to inspect the paintbrush for yourself to see if it’s up to your standards.
Sable hair makes for the best watercolor paintbrushes, and their hairs are supple and resilient. When these paintbrushes are correctly cared for, they can maintain their texture and shape for years.
Nylon, polyester, or other synthetic fibers are commonly used in the average watercolor paintbrush. They’re designed to mimic the performance and structure of natural hair at a more affordable cost.
Synthetic fiber brushes vary in performance and quality, but they typically hold an excellent point.
Unfortunately, they won’t last as long as a natural hair paintbrush, and they also don’t distribute and hold as much paint as the natural hair types of brushes. However, synthetic fibers are a great option if you can’t afford a sable brush.
Many different watercolor paintbrush shapes are used for various techniques. What you choose depends upon what you’re trying to accomplish when you paint.
Since high-quality paintbrushes are expensive, you’ll want to buy the least amount of paintbrushes possible. Look for ones that perform multiple types of jobs, not just one.
The most widely used and versatile watercolor paintbrush is the round brush. The round shape makes them ideal for delicate lines and tiny details. At the same time, they’re perfect for washes and broader strokes.
While flat brushes tend not to be as versatile, they’re great for linear solid strokes and washes. Brushes with high-quality hair aren’t as important, but you want the brush to be durable.
You can save money by going with synthetic fiber instead of purchasing one made from sable hair.
If you have a lot of detailed work to do, you’ll want to go with one of the following brushes:
- Rigger Brushes: A round brush that has extra long hairs
- Spotter Brushes: A small, round brush that has short bristles
These brushes made with natural hair will be cheaper than other paintbrushes because they’re smaller. It’s also worth the investment since you want them to keep their shape over time.
A wash brush is like a flat brush, just a bit wider. You can look at oval, mop, or hake brushes if you need to apply a large quantity of paint.
It all depends on what your plans for them are. You’ll want to purchase a good range of sizes for round brushes. With the other brushes, you can purchase various sizes more selectively.
Watercolor Paintbrush Recommendations
If you’re a newer artist, we recommend purchasing three-round brushes. You should get them in the following sizes:
- Small, size 3
- Medium, size 5-6
- Large, size 12
Since they’re so versatile, that’s all you need when you’re starting. You want your round brushes to maintain their shape and hold their point, so feel free to spend a little bit more on those than other types of brushes.
Don’t shy away from purchasing them in sable hair if you’re serious about painting.
If sable hair is too expensive, you can purchase a synthetic or sable-synthetic blend brush. They won’t last as long, but they’ll perform well. You can invest in the other brushes as you progress through your art.
How to Select Paintbrushes for Acrylic Painting
As with watercolor painting, your tools are one of the essential things when painting with acrylic paint. We’re going to go over acrylic painting tips so you can select the best paintbrushes for your project.
There are eight main paintbrush shapes that you can use with acrylic paint. They are:
- Pointed round
- Angular flat
- Detail round
The two main brush shapes you should concern yourself with are round, pointed, rectangular, and flat.
Round and pointed paintbrushes have a large body that slowly tapers into a fine point. Since they’re pointed, you can use them for fine details and lines. You can use them for broad strokes to cover a good area.
A rectangular or flat brush has flexible, square ends. These brushes can hold a fair amount of paint in their belly.
They are great for painting large areas and blending when you hold them flat. You can also use the sides and tips for small touches and delicate lines.
There are many different brush sizes for each paintbrush shape, and the sizes start at 0000 and go to size 24.
- Large brushes for washes or painting a large area
- Medium-sized brush for versatility
- Small-sized paintbrush for fine detail work
You’ll probably see some acrylic paintbrushes with both short and long handles. Long-handled brushes are great for easel work, and they allow you to paint from far away so you can see your entire painting at once. We recommend using the below sizes of paintbrushes in the following ways:
We recommend starting with a medium-sized brush, around sizes 6 to 8. You can then expand your brush collection by your budget and specific painting needs.
Natural-hair bristles, like sable, are typically recommended for oil painting, and that’s because they can handle the heaviness of the paint and maintain their shape over time. However, acrylic paint can damage natural-hair paintbrushes over time.
Synthetic bristles come in a wide variety of soft or stiff varieties. They’re typically made from polyester or nylon.
Synthetic paintbrushes are well suited for acrylic paints because they can handle the acrylic resin in the paint, and they’re also easier to clean. While they don’t hold their shape and natural-hair brushes, they’re still very durable.
You can still use a natural-hair paintbrush with acrylic paints. You’ll just want to ensure they’re cleaned thoroughly to remove any turpentine or oil beforehand.
How to Keep Your Acrylic Paintbrushes Clean
Cleaning your paintbrushes isn’t an exciting part of the painting process, but it’s essential to ensure your brushes last for years to come. Thankfully, acrylic paint is easy to wash when your paintbrush is still wet, and if you let it dry, it’ll become hard to remove.
