Watercolor vs Acrylic Paint – What Is the Difference Between Them.

By Mandy Moss

My readers often ask me the same questions: What are the differences between watercolor and acrylic paints?

Finally, I have time to price this article!! So today, I’ll compare watercolor and acrylic paints in-depth so you can understand the key differences.

Painting is an expressive art form that allows artists to communicate ideas and emotions creatively through color, composition, and medium.

Two of the most famous painting mediums are watercolor and acrylic paints. At first glance, they may seem quite similar since they are both water-based.

However, several significant differences between watercolor and acrylic paints impact the experience of using them.


  • Watercolors use transparent pigments in a gum binder that stays water-soluble when dry. This allows lifting/reworking paint layers.
  •  Acrylics have opaque to transparent pigments in a plastic polymer binder that becomes water-resistant when dry. This limits reworking but provides durability.
  •  Watercolors facilitate blending and luminous glazes on paper surfaces. Their slow drying time enables color gradations.
  •  Acrylics suit mixed media on various surfaces thanks to fast drying and thick applications.

Choosing depends on your goals – watercolors for loose washes or acrylics for textured precision. Test both to see which medium fits your style. Watercolors demand control of transparent layers. Acrylics are more forgiving for beginners.

Difference Between Acrylic and Watercolor Paint?

Watercolor paints are made from pigments suspended in a water-soluble gum binder, usually natural Arabic gum. The pigments are ground into tiny particles, which allow the colors to diffuse and blend easily. When water is added, the binder dissolves, leaving the pigment particles to flow freely across the paper surface.

Acrylic paints contain pigments suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. This is a synthetic binder that forms a plastic-like film when dry. Acrylics are water-soluble while wet but become water-resistant as they dry. Adding water when painting thins the acrylic polymers and allows blending.

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While acrylic paints were only developed in the 20th century, watercolors have been used since ancient times. Traditional watercolor techniques were refined during the Renaissance, and their popularity grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, both mediums are widely used among professional and amateur artists.

FeatureAcrylic PaintWatercolor Paint
BinderAcrylic polymerGum arabic
Solubility When DryWater-resistantRemains water-soluble
Drying TimeFast, minutesSlow, minutes to hours
TransparencyOpaque to transparentTransparent
BlendingHarder edges unless blended wetSoft, diffused edges
Color MixingPre-mixed on paletteColors blend on paper
TextureCan create impasto textureUniform flat finish
Surfaces UsedAlmost any surface if primedRequires watercolor paper/boards
DurabilityVery durableLess durable, requires framing
Learning CurveMore forgiving for beginnersChallenging for beginners
Table comparing the key differences between watercolor vs acrylic paints

Composition and Solubility

A critical difference between watercolor and acrylic paint lies in their composition and solubility. Watercolor paints use natural gum Arabic as a binder.

Gum Arabic comes from the sap of acacia trees and allows pigments to dissolve in water while providing enough adhesion for the paint to stick to paper.

Some brands add glycerin, honey, or ox gall to enhance the flow and dispersion of pigments once the paint is thinned with water.

Watercolor paint remains soluble when dry, and the layers can be rewetted and manipulated. In contrast, acrylic paints rely on an acrylic polymer emulsion as their binder. The most common polymer used is poly(methyl methacrylate).

Tiny acrylic polymer particles are suspended in water to make the emulsion carrying the pigments. The water evaporates as the paint dries, leaving behind the pigmented acrylic polymer coating.

This forms a plastic film that is water-resistant when dry. While acrylic paint can be thinned with water for application, it cannot be reactivated with water once dry.

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Application Techniques

Watercolors require specialized materials and techniques to handle the transparency and diffusion effects characteristic of the medium.

Paint is typically applied to heavyweight cotton paper or special watercolor paper using soft sable brushes.

The paper’s texture allows controlled pigment dispersal and pooling. Standard techniques include wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, layering of glazes, and lifting color.

  • Wet-on-wet involves applying paint to dampened paper so the colors bleed together.
  • The wet-on-dry method allows more control for detailed areas. Transparent layers or glazes are built by waiting for each layer of diluted paint to dry before the next application.
  • Finally, a dry brush or sponge can lift and remove color.

Acrylics can be used on various surfaces, from canvas to wood, allowing artists more flexibility. The fast-drying paint requires stiffer synthetic bristle brushes.

