Oil Painting vs Watercolor: What’s the Difference?

oil painting vs watercolor

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If you’re on the fence about investing in watercolor or oil painting supplies, you’ve come to the right place.

In this post, you’ll find out about the consistency of the paint mediums, difference in drying time, safety hazards, the price tag, brush care, and how you can decide which is the best painting medium for you.

What Are Oil Paints? 

Oil paints are a vibrant medium formed by pigment suspended in a binder. In past centuries, artists used to get their pigments, or colors, from plants, animals, and the earth, but today most are man-made chemicals.

watercolor vs oil painting

The pigments are mixed into binders that act like an adhesive, making the paint ‘stick’ to a surface. Linseed oil is a common binder, but nut and poppy oil can also be used. As the name suggests, this medium is an oil-based paint and doesn’t dissolve in water.

What Are Watercolor Paints?

Watercolor paints are made of a pigment combined with a water-soluble binder, most commonly gum arabic. The paints can be stored in a paint pan as dry blocks or in tubes in their liquid form.

watercolor vs oil paint

Paint Pans

When you think back to elementary school, you might remember watercolor paints stored in little circle or square-shaped wells. In these paint pans, each well is filled with dry paints that are activated by wetting them with your paintbrush.

oil paint vs watercolor

A major perk of using a pan is having all of your colors neatly lined up side by side. However, these paints generally aren’t as vibrant as their tube counterparts.

Paint Tubes

Watercolor paints can also be stored in little tubes in a toothpaste-like consistency. This paint medium is highly concentrated and vibrant in its liquid form. A small dot of paint covers a lot of ground when water is added.

watercolor and oil painting

I personally enjoy the bright hues that come from the tubes but prefer using a paint pan overall. Pan’s are easier to pack up, and I avoid a time-wasting scavenger hunt whenever I need a new color.

Which is Cheaper? Oil Paint vs Watercolor

Watercolor painting is cheaper than oil painting, especially if you’re starting from scratch. At first glance, Artist Grade watercolor paints might seem more expensive when compared to oil or acrylic paints of the same size.

But watercolors contain a concentrated pigment that offers more coverage than other mediums. Plus, they require fewer “accessories” compared to oil paints.

oil paintings that look like watercolor

To start oil painting, you need:

  1. Oil paints
  2. Canvas or thick paper designed for oil paints
  3. Easel
  4. Brushes
  5. Solvent (turpentine, lavender spike oil, mineral spirits, etc)
  6. Sealed container if using turpentine or mineral spirits
  7. Linseed oil (optional drying oil)

Comparatively, watercolor paintings require fewer supplies:

  1. Watercolor paints
  2. Watercolor paper
  3. Brushes
  4. Container for water

oil vs watercolor

Which is safer?

Certain pigments, like cadmium and cobalt, are used in watercolor and oil paint. These colors can be toxic to humans if ingested but are generally safe when used as advised.

The real safety concern lies in the extra supplies required for oil painting. Solvents like turpentine and odorless mineral spirits release toxic fumes that can cause dizziness, nausea/vomiting, eyes and skin irritation, loss of consciousness, and even death (with extreme prolonged exposure).

water paint vs oil paint

And the fumes aren’t just toxic; they’re also highly flammable. Solvent-soaked rags are known to catch fire in artists’ studios if you aren’t careful.

These two solvents can be used safely by limiting exposure and working in a well-ventilated space. But they can easily be replaced with lavender spike oil, a nontoxic alternative.

At the end of the day, both paints (and their solvents) are equally safe when used as directed.

Do Oil Paints Or Watercolors Dry Faster?

Watercolor paints are the way to go if you prefer a short drying time – usually minutes to hours.

On the other hand, oil paint has a notoriously slow drying time and takes days or even weeks, months, or years to dry completely.

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Which Is Easier To Clean Up?

Because watercolor paints are water soluble, cleaning your brushes and palettes after painting is a breeze. You can buy soap for washing the paint out of your brushes, but I’ve gotten away with thoroughly rinsing them under the tap on many occasions.

You’ll find oil paint to be much more stubborn. It requires more work to get every bit of paint out of the bristles, and a strong solvent like turpentine, mineral spirits, lavender spike oil, citrus solvent, or brush soap is necessary to get the job done. Plus, if you choose to use a toxic or flammable solvent, disposing of it after cleaning your brushes can be even more hassle.

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Watercolor paints are the definite winner here. They require fewer steps and don’t cling as firmly to your brushes as oil paints.

