12 Crucial Differences Between Acrylic and Watercolor Paint


There are a lot of differences between watercolor and acrylic paints in the way they are made and the way you use them to paint. There are also some similarities. 

Although both watercolor and acrylic paints are water-soluble there are several differences between acrylic and watercolor paints. These differences include, color, surface, and usability and the way they are made, etc. I have explained each difference below. 

The joy of painting is to explore different mediums or to choose one that you can fall in love with. But to do that you need to know what each offers and what some of the limitations are. 

Natural Vs Synthetic Paint Ingredients

Watercolors are usually natural. Some watercolor paints have a synthetic binder. The ingredients vary slightly 

Watercolor paints consist of color pigment, a binder like natural gum arabic or synthetic glycol.

They also have “glycerin, honey, ox gall, and preservatives to alter the color of the pigment, the viscosity, hiding, and the pigments durability.” (Source)

Note for Vegans/Vegetarians: Some watercolor brands use animals. Please double check when buying as they should say if they don’t.

Acrylics are man-made. They are made from an acrylic resin, a binder, and a pigment.

Both acrylic and watercolor paints are water-soluble.

Types of Acrylic Vs Watercolor Types

Watercolor comes in tubes and pans. While acrylic comes in tubes, bottles, and jars.

There are several types of acrylics:

  • You can get the standard acrylic paint.
  • Fluid acrylic paint.
  • Longer lasting slow drying. Even among the standard paint, the drying times vary. But some people prefer longer drying times.
  • Re-workable paints.
  • Thick heavy bodied acrylic paints. These are perfect if you love to work with the palette knife and paint impasto.

Where You Can Use Them Ie Paper, Wood, Canvas, etc

With watercolor the only surface you can use them on is paper. You should also use watercolor paper as it is designed to absorb the paints properly.

That’s not to say that all watercolor papers are the same, they come in many different forms, thicknesses and from rough to smooth and hot or cold-pressed.

Acrylics can be used on many different surfaces, including watercolor paper, wood, canvas, etc. Although many people just use them on canvas.

They Are The Same To Use Arent They? Both Use Water

Acrylic paints and watercolor paints are similar in that they are both water-soluble. However, they are very different in the way that they are used with water. 

Watercolors are usually diluted much more than acrylics. They are generally more transparent. Water plays a much more central role with watercolors in many ways.  These are mentioned below.

Uses of Paint and Style

Acrylic paint can be used to simulate a watercolor. Or you can use them as an impasto (very thick layers). You can buy impasto acrylic paints.

Watercolor even if used thickly cannot be used in this way unless you add an impasto gel to them. This gell is used with tubed watercolors

Light to Dark V Dark to Light

When painting with acrylic paints you start off with dark colors and work to light ones.

With watercolor, you start light colors usually mixed a lot of water and work towards the darker ones.

Light acrylic paints dry darker. Watercolors dry lighter. If you put a really pale layer on they become almost invisible when dry. 

Transparent Vs Opaque

Watercolors range from transparent, semi-transparent to opaque. Watercolors are meant to be mostly transparent. With watercolor, you want that vibrant transparent color.

Due to the way they are applied acrylic paints are brighter than watercolors. Although they also come in transparent, semi-transparent and opaque they are not designed to be used solely as a transparent medium. 

The Difference in the Use of White

With acrylics you simply add white (often Titanium) acrylic paint. You use this to lighten a color, change it slightly or to add highlights. 

With watercolor, you generally do not use white paint to lighten as this will make the watercolors more opaque. The paper itself is the white and you “mix” this with the transparency of the paints (and water) to get your desired white or colored tones.

Other ways to get white with watercolor is to scratch it in. You can also lift off paint to make it lighter.

You can for pure opaque white highlights, etc also use gouache. 

The Differences in Priming Your Paper/Canvas

For watercolors, you do not prime your prime with paint to seal it. 

With acrylic, you do often prime your backgrounds. Although canvases are often pre-primed you can also add your own primer.

Which Paints Cost More, Watercolor or Acrylic?

I had always believed watercolor was more expensive than acrylics by far. But I read a comment recently that said the reverse. This got me to thinking if my assumption was right or not. And does it really matter when you start out?

It is really difficult to tell because the sizes of the tubes are so different. But you cannot tell on the tube size alone as you use a lot less watercolor paint than acrylics.

While cost varies from store to store, make to make and country to country you can buy beginners sets of both for relatively the same price. Around a tenner ($10,£10) at our local store. It’s not that much to invest in a great new adventure.

Usually, man-made is cheaper and acrylics are man-made.

Where the cost does differ greatly for me at least is to get really good quality watercolor brushes you have to pay a lot more. This is because they are natural or semi-natural although you can also get man-made.

Lasting Times For Your Finished Artwork

While this will depend on many different things such as light, temperature, humidity and the paint quality, etc, overall watercolors do not last as long as acrylic paints.

Under the right conditions (ie museum conditions)  and using a quality watercolor the paints can last up to 100 years. Under the wrong conditions fade in only a few years. Let’s face it how many people have museum conditions!

Acrylic paints can last centries.

The lasting times of both can also change depending on the paint used. As some paints have better lightfastness than others.

This is one of the reasons that watercolor art does not fetch as high a price as acrylic art.

Which Is Harder to Use Acrylics or Watercolors?

Acrylics are much simpler to use than watercolors. They are much more forgiving of mistakes. There are a lot let elements to learn with acrylic basics. You only need to add water and mix the paints.
Watercolor has the reputation of being the hardest to learn of all the mediums. It has more elements to learn and handle than acrylic paint. It is not very forgiving of mistakes, although you can learn to wot work with or remove or cover them up. Difficult is not impossible. 

It is definitely unique in look and in feel. It is well worth the time and effort to learn. Start simple and learn the techniques and both acrylic and watercolor skills are attainable in my view.

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