Blending and smoothing color transitions is harder with acrylics than with watercolors. Layers of acrylic paint can be built up additively by applying one coat atop the previous one after it dries.

Glazing is possible but requires a medium to facilitate transparency. Acrylic’s properties make textural techniques like impasto easy.

The thick, buttery paint retains visible brush strokes and allows color modulation by mixing on the canvas instead of the palette.

Drying Time and Workability

The drying time and reworkability represent a significant difference between watercolors and acrylics that affects the painting process.

1. Watercolor dries rapidly, typically within 1–3 minutes, which facilitates building layers of glazes. However, the paint remains water-soluble after drying, allowing rewetting, lifting, and modifications. This permits watercolor artists to refine their work even after it appears complete. It also means extra care must be taken with finished pieces to avoid accidental matting and framing changes.

2. Acrylic paint also dries fast, within 10–20 minutes on average. But it dries to a water-resistant film, so rewetting for modifications is impossible. The rapid drying necessitates quick and decisive painting. While this allows for layered techniques, blending and feathering color transitions are difficult.

Slow-drying additives can extend acrylic’s working time on the palette and canvas to overcome issues with the fast-drying nature. But acrylic’s workability window remains much shorter than oils or watercolors.

Transparency and Opacity

A remarkable feature of watercolor is its range of transparency. With sufficient dilution, very thin transparent glazes allow the white paper to provide highlights.

Yet watercolor paint also comes in semi-transparent and opaque varieties. By manipulating transparency, artists can create ethereal atmospheres or add delicate detailing to their watercolor works.

Glazing transparent passages over lighter or white regions of the paper produce luminosity through scattered light reflection off the paper’s surface.

In contrast, acrylic paint is entirely opaque straight from the tube. Dilution with water or a suitable medium is required to induce translucency.

Even when thinned, acrylic retains a milky veil and lacks the crystal clarity possible with watercolor glazes. Heavy-bodied acrylic paint used thickly will almost entirely cover what lies underneath.

This permits completely changing and correcting passages of a painting by obliterating the unsatisfactory portion and repainting.

While acrylic’s opacity limits its glow compared to transparent watercolor, it provides strong covering power desired for crisp detailing.

Color Vibrancy and Mixing

The unparalleled brilliance of watercolor attracted early practitioners like Albrecht Dürer. Modern watercolor paints deliver a broad spectrum of hues, from traditional cool blues and greens to landscape water-coloring to vivid primary yellows, reds, and blues.

When diluted, the dispersed pigments strike a balanced intensity, neither too pale nor overpowering.

Uneven pigment density within brush strokes imparts a haunting haziness found in no other medium and yet controlled pooling and lifting out produce defined highlights for focal points. These unique diffusion effects make watercolor unmatched for atmospheric subjects like clouds or fog.

Acrylic paint also provides bright, ready-to-use colors straight from the tube, like cadmium reds and yellows.

Dilution drops the tinting strength and aids subdued shading. Blending and feathering acrylic paints is difficult owing to fast drying, but careful glazing can produce delicate gradients.

Unlike watercolors, color mixing stays under the artist’s control. Pigments combine physically on the brush or palette instead of dispersing uncontrollably throughout the wash.

This allows color relationships and forms to be tightly orchestrated in composition. Acrylic’s capacity for solid hues and color control explains its popularity for contemporary abstraction.

Texture and Finish

It thinned transparent passages of watercolor yield absorbent layers that dry to an ultra-smooth finish.

However, clever utilization of the paper surface provides indirect texture. Reserved whites emulate shiny highlights while flicking, spattering, and abrasion produce grainy textures mimicking visual phenomena like spray from waves or foliage patterns.

Watercolor ultimately delivers a matte finish once sealed and framed under glass. The delicate results suit subjects associated with watercolors—portraiture, nature studies, fashion illustration.

Acrylic paint readily forms textured impasto effects using a brush, palette knife, or sponges. Additives like pumice create physical texture in the paint film itself.

The underlying brushwork stays visible through thin glazes applied over the top. Acrylics dry matte but gain a subtle sheen with varnishing. The haptic texture and varied surface finish acrylic permits align with artists’ desire to create dimensional works.

Acrylic paintings may incorporate natural materials and objets trouvés thanks to the paint's strong adhesion. This textural capacity suits acrylic's frequent role in abstract and collage-based art.

