How to tell difference between Acrylic and Oil painting? [8 Tips]

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To beginner eye, Painting can look very similar at first glance but you should know the main Difference between Acrylic and Oil Painting. It’s not important just from a knowledge perspective but how we approach to clean and preserve it as well.

How to tell difference between Acrylic and Oil painting

At first glance, both of these paint mediums look similar, and unless you are actively trying to determine the paint medium or have a trained eye for art, it can become very confusing.

I will share eight key differences below that you can use to examine a painting and figure out if it is oil or acrylic! 

8 main differences between acrylic and oil painting

There are key differences between Acrylic and oil paintings. I will name 8 of most obvious and hopefully you will be able to determine which is yours.

Clarity 

When it comes to differentiating between oil and acrylic paintings, a tell-tale sign is the image’s clarity. If the image has more clean-cut edges and overall crispness, it is more than likely an acrylic painting! 

Oil paintings tend to be a bit muddier in overall crispness due to oil painters do not want to wait for the medium to dry completely before adding more details. Drying time oils is a lot longer and the end result will be oils mixing on the edges, creating a muddy and less crisp image. 

More in my blog post:  How to dry Acrylic painting?

The Vibrancy of the Colors

The vibrancy of the paintings can also be a great indicator if the painter used oil or acrylic medium! 

Because of the composition of oil paint, the pigments tend to be more vivid than other paint mediums, including acrylic. 

Acrylic colors darken as they dry, so while an artist may start with vivid color, the result afterward will be more muted vibrancy-wise than the finished product of oil. (Even though acrylic will result in a sharper image!)

If you do not have a trained eye for vibrancy in art, this might be a little more complicated to deduct from a painting – but try to determine this as you find out which paint medium you are viewing!

Check the Canvas 

Another key to determining if an art piece is an oil or acrylic artwork is looking at the canvas and noticing a few minor details that others may miss if they aren’t sure what to look for. 

While acrylic may be painted directly on a canvas, oil paintings will have a thin layer of a compound like Liquitex or even linseed oil between the canvas and the oil paints!

You can check this by turning the piece to the back, where the canvas will be stapled, and usually, there will be a visible line of this making it much easier to distinguish between these two paint mediums. 

Investigate the Texture 

Next up, you’ll want to focus your attention on the piece’s texture – is it smooth and buttery or texturized with edges that rise from the canvas in an obvious manner? 

While oil paintings may have some texture, they will almost always be less noticeable than artwork created with acrylic paints. 

On the surface, acrylic paint will look rougher as you look it over partly because of how this paint medium dries and also because it usually applies much thicker than oil paints. An example would be picture above.

Blending vs. Hard Lines

As you look at the piece trying to determine which paint medium was used, notice the picture image as a whole – is it in focus yet blended softly, or made up of clear hard lines to create the image in question? 

Oil paintings will be less sharp due to the time it takes for oil paint versus acrylic to dry. An impatient oil painter will try to rush this process as they continue to finish and polish the piece. 

While an oil painting can be beautiful and detailed, it will still appear less sharp and structured than an image done with acrylic paint! 

This is partly due to the drying process and because the compounds in acrylic paint are more resistant to each other, thus creating more structure within the piece!

Estimate the Era

The next question to answer can be tricky because it has to do with the art piece’s timeline. 

It helps if you know the painter who made the creation and the general year it was created because when it comes to oil and acrylic artwork, there is a nifty little secret to determining the piece’s age! 

If the painting was made before 1950 – it is more than likely an oil painting, as acrylic was not heavily introduced into the art world until post-1950. 

Although acrylic paintings did exist and the paint was used in the 1940s, it wasn’t commercially available until the 1950s after two men, Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden, created the brand Magna paint that made acrylic paint available to artists everywhere for the first time in history.

Try Rubbing Alcohol 

This way of determining an art piece’s medium, between oil or acrylic, would probably be best done with one you own! 

What you’ll do is take something like a cotton swab or perhaps a paper towel dipped in the rubbing alcohol and lightly swipe on the face or side of the artwork.

If because of rubbing alcohol starts to transfer paint onto the cotton swab or paper towel, it is an acrylic painting. 

This is because rubbing alcohol has a solvent action on the binder found in acrylic paints, removing it from multiple surfaces and even clothing! 

Consider Any Aging signs threw yellowing and Cracking

You can also try to determine which type of art it is by looking for signs of aging. Here are some clues to look at:

  1. an oil painting can turn yellow and crack as it ages. 
  2. It can take anywhere ranging from six months to a whole year for a painting to cure completely, and most oil paintings will not have dark yellowing if in this timeline. 
  3. A younger oil piece can tinge yellow if kept in the dark for extended lengths of time, affecting the overall determination as you search for clues on the art piece’s age.
  4. If you cannot detect the aging due to no visible yellowing, try looking for cracks on the surface of the painting – if it has cracked surface areas, you are more than likely looking at an oil painting! 
KEEP IN MIND: The cracking and yellowing in oil paintings as they age are due to the chemical process in which oil dries, influenced by light and oxygen.  After oil painting dry, the oxidation process never ceases, and the pictures slowly begin to age.  Acrylics, on the other hand, are permanent and do not oxidize! 

Let’s wrap up

You may be able to use all these critical differences between acrylics and oils to your advantage, or you may mix and match a few of these keys to discover the right medium. If the artwork in question is your own (or belongs to a friend or family member), you may have an easier time discovering what painting mediums are used.

. For instance, in some galleries and art sales, you may not be able to inspect the back of the canvas or try to do a rubbing alcohol test! 

TIP If you cannot physically touch the artwork, then using a magnifying glass can help you examine the fine details of the canvas and maybe worth bringing with you to art galleries, art sales, or any time you find yourself needing to look over a piece. 

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