Oil painting and watercolor are two very popular mediums used by artists. Though they share some similarities, they also have their own unique set of characteristics. The result is also vastly different.
What’s the difference between oil painting and watercolor painting? Oil painting uses drying oil as a carrier, so it can be costly and difficult if you are a beginner. Watercolor paint uses just water, so working with it is quite simple, and it is definitely better for beginners to explore.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the similarities and differences and the pros and cons of each medium to help you decide which one is right for you.
Oil Painting Vs. Watercolor: Which Is Easier?
Watercolor is commonly seen in schools and beginner art classes, and definitely for good reasons. Let’s first explore various aspects of why watercolor painting is definitely easier and more beginner friendly.
Type Of Paint
The most important difference between oil paint and watercolor is the type of paint itself, and this difference actually affects all of the other factors that we will mention.
Oil paint is made from paint pigments that are suspended in a drying oil. Drying oil doesn’t evaporate when it is exposed to water. Instead, it will harden and become a part of the canvas itself.
The drying oil is also responsible for the glossy effect and texture that a finished oil painting may have.
In comparison, watercolor is much more straightforward. Watercolor palettes include only pigments, and you will need to mix the pigments with water to activate them.
After painting, the water will evaporate, leaving the paint pigments on the page. Because the paint is water-based, it can be thinned with just water.
Since these two types of paint have vastly different characteristics, the painting techniques are also quite different as well.
Oil paint is more viscous; you can easily use various types of tools to work with it, including brushes, palette knives, foam brushes, and even rags. With watercolor, you will need a set of soft paintbrushes.
The technique for building colors is also different. Since oil paint is more opaque, you will need to lay down the darkest colors first on the canvas and add light shades on top to build the layers.
On the other hand, watercolor is very translucent; you will need to lay down the lightest colors first and add the darker colors on top as you build up the layers. The translucent qualities will allow all of the colors to show through.
Oil paints usually come in a very limited range of colors, so you will need to mix the paint yourself to create a diverse range of shades for your painting. That’s why you usually need to have a paint palette to mix your paint before painting.
In comparison, watercolor comes in a wider range of colors. However, mixing paint can be quite painful since the colors are so watery.
You definitely don’t want to mix watercolor using the original casing of the paint because you’ll contaminate the colors easily, which can affect subsequent artworks.
Since oil and water don’t mix, if you want to thin oil paint, you will need to use a paint thinner like turpentine or mineral spirits. Thinning oil paint is also quite time-consuming, and paint thinners usually contain a lot of toxic chemicals that can make it quite unpleasant.
On the other hand, watercolor paint can be thinned using just water, which saves you a lot of time and even money. You can even dilute the colors on the page itself by adding a little bit more water to make the colors more translucent.
Oil paint is very, very opaque. Each color will stand out on its own on the canvas, and you can easily create vibrant details on the page, even against a dark background, without having to build up the layers of paint.
Layering oil paint can also produce unique textures and a 3D effect, which is what you often see in classic oil paintings!
Watercolor is known for its translucent quality, which means if you want to build up the opacity on the page, you will need to use several layers of paint on top of one another. Even with multiple layers, the colors may never become as vibrant and opaque as oil paint.
The paper also limits the number of layers that you can use because it may disintegrate if there’s too much water soaked into the page!
Layering With Other Media
Watercolor is often used in combination with other media, like charcoal pencils and markers. The markers are used to create precise outlines, and watercolor will be added on top to add splashes of colors. The lines will still shine through to showcase the complexity of the artwork.
Unfortunately, you cannot do this with oil painting. Since the oil paint is very opaque, it will cover up everything else that’s on the canvas.
Bob Ross’s famous saying, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents,” unfortunately only applies to oil painting.
If you accidentally make a mistake on the canvas, you can simply use a palette knife to scrape it right off the canvas. You can also use a clean rag to remove the paint. Since oil paint is very opaque, the next layer of paint will cover up any paint residue underneath.
The same luxury cannot be applied to watercolor. Since the paper is quite delicate and the paint is translucent, mistakes are definitely much harder to fix.
Watercolor doesn’t take much time to dry. As soon as the water evaporates, the watercolor is considered dry. This fast drying time also makes it easier if you want to build up the layers of colors without affecting the paint underneath.
In comparison, the drying oil in oil paint takes much longer to dry and cure. The oil will dry to the touch in about 24 hours, but it can take up to 3 days to fully cure.
The curing process will allow the drying oil to harden completely and become permanent on the page. If the paint feels dry to the touch, but you can still smell faint chemicals, that means the paint is not fully cured.
This long drying time makes oil painting more durable and permanent, but it can also be a paint if you need to build up layers of paint. That’s why most professional oil paintings often take months to complete! However, there are a few ways to speed up the drying process.
Watercolor is easier to clean. Since the paint is water-based, it can be easily wiped or washed off of any surface using just water. If you accidentally get it on your clothes or carpet, it’s less likely to stain because of this reason.
