13 Differences Between Acrylic And Watercolor Paint

This page contains affiliate links, As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (with no extra cost to you). Learn more

If I were to compare the number of famous artists who used acrylics to produce their art and those who used watercolor paint, there would be no clear winner.

Famous acrylic painters such as Andy Warhol, Katia Zhukova, Thomas Hart Benton, April M. Rimpo, and others have exhibited acrylic paint-based artwork that is loved and appreciated worldwide.

Watercolor artists include Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Moran, Reginald Marsh, and others who also have their fan base. Neither paint is superior to the other, and if there were a battle, it would probably end in a draw.

Differences Between Acrylic And Watercolor Paint

Differences Between Acrylic And Watercolor Paint

This is not a competition between acrylic and watercolor paints. Each has its unique elements that I choose based on what I want to do. The differences between them explained below enable anyone reading to make an informed choice when choosing which one to work with. Art is subjective, and one may opt to use either of these paints based on the piece they are creating.

The differences between acrylic and watercolor paint are:

Natural And Synthetic Ingredients

Acrylic paints are made of a synthetic material known as polymer resin. The pigment is usually suspended and sealed in a plastic carrier to bond onto the medium. The carrier dries out fast because of the plastic carrier.

Because of the plastic component in the ingredients, acrylics can be toxic when they come into contact with sensitive skin. They can also cause pollution to the environment when in very large quantities.

Watercolors consist of a color pigment, a binding agent, often natural, gum Arabic, or synthetic glycol. Other ingredients are honey, ox gall, glycerin, and preservatives. All these natural ingredients work together to create the pigment, paint’s viscosity, pigment durability, and hiding.

Because watercolor paints are made of natural ingredients, they are not toxic. They are made of pigments and binders, which are not toxic and will have no effect if mistakenly ingested in small amounts.

Packaging of Paints

Watercolors will often come in tubes and pans. Acrylics come packaged in jars, tubes, and bottles. The difference in the packaging is because of the nature of the paints.

Acrylics can have different consistencies, such as heavy body acrylic, which is the most vicious and works best with a palette knife and paint impasto instead of brushes. Other densities are soft body acrylic or open acrylic, which is less dense.

Fluid acrylic flows better, while the least dense is the high flow acrylic. There is the standard acrylic paint which is the most popular. Watercolor paints do not have this variety of viscosity.

Cleaning Acrylic vs Watercolor Paints

Acrylics are easy to clean when still wet, with soap and water. Dried acrylic paint is harder to clean off and will take time and effort to remove.

Watercolor paint is easy to clean when wet or dry because it is water-soluble. It is easy to clean from all kinds of mediums and surfaces.

One thing to note is that acrylic paint is not one hundred percent waterproof. However, it has some water resistance. To have a waterproof coat over a painting, one will need to use a sealer. Additionally, one can prepare the medium before painting to get better waterproof results.

Drying Time: Acrylic vs Watercolor

Acrylics dry very fast and dries into a glossy finish. They also dry into a darker pigment. It dries flat, which means that whatever texture I work on, the painting will dry evenly.

Because of the way acrylics dry, it may be challenging to do a large painting because the pigment will change, making it harder to work on a harmonious-looking picture. It also makes it hard to blend acrylics with other kinds of paints.

Acrylics are easier to mix with other acrylic paints as opposed to mixing acrylics with watercolors. To successfully mix acrylics, I use several methods, including mixing on the palette, missing on the support, glazing and optical mixing.

Watercolors dry very fast. However, I can always re-wet it and continue to work on it as if it were fresh. To mix watercolors, I only need to add or reduce the amount of water that I use.

The choice depends on many factors, such as the kind of painting one wants to produce. Watercolors are soft-hued and muted, while acrylic-based pictures have more vibrant colors. The expertise and preference of the artist also determine which of the two paints one will use.

Acrylics are more opaque and hide errors easier compared to watercolors. Other factors to consider are what medium is in use, the cost of the paints, the time available for the painting to dry, and many others. However, the decision will be based on the kind of painting one wants to create.


Acrylics are usually more expensive than watercolors. What makes watercolors even cheaper is that they are reusable because they are readily soluble. Acrylic cannot be reused after it has dried.

However, to use watercolors, it is best to have high-quality brushes. These brushes are more expensive than the brushes used with acrylics. This cost of brushes may push the overall cost of watercolors up.

Color Adaptability While Painting

Acrylics are flexible because I can use them to create a glossy effect. I have the option of diluting them with water to have a watercolor effect. It makes acrylics an excellent choice for detail painting because I can create different effects.

Watercolors have color clarity because of their transparent nature. Acrylics will bounce off-color from the painting surface. Watercolors absorb the light causing a backlit effect which enables me to create a tone with the pigment. Watercolors absorb light, and painting in layers can create a different effect, depth, shadows and increase the richness of the painting.

I also experimented with different colors to create a wide range of color effects. Acrylics can mimic watercolors when I add water to them.

Watercolors cannot create the effect of acrylic paints have unless I add an impasto gel. The gel creates different textures and adds a glossy effect not naturally found in watercolors.

U.S. Art Supply Impasto Clear Gel Acrylic Medium, 500ml Tub

Correcting Mistakes While Painting

Acrylics are viscous, which makes them dry in depth. One of the indicators of this is the way they turn into a darker pigment when dry.

