The great painting medium showdown. What type of paint is right for you?
On today’s episode of the Self Taught Artist Podcast, we dive into the specifics of oil paint, acrylic paint, watercolor paint, and gouache. Each medium has advantages and disadvantages that are worth exploring. As a new painter, it can be hard to understand the difference between these types of paints and what you can do with them. I try to demystify paint types as much as possible with this simple primer.
Welcome to the first episode of the Self Taught Artist Podcast. I’m Lauren Kristine, your host. Today we’re talking about a very important foundational topic. The four paint types, also called artistic mediums. They are oils, acrylics, watercolors, and gouache. I’m going to break down the differences between these types of paint, and some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with each.
Let’s start with oils. Oil Painting is what was used by the old masters, so immediately that should conjure up the thought of longevity. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, and are very traditional. To sum up oils in one word, I would pick slow. That’s due to its slow dry time. This is a special characteristic of oil painting, and one that impacts the way that you can use it as an artist. The slow dry time gives you the flexibility to start a painting and then come back to it the next day, and continue right where you left off. The paint on the palette will still be wet, and your oil colors on your canvas can still be blended together even after time has passed. This makes subtle blending very easy to achieve with oil painting. Thanks to this slow dry time characteristic, working wet into wet is the simplest way to get a smooth transition from color to color in your painting. However, that slow dry time can also be a disadvantage, in that it might slow down your painting process. If you’re looking for clean lines, or if you have to wait to paint on top of an existing layer. In order to paint on top of layers that already exist, you have to wait a long time for it to dry. I’m talking days to weeks depending on how thick you’ve applied your oil paint.
It’s very easy to muddy up your colors as a beginner, which is one of the big downsides to starting with oil painting. Oil Painting requires additional supplies. You’re going to need turpentine or mineral spirits and linseed oil to help clean your brushes and manipulate the paint. So these additional supplies bring with it additional cost and some unpleasant fumes. So if you remember just one thing from all of that, remember, oil painting equals a slow dry time.
Let’s move on to Acrylic paints, shall we? Acrylics are modern paints made from pigments dispersed in an acrylic polymer acrylics defining characteristic is it’s fast dry time, the exact opposite of oil paints. Acrylic paints dry in a matter of minutes, which makes layering much easier for artists. Since you can paint over literally anything, it’s very easy to fix any mistakes that you make along the way. All you have to do is wait a few minutes for it to dry, and then you can paint over it like it never even existed. On the flip side, blending can be more difficult to achieve with acrylics, but it certainly is not impossible. There are additives and what’s called acrylic mediums that you can add to your paint that slow down the dry time and help you achieve almost any oil like effect with your acrylic paints. We’ll get to that in future podcasts as it’s a lot to talk about. But it’s also one of my favorite topics. Acrylics have very little barrier to entry, both in terms of their low cost and the small learning curve. Acrylic paints are very affordable, you can get a student grade paint for just a few dollars. To put it simply, acrylic paints are very hard to mess up as a beginner artist. There are no rules and there’s no set standard for how you need to do things.
The third medium is watercolors. watercolors are made from pigment, gum arabic and water which evaporates as the paint dries to leave color behind. You’ll mostly find watercolor applied to paper. Watercolor paints come in tubes or in pans. No matter the type of watercolor you buy water is what brings it to life. Watercolor is never set in stone. The paint on your palette can be reawakened with water. And so can the watercolor on your paper.
There’s a saying, watercolor is easy to try but difficult to master. In my experience, this is very true. There are a lot of techniques you have to learn with watercolor to achieve different effects. And very small changes to the inputs of your paint, water and brushes can lead to drastically different outputs. The biggest drawback of watercolors is that it is very difficult or impossible to fix mistakes. One drop of water can destroy details that took hours to create.
Last is a medium that isn’t talked about nearly enough: Gouache. What is Gouache? Well imagine if acrylic paint and watercolor paint had a baby. It’s a hybrid of these mediums in the water media family. Watercolors contain pigments that have very small particle sizes, so that the paint can be spread thinly enough to be nearly transparent. Gouache, on the other hand, has larger particles and more body so it looks heavier and more opaque after it dries.
Gouache can be used very similarly to watercolor. You can use your watercolor brushes with gouache and it won’t mess them up. And you won’t need to buy any special chemicals for cleanup because just like watercolor, gouache is also water soluble and can be cleaned up with water. I think of gouache like a more opaque, more intense watercolor. One advantage of gouache is that its opaque quality lets you layer colors in a way that you cannot with watercolor. It takes on some properties of acrylics in that way.
I’ve also found that I’m able to get brighter colors with Gouache. In my work I love using vibrant, bright, intense colors and contrast, which is much easier for me to achieve with Gouache paint than it is with watercolor. I will quickly mention that there are two different types of gouache. There’s traditional gouache and acrylic gouache. I will explain more about the differences in a future episode to try and keep things on track today. To summarize Gouache in one word, I want you to think hybrid.
So now we’ve talked about our four painting mediums: oils, acrylics, watercolors and gouache. Now the question is, what’s the right medium for you? Well, it depends on a lot of things: your aesthetic, what type of look you want to achieve with your art, and what space you have. When I started painting my studio, which was really just at my kitchen table at that time, meaning during meal times I had to clean off my art supplies to make room for dinner. So I found myself packing and unpacking my paints all the time. This is much easier with acrylics, watercolors or gouache, because they’re more portable, you need fewer supplies and they dry quickly. I found oil painting is best done in a dedicated space where you don’t have to move your stuff very often. Remember that oil paint dries very slowly over days or weeks. So anytime you move it, you’re putting it at risk. I recommend acrylic paints as a great choice for beginners. They’re easy to learn, inexpensive to buy, and it’s impossible to make mistakes. The flexibility and versatility of acrylic paints is really hard to beat.
I get asked a lot, “What medium do I think is the hardest?” This is an easy answer for me: watercolor. I find there’s a really big skill gap between the visions in my head and what I can actually achieve on the paper. There’s so much technique to learn with watercolors that it really can be overwhelming. Plus, if you make a mistake in watercolor, it can be really difficult to fix or even impossible. I know I’m supposed to tell you there are no mistakes and art, just happy little accidents a la Bob Ross. Let’s be real, accidents do happen. I’ve had splatters of watercolor that ended up in the wrong place. And colors bleed where they’re not supposed to. I can’t always incorporate these things into my painting when they happen, and sometimes just have to scrap the whole piece all together. That is always always a bummer.
What type of paints do I use? I use acrylics the most, and I dabble in both watercolors and gouache. Back in high school I did a lot of oil painting. But today I have no desire to return to oils. I have found through experimentation that I can achieve 99% of all oil painting effects with acrylics now, and I absolutely love the flexibility of painting with acrylics.
That’s a quick and dirty summary of the four main types of artistic painting mediums: oil painting, acrylic painting, watercolor painting, and gouache painting. I would love to hear from you what your favorite painting medium is. And if you have anything to add to my list, you can find me on Instagram @LaurenKristineArt. Kristine is spelled with a K and I’m also have a website at www.LaurenKristineArt.com.
That’s a wrap for the first ever episode of Self Taught Artist. Please leave a review and hit the subscribe button. It would mean the world to me and help me reach more artists. Happy creating my friends
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