Clean Them as You Paint
You might typically clean your paintbrushes once your project is complete, and your cleaning duties begin as soon as your project does.
As you start painting, pay attention to your brush’s ferrule. That’s the area of the paintbrush where the bristles meet the handle. If you notice paint going into that piece, wash it immediately.
Once you’re done using a paintbrush, rinse it thoroughly. Then, blot it and lay it on a cloth or paper towel while you continue working. This will ensure that your paintbrush stays moist while you’re still painting.
Don’t keep your paintbrush sitting in dirty water when you’re not using it. Water will get caught in the ferrule and go up into the brush handle. Also, the bristles can lose shape and bend when kept standing on their bristles.
After You’re Done Working
Once you’re done with your project, gather all of your paintbrushes and squeeze them with a cloth or paper towel. You want to remove as much paint as you can from the paintbrush bristles. If you notice any paint on the paintbrushes, rub them with a paper towel.
Clean your brushes one at a time in cold water with mild soap. Cold water is essential in the cleaning process, and hot or warm water can help the acrylic paint set on the brush.
Rinse your paintbrushes until the water is clear. Take a bar of soap and wipe it across the top of the wet brush bristles.
Then, grab the top of the brush bristles with two fingers. Wiggle the paintbrush handle while you’re still holding onto the hairs. This creates soap suds and forces them into the ferrule.
Rinse the brushes again. Blot them on a clean cloth or paper towel. If there’s any paint remaining, repeat the cleaning process.
Before Your Acrylic Paintbrushes Dry
While the paintbrushes still feel damp, brush the tip of the bristles over the bar of soap. Gently reshape the bristles with the additional moisture from the soap.
If you have a flat paintbrush, pinch the edge flat. Tap the sides of the bristles until they’re into their natural shape. Squeeze the bristles into a point for liners and round brushes without twisting them.
Put all of your clean brushes on a paper towel or cloth. Don’t stand them upright to dry, resulting in water dripping down into the ferrule.
How to Get Rid of Dried Paint
Sometimes life happens, and you don’t have a chance to clean your paintbrushes immediately after you’re done painting. There are a few steps you can take. Apply some rubbing alcohol to the brustles to help loosen up the dry paint.
Keep in mind that rubbing alcohol can dry out paintbrush hairs. As discussed above, you can apply soap to the brush bristles to moisturize them.
The best way to clean off dried-on paint is with a cleaning product designed for that job. Chroma Incredible Brush Cleaner was designed to break down hardened acrylic paints, and it’s safe to use on natural and synthetic bristles.
How to Clean Watercolor Paintbrushes
While watercolor paints are more friendly and less hard on your brushes than other paint types, it’s still important to take care of them. If debris and paint deposits build up, it can deteriorate the integrity of your brushes.
As paint particles and other debris build up in the ferrule of your paintbrush, it’ll force the brush bristles apart. Over time, that’ll cause your brush to become deformed.
Additionally, some watercolor paint pigments can stain your bristles. To prevent your paintbrushes from becoming stained, it’s important to clean them thoroughly.
The Cleaning Process
You don’t necessarily need to clean your watercolor paintbrushes after each time you paint. When you’re done for the day, you can rinse them. Be sure to reform that paintbrush tip and lie them on a flat surface to dry.
When it’s time to clean your brushes, it’s best to use a mild soap. You want to go with a product that doesn’t have any additives and includes vegetable-based oils.
Use a mixing tray or white plate to gently work the soap into the bristles. The white surface is great for letting you see the paint pigment coming out of the brush.
Then, dip your paintbrush in water, ensuring it’s soaked. Squeeze the tip gently to get rid of any air bubbles. Repeat this process until the bristles are well soaked.
Add a bit more soap onto the wet bristles. Following the natural direction of the bristles, gently rotate the paintbrush in circles. Repeat this process until the brush is clean, rinsing every so often.
Tips for Watercolor Paintbrush Care
As with acrylic paint brushes, it’s important not to put your brushes bristle-down in a jar of water, which will cause the tip to become deformed. Synthetic brushes are more susceptible to being damaged this way than natural hair ones.
Don’t leave your brushes upright to dry, and this will result in water seeping down into the wooden brush handle.
Rinse your brushes throughout your entire painting process. If you put your brush down to change brushes, rinse it before lying flat.
Don’t push the bristles down hard if you pick up watercolor paint with your brush. When the hairs get splayed into the wet paint, it causes the pigment to go up into the ferrule. The hairs can also get damaged doing this as well.
After you rinse your paintbrushes, always reform the tip. You can gently squeeze it with your fingers before laying them flat to dry.
Learn More About Art With Our Watercolor and Acrylic Painting Guide
Both watercolor and acrylic painting are great ways for beginner artists to flex their creative muscles. Even if you’re not a beginner, there are so many things to learn as you master acrylic or watercolor paints.
Whichever medium you select depends on your personal preference and the type of project you’re working on.
For more watercolor painting tips or advice on other art forms, check out one of our other blogs.