Versatility and Applications

While versatile within its water-based domain, watercolor performs optimally on paper supports. Paper tensile strength limits large-scale works.

Watercolor’s transparency Primarily associated with portable sketching and color studies, watercolor serves art instruction through mixing exercises and recording natural impressions. Botanical illustration and miniatures benefit from its finesse.

Watercolor remains prevalent in commercial art, requiring colored drawings or paintings. Modern creators also harness digital tools but emulate traditional watercolor's fluid diffusions and transparencies.

Acrylic paint offers artists immense flexibility and applications limited chiefly by imagination.

Mobile sketching, mixed media collage, large-scale murals, painting on diverse surfaces—acrylic is a multipurpose contemporary medium.

Effects range from polished photorealism to textured abstraction. Home decorators apply acrylic to furniture as an artsy DIY project. Even nails and fabrics incorporate acrylic's fun colors and finishes. Acrylic's admixed fluorescent, pearlescent, and iridescent varieties expand creative possibilities. 

Non-yellowing and protective varnish-like coatings based on acrylic polymers point to continued expanding utility for versatile paint.

Maintenance and Conservation

Finished watercolor paintings require protection from moisture, direct sunlight, and physical contact to preserve the art. Framing with UV-filtered glass and acid-free mats is recommended.

Storing sheets flat in print drawers or solander boxes minimizes handling that can disturb friable watercolor films.

Attempts to reinforce watercolors using coatings risk altering transparency and diffusion effects central to the medium.

Many artists and collectors frame watercolors under regular glass without a protective varnish layer to maintain fidelity to the original appearance.

This leaves proper archival matting and framing vital for conservation.

Acrylic paint films exhibit good inherent resistance to aging and environmental factors. However, acrylic artwork also benefits from archival matting and framing behind UV-protective glass.

An isolation coat of varnish helps shield the surface from dust and pollution.

Acrylic paintings can be displayed without glass if the varnish provides sufficient protection from touching and scuffing. Those incorporating heavy impasto textures or collaged elements may require a physical barrier with glass or plexiglass.

Objects created using acrylic paints as a coloring material can be washed and retain their appearance. Household use further attests to acrylic’s durability.

Choosing the Right Medium

Watercolor will appeal to artists seeking luminosity, softness, and an atmospheric look. Its appeal also relies on mastery of traditional watercolor techniques. Subjects suited to delicate detailing, like plants and florals, come alive through watercolor’s wispy diffusions.

Abstract expressionism can harness the paint’s spontaneity by embracing uncontrolled dispersion. Watercolor is highly portable for painting en plein air.

For those focused on design and illustration, watercolor can render concepts rapidly with bright, transparent colors.

Acrylic’s speed, vivid hues, and versatility suit all manner of modern art. Paint straight from the tube provides intense coverage for uniform regions.

Diluted acrylic can approximate watercolor and tempera. Acrylic’s texture potential through impasto and collage facilitates three-dimensional works.

Quick drying aids layering but demands decisive painting. Abstraction and realism both capitalize on acrylic’s diversity. Paint permanence and flexibility empower large murals.

Environmental and architectural artists employ acrylic for functional creativity. Acrylic’s ease suits hobbyists and crafters eager to DIY custom decor.

Artists exploring these popular mediums begin with inexpensive student-grade paints and economical brushes. Testing different techniques and supports helps develop a feel for each material’s unique behavior.

Gradually progressing to higher-quality materials offers new achievements as skills advance. Be willing to experiment and discover which medium best fits your artistic personality and projects.

Both watercolor and acrylic remain accessible creative tools with devoted practitioners.


Which is better, watercolor or acrylic?

Neither watercolor nor acrylic is objectively “better” – each has advantages that suit different artistic aims. Acrylic is more forgiving for beginners, but watercolor offers unique luminous effects.

What’s more accessible, watercolor or acrylic?

Acrylic paints are generally easier to use than watercolors, especially for beginners. Their opacity allows them to cover mistakes easily. Watercolors demand careful control to utilize their transparency.

What is the main difference between watercolors and acrylics?

The main difference is that watercolors use a natural gum binder that is water-soluble when dry. Acrylics use a synthetic polymer binder that becomes water-resistant when dry.

Can acrylics be used as watercolors?

When applied in thin glazes, fluid acrylics thinned with water can mimic watercolors. Heavy-bodied acrylics are too opaque to replicate actual watercolor effects.

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