Watercolors are much harder to hide mistakes. The transparent nature of the paint makes it obvious that there is an error because they reflect light.

If I make an error with acrylics, the opaque nature of the paint will hide errors when painted over. Watercolors come in transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque. Because they absorb light, they work best when they are mostly transparent.

The watercolor effect will create vibrant transparent color. Acrylics also come in transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque, but they are not used to create a transparent effect.

How Long Acrylics And Watercolors Last?

Acrylics produce longer-lasting paintings compared to watercolor paintings. With time, watercolors will fade faster than acrylics. Factors like temperature, exposure to light, the medium material quality, paint quality, and humidity will all affect how fast a painting will fade.

This is because acrylics are made from a plastic-based resin that does not degenerate over time. Watercolor-based paintings fade faster because the pigment degenerates when it is exposed to UV rays of sunlight.

Acrylic paint lasts for between two to five years once the tube has been opened and over ten years if the tube is sealed. The way to tell if the paint is bad is to smell it. Expired acrylics will smell sour and moldy. This happens because the paint got excess moisture based on where it was stored.

Watercolors paints do not expire, but age can cause a couple of issues like drying, molding, or hardening. If the paint is dry or hardened, I can use water or glycerin in small quantities to restore it to its consistency.

If it is a tube-based watercolor that has separated, mix it back into its right consistency on a palette. However, it may not work if the paint is of lower quality and cannot be restored when all these methods do not work.

Mediums Used With Acrylic and Watercolor Paints

Watercolors can only be used with paper. Watercolor paper is the best option as it absorbs the watercolors well so that the painting looks good. There are different types of watercolor paper based on the thickness, texture, and whether it is hot-pressed or cold-pressed.

Canson 100510941 XL Series Watercolor Pad, 1 Pack, Multicolor

There are water absorbent canvases that are available. One can prepare the non-absorbent canvas to make the surface water absorbent. Additionally, the use of products such as Golden Absorbent Ground will make the canvas surface water-absorbent when applied in layers.

I use acrylics on many different mediums, such as paper, canvas, wood, and glass. They work best with canvas.

To work with acrylics on other mediums than I must treat the paint or fabric to see lasting results. For instance, I use acrylic paint, which is safe on fabric, but I use an acrylic medium for the paint to stick onto the fabric and last long. It works to thin the acrylic so that it goes smoothly onto the fabric without being brittle. When the paint is flaky, it peels off easily.

Working with Acrylic Vs Watercolor

When using acrylics, it is better, to begin with, dark shades than use light ones. It allows me to be able to adjust my pigment to suit me because acrylics dry darker. If the pigment is too dark, then I can lighten it using white or water to achieve the hue I would like.

For watercolors, I begin with lighter shades achieved by mixing the pigment with plenty of water, then I use darker tones after. Watercolor paints tend to dry light so that if my painting dries and the picture is too light, I can increase the pigment to what I desire.

Their History

Watercolors were invented in the late 1400s by Western artists. They prepared the paint using plants leaves and other secret ingredients. The paints were personalized based on the artist’s preference and availability of source materials. Watercolor paints started being manufactured in the 1800s in major European cities.

Acrylics began to be used in 1934 when BASF, a German chemical company developed the paint. The first acrylics developed were used for house painting, but by 1950, artists had begun using acrylics. Acrylic paint used for art was first manufactured in 1955 by the Permanent Pigment Company. By 1960, artists used acrylics in most parts of the world.

Acrylics Vs. Watercolors Relationship with White

When using white acrylic paint with another color, I add it to the darker hue when working with acrylics. It is to lighten the color or add highlights.

For watercolors, adding white to color will make it more opaque instead of getting the aimed lightness. The paper is the lighting medium, and I use water and paints to get the light tone I desire. Another way to get a lighter tone is to lift off dried paint or scratch it off, so it is less.

Acrylic Appropriate Mediums Vs. Watercolor Mediums for Painting

When using acrylics, I often must prime the background. Canvases often will be primed, but I add primer to feel that it is ready. Watercolor mediums do not need priming.

The only time when this will change is if I opt to use watercolors on a canvas medium. In this case, I use products such as Golden Absorbent Ground which will make the canvas surface water-absorbent when applied in layers.

Canvas does not absorb the watercolors because they would bleed into each other. They are likely to lift off the canvas surface easily and using techniques such as blending or layering colors would be particularly difficult.

However, there are water absorbent canvases that are available. I prepare the non-absorbent canvas to make the surface water absorbent.

NOTE: If I opt to use acrylic paints on paper, I ensure that the paper needs to be of good quality, absorbent, durable, and heavyweight because acrylic paints are denser than watercolors. This will ensure that my painting lasts and is of good quality.

Related Questions

Are watercolor paints toxic?

Watercolors are not toxic because they are primarily natural. When ingested, one needs to drink a lot of water to flush them out of the body. However, if a feeling of sickness comes after ingesting the paint, it is advisable to see a medical professional.

Are acrylic paints bad for the environment?

In large quantities, yes. Acrylic paint is made of plastic materials, making it so durable and weather-resistant when it is dry because it is a plastic-based paint. It is not biodegradable, and over time can be damaging to the environment.

Read Next