Acrylic vs. Oil: Making Acrylics Look Like Oil Paint

Which of the paintings was created in oil and which in acrylic? Answer to come...

WHENEVER I HAVE SHOWN ACRYLIC PAINTINGS (even in my long-standing galleries), many have tagged my pieces on the wall as having been done in "oil." For years, instructors, colleague artists and gallery owners have commented to me (independent of knowing one another) that my acrylics "look like oils". This had baffled me for several years. [I painted in oil as well as acrylic when I started in 1965]...so why the comments?

After studying the work of acrylic painters I realized what the issue really existed. Acrylics can take on a look of "oil" or of "plasticity" thereby giving a thick, coated or even "artifical" appearance. This was particularly true in the early years of acrylic production when manufacturers created the painting with less than optimum attributes. Even now, with advanced developments in acrylic, painters can achieve a plastic look if not careful (with one caveat...those who desire a plastic look such as some abstract artists.)

For representational artists who have chosen acrylics for health reasons, or by preference, etc., may be been fighting the material trying to achieve the look of oil paint. I have tips to on how to paint with acrylic to look like oil. But before I offer specific tips...

Let me just say that I still don't exactly know why my paintings look like oil except for three things that I do inherently:

  • I treat oils the same way I do acrylics. In other words, I paint the same way whether my brush is loaded with acrylic or oil. I maintain the same technique and handling with both materials! This is perhaps the number one "secret" I can share. If in your mind you view acrylics and oil differently then you will also paint differently and the art will appear different. This is a dead give-away to the viewer, and frustration for you as a painter.
  • I use the same surface as I do with oil. If you are an artist who paints in both media, choose surfaces that accept both media. The result - you are familiar with one surface. Get comfortable with that surface, thereby allowing your technique in both media to appear similar. If you are an acrylic-only painter, choose a surface that an oil painter would use but with an acrylic base and texture appropriate for your subject. For instance, smooth tooth acrylic-coated for portraits, and perhaps a more "nubby" tooth with acrylic coating or still life or landscapes.)
  • Paint with paint and water (not so much water as to break down the paint) before introducing any mediums. Only use mediums as necessary in the following order of need: retarder to reduce drying time using less than prescribed by the manuacturers. If you use straight retarder or 15% to your paint your paint will pull-away from the surface and/or be sticky.

Suggestions on how to achive a more oil-like appearance:

  1. Select a limited palette such that you have to mix your colors rather than use pre-mixed colors, i.e., use purest original tube colors, create your colors and only introduce original colors (paint that cannot be mixed from anything else) such as Permanent Rose, etc.
  2. Build your layers of color to allow drier colors from below to show through in places.
  3. Mix on the canvas either part or all of the time to achieve more variety of stroke-work and color.
  4. Ala-prima artists: mix and apply directly using white as a LAST resort rather than as the first resort to achieve lighter colors.
  5. Studio/glazing painters. Use the direct tube mixtures first. Then overlay your glazes to create depth.
  6. Carefully apply thicker layers of paint. More and more manufacturers are developing heavier body (less viscous) paints. Take advantage of these. I find that using thickeners to put into paint are not very effective. They, like retarder, if overused pull away from your surface, reduce the tinting strength of your paint and are difficult to control with any consistency*.
  7. Recommend you try/buy all products until you get the configuration of "feel" you want. Buy only one or tubes in your favorite colors at a time to test so as not to delate your budget.
  8. You can mix different brands. As long as you stick with professional grade paints you can combine Liquitex with Golden, Lukas, Windsor-Newton, etc.


When people have to ask what type of paint you use, that can be good sign for the acrylic painter! It means viewers may think your pieces look like oil or even watercolor. What you don't want (unless of course your work calls or a plastic look) is for people to mistakingly think your paintings are "cheap" by any means. As I have stated many times, a good painting is a good painting no matter the media. When the media overtakes the subject or your objective as an artist, that is when changes need to be made (another caveat, unless your media IS your subject.)

It's hard to say what offers the visual feel of "oil" with acrylic. Since each manufacturer of acrylic has a bit different flow, opacity, etc. My feeling is that it is in the handling the material not the product itself.

*No matter what, it's difficult to offer the visual feel of oil while still maintaining the thick impasto of oil simultaneously-but it can and is being done. If you like the flow of the paint but the resulting flattening nature of acrylic when dry (not flatness in color but of texture) it's a tough putt.

I've tried so very many combinations and have found that the paint itself is it's best when used from the tube mixing your own colors; then when I need the paint to flow, use either water or a mixture of medims. Flow releaser tends to be really touchy in terms of amount used. It can really get slick, but used in the "perfect" amounts for you will function just great. For plein-air painting or even in the studio, I spray my canvas or board with water containing a few drops of retarder to break the surface tension. This contributes to the feel/ flow of oil as well.

The other hard balance is between opacity and glazing. If you want to work with the paint itself without glazes, perhaps straight water is the best option.

And finally, breaking up of the pigment is the bigest issue. My rule of thumb is, if you want a glazing effect with little pigment carry the paint with medium; if you want highly concentrated tinting strength, use little or no medium to maximize the paint's own capability.

Nothing quite feels, moves or looks like oil, but with so many products entering the market we'll keep experimenting and sharing possibilities.

As mentioned above, one thing I've tried that I really am disappointed with are some of the paint thickners out there. They serve to break up the paint and not "hold" the way they should. However, in the last two years manufacturers have really been attuned to cry by acrylic artists to add more body to their paints. They have replied. Now more than ever before, we have high-viscous paints to highly thickened opaque paint. The widest range for however you like to work!

One last point you may be asking, "So what should I buy??" Reply: purchase paint that contains the highest tinting strength (amount of pigment used), least amount of water, least amount of filler. you ask for. There are trade offs.

You can make an acrylc painting look like an oil painting by the style you paint in, the handling of that paint and the finish...whether you use varnish and how that too is used...a subject for another day!

My bottom line: I don't try to paint like I am using this or that. I simply paint. Whatever you use and however you use it, your style, message and intent will come through.

I don't really care about the acrylic vs. oil arguement. To me, it is just like the PC vs. Apple/Mac battle that still rages on. I have worked in both graphic design and painting worlds; both operate the same. That is, one thinks the other is better. There is no better, there is just the best painting you can do at any given time whatever the media...shoot for that, and you will have a winning painting.

Answer to the painting question rom the beginning of this article: Both are acrylic paintings. Sorry or the trick question;) I know the samples are small thus making a difference.

Shown below is an oil painting created the same way I paint in acrylic. At another time, I'll really offer you a really BIG challenge: Soft Pastel vs. Oil or Acrylic!! That should be fun!!


Johnson is an award-winning artist and instructor with over 30 years experience and was Founding Editor of Plein Air Magazine (now Fine Art Connisseur. See all her current and archived sold works at http://www.LDianeJohnson.com
©1995-2009 L. Diane Johnson

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