Oil painting usually demands its own studio space because it’s much harder to clean. You usually need to clean your brushes and working area with a chemical solvent, which is toxic. If you accidentally stain your clothes and carpet in the process, it will be impossible to remove.
Working with watercolor requires only four things: a paint palette, a tub of water, a set of brushes, and paper. Because it doesn’t require a lot of tools, watercolor is also quite portable, and you can take it with you on the go. This is why a lot of art students prefer watercolor.
The same can’t be said for oil painting. You will need a big canvas and an easel, the paint, a thinner, a palette, paint brushes, a palette knife, rags, etc. This means you will need a separate studio space to work with oil paint.
The upfront cost for watercolor is much more affordable than oil painting because it doesn’t require a lot of tools and materials, and the paint is also more affordable.
Getting started with oil painting can be quite expensive. The paint itself is more expensive than watercolor, and the tools and materials needed are also quite costly. You will also need to buy more and more canvases and paint thinner as you go, so it will also cost more in the long term.
Watercolor is nontoxic, while oil painting is not. This characteristic limits who can work with oil painting and who cannot. If you have children and pets, or if you are looking for paint to use in the classroom, then oil painting is definitely not a great solution.
Although the oil paint itself is nontoxic (some forms of linseed oil, the drying oil that’s in oil paint, is even edible), using oil paint requires the use of a solvent paint thinner, such as mineral spirits or turpentine.
Solvents are highly toxic solutions that emit VOCs. They need to be used in a well-ventilated controlled environment away from children and pets to minimize the toxic effects on your health.
In comparison, watercolor is much friendlier to children. It’s nontoxic since the only thinner you use is water, and it won’t cause irritations when it gets on your skin.
Oil Painting Vs. Watercolor: Final Results
Having explored the painting process, let’s compare the final results that oil painting and watercolor can produce.
Oil paintings usually have a glossy finish thanks to the drying oil that’s present on the canvas. You can change the finish using another layer of clear varnish, but the most common finish for oil paintings will be glossy.
Watercolor paintings are actually just pigments on the paper after the water has evaporated. The pigments can have a matte quality, and you won’t be able to change the finish of the watercolor.
Oil paint is more opaque, and it allows the artist to build up the layers and control how the paint looks in more detail. This is why if you look at an oil painting closely, you will be able to see the very fine, vibrant details on the canvas.
The watery nature of watercolor makes it harder to control, which is why watercolor is more widely known for its large brushstrokes and washes of colors. The details in watercolor paintings are often done with another medium, like charcoal pencil or marker.
The drying oil in oil paint allows the paint to dry hard. The paint is also more viscous, allowing the artist to build up the layers and textures on the canvas if they wish. This is why oil painting usually looks more three-dimensional and textured compared to watercolor.
Although it is possible to build up layers of paint using watercolor, the paint itself doesn’t have a substantial body. After the water is gone from the page, the paint will look quite flat and one-dimensional on the page.
The only textures that you will see are the brushstrokes used to create the colors. If you want to add textures to watercolor paintings, you will need to mix in another textured material. Artists often experiment with casein and sugar to build texture in watercolor paintings.
Oil painting produces opaque colors, while watercolor produces translucent colors.
The opaque nature of oil painting also means that the colors are more vibrant and layered. The colors will appear richer and deeper on the canvas.
Since watercolor is more translucent, the paint on the page often looks like stains, with the white of the paper showing through. The colors are often blended together seamlessly, with very soft edges. This makes watercolor a more abstract medium.
After finishing a painting, you definitely want the artwork to withstand the test of time.
Oil painting is known to last for hundreds of years, provided that you take care of it. The drying oil does a very nice job of protecting the color pigments and preventing fading.
However, the painting can also crack over time, so a layer of varnish and a frame is usually needed to protect the quality. It’s best to keep oil paintings in a dry and cool place away from sunlight to prevent fading.
Watercolor paintings are easier to maintain. You don’t need a proper storage solution for them, only a clear plastic case. However, the paper and the colors may deteriorate over time, which can cause the artwork to fade significantly after a few years.
Oil Painting Vs. Watercolor: Which Is For You?
If you are a beginner artist, watercolor is clearly the superior choice. It doesn’t require a lot of tools and materials to get started; the paint is easier to work with and easier to clean, and it blends well and dries quickly, making each artwork much faster to complete.
Although oil painting costs more and requires more time and effort to work with, there’s a reason why professional artists prefer oil painting.
Oil painting is a test of skills and patience, so it demands the artist to hone their skills and experiment with their techniques. And there’s definitely more room for experimentation since oil painting is more forgiving of mistakes.
Oil painting produces much more vibrant colors in such great detail that it allows the artist to create hyperrealistic paintings, something that is not possible with any other media. The result looks more three-dimensional and with a depth of sophistication that can elevate your art.
The cost of tools and materials definitely pays off in the long run since oil paintings can last for hundreds of years in the right conditions. This is why professional artists love creating their work using oil painting and why most paintings that you see in museums are made with oil paint!