Color quality and opacity

Watercolor Quality And Opacity

The quality of watercolor paints is rated based on their lightfastness, the measure of how the pigments react with light. A low score in Roman Numerals  (I or II) indicates Excellent or Very Good Light Fastness, while the highest score of V indicates Very Poor. The lower the score, the longer your beautiful watercolor piece will resist fading.

watercolor vs oil

The color quality also varies depending on whether you use pan or tube watercolors. The dried blocks of paint in pans tend to be less vibrant, and are enhanced by activating with more water. The liquid form from the tube will provide rich, intense colors when you start painting and are calmed down by adding water.

Because watercolor paint is slightly translucent, it’s far less forgiving when you attempt to cover a mistake. No matter how many layers you add, it can be difficult to cover up any previous work, unlike with oil paint.

Oil Paint Quality And Opacity

Oil paint is rich, opaque, and has a slightly thicker body than acrylic paint. You can easily create multiple layersto hide nearly any mistake, and the slow drying time also makes it easier to manipulate the medium without racing the clock. The quality ranges between Student and Artist grades, depending on the amount of pigment vs filler in the paint. More on that later…

oil and watercolor painting

Oil paints are definitely the winner here. Their thick body is much more opaque, producing rich vibrant colors that offer excellent coverage.

Stand Out Features Of Oils And Watercolors

You’ll immediately notice the finish when you compare an oil painting and a watercolor painting side by side. Most watercolors have a flat, matte finish and a soft glow with less vibrant colors than an oil painting.

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In comparison, oil paintings have much more depth due to the nature of the paint. The thick body of oil paint makes for deeper shadows, brighter highlights, and a beautiful glossy finish, especially when linseed oil is added.

Where can I learn how to paint with oils?

If you want a complete step-by-step guide to oil painting with professional feedback, Evolve Artist’s online oil painting course is my personal favorite.

Evolve makes learning oils super easy. They even provide high-quality materials for you (including Old Holland paints), so you don’t have to worry about which supplies to buy.

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Image by Evolve Artist

Each lesson breaks down a concept or technique in an easy-to-understand way, and then gives you homework to understand the concept firsthand. Afterwards, you’ll get valuable 1-on-1 feedback to hone your skills further. It makes it feel simple and completely removes any confusion when mastering oils.

Learn even more about Evolve in our full Evolve Artist Review.

Where can I learn how to paint with watercolors?

You can learn how to paint with watercolors in this course by Aaron Blaise, a Disney Animator of over 20 years. This affordable course won’t break the bank, but it will guide you from novice painter to advanced artist in just 12 hours.

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Painting a Leopard in Watercolor by Aaron Blaise

With Aaron, you’ll learn when to use certain paints, papers, and brushes, how to make your clouds and animals more realistic, and take your current skills to the next level with him in real time!

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is easier? Oils or watercolors?

Oil paints are easier to work with because they dry more slowly, are easier to manipulate, and most mistakes can be painted over.

Do oil paintings or watercolor paintings last longer?

Oil paintings typically last longer than watercolor paintings, which generally fade faster in direct sunlight.

Which famous artists were oil painters?

Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo da Merisi are famous oil painters considered masters of the medium.

Which famous artists used watercolors?

Elizabeth Murray, Georgia O’Keeffe,Thomas Moran, and Winslow Homer are famous for using watercolor paints.

Can you paint on a canvas with watercolor paints?

Yes, you can paint on canvas using watercolor paints if you prepare the canvas with watercolor ground first.

oil paint vs water paint

Which Is Better For Beginners: Oil Paint Or Watercolor Paint?

Oil paint is easier for beginners due to its easy-to-manipulate nature and ability to paint layers over any mistakes. Watercolor paints are much more convenient based on ease of setting up and cleaning up, but the learning curve is much steeper in terms of mastering this art medium.

Use oil paints if you:

  • Don’t mind a longer dry time
  • Have a larger budget
  • Have a well-ventilated space (for solvents like turpentine or odorless mineral spirits)
  • Prefer thick paint layer and a glossy finish
  • Want to experiment with a palette knife

If you are completely new to oil painting and don’t know where to start, check out Evolves beginner oil painting course.

Use watercolors if you:

  • Want a fast dry time
  • Prefer convenient setup and clean up
  • Have a smaller budget
  • Desire a matte finish and softer painting style
  • Do not have a well-ventilated space for toxic solvents

Once you’ve purchased your watercolor paints, the next step is putting your brush to paper. This beginner watercolor class will help you master the basics.

oil painting vs watercolor

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