Getting to Know the Different Types of Paints for Art: A Quick Guide to the Three Most Popular Painting Mediums
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 5 min read

Whether you’re at the beginning of your artistic training, just dabbling, or already a painter, it’s always useful to learn or brush up on some of the basics of paint mediums. Today, contemporary painters have a variety of choices when it comes to choosing the type of paints for their art. While there really is a great deal to explore and experiment with, it’s important to establish a baseline and familiarize yourself with the most used paint mediums. The three most popular mediums are oil, acrylic, and watercolor. Each offers its own list of pros and cons, along with varying degrees of difficulty and ease of use.

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What is a painting medium?

A painting medium refers to the specific type of paint used by an artist, i.e., acrylic paint or watercolor. Each paint type differs based on the type of binding agent the colored pigments are suspended in.

Oil Painting

Oil Painting

Oil painting is perhaps the most well-known type of painting. We typically associate it with the luminous canvases painted by Old Masters hung in museum galleries throughout the world.

What is oil paint?

To create a traditional oil-based paint, ground-colored pigments are mixed with linseed oil. While you can purchase pigments to grind and mix with the oil yourself, today, most artists purchase pre-mixed hues in tubes.

Pro Tip: The quality of the paint is directly linked to the amount of colored pigment incorporated, as well as the consistency of that color throughout the paint.

How do you paint with oil paints?

Squeezed directly from the tube onto a palette, the oil paint medium has a thick, butter-like texture. From there, artists may choose to dilute the paint using turpentine or additional linseed oil before applying it to their canvas or another type of support.

What are the main pros and cons of using oil paint?

Pro: Since the oil in oil paint lengthens the drying time of your painting, it’s a very forgiving medium. This will enable you to work on a painting in the same area the next day without worry.

Con: Since you’ll be using turpentine, you’ll need to work in a studio or space that has excellent ventilation to avoid hazardous fumes.

What type of artists should use the oil paint medium in their practice?

The beauty of this painting medium is its limitless versatility and application. It can be applied in extremely thin, almost-translucent layers, resulting in a rich, luminous hue — the desired effect of Old Master painters like Jan Van Eyck. To achieve a textured look, akin to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting style, thick layers of impasto paint can be applied with brushes or with a palette knife. This medium can even be mixed to a liquid consistency and poured directly onto a canvas Jackson Pollock style. Or, if preferred, you can dilute the paint to a thin, water-like consistency and “stain” the raw canvas as Helen Frankenthaler did.

Acrylic Painting

Acrylic Painting

Unlike oil painting which has been around for centuries, acrylic paint was created quite recently in the 1950s. Over the years, it has been adopted by many artists due to its relative affordability, as well as its decreased toxicity and faster drying times when compared to oil painting.

What is acrylic paint?

Acrylic paint is made from powdered colored pigments that are suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion, a type of plastic resin.

How do you paint with acrylic paint?

Since acrylic paints are water-soluble, they can be thinned out or diluted by simply using water before applying the paint to your support. As with oil painting, acrylics can be applied using brushes, a palette knife, or by pouring it directly onto your canvas or support. Additionally, you can incorporate mix-ins or “mediums” to change the viscosity, opacity, or even texture of the paint.

What are the main pros and cons of using acrylic paints?

Pro: Acrylics are able to adhere to a variety of surfaces ranging from traditional canvas to fabrics and even glass.

Con: They dry really quickly, so you must learn to work faster than you would when using oil.

What type of artists should use the acrylic paint medium in their practice?

Artists who are looking for an affordable and more low-maintenance type of paint medium will greatly appreciate acrylic paints. Without the toxic solvents, you can work in any space, and since the paints are water-soluble, clean-up of your brushes and palette is a great deal easier.

Watercolor Painting

Watercolor Painting

Watercolor painting is perhaps the oldest type of painting, with origins that can be traced back to paleolithic cave paintings. Today, it is favored for its layers of delicate, translucent washes and ease of use.

What is watercolor paint?

Watercolor paints are created by mixing colored pigments with a gum arabic binder, or pan paints, with a small amount of water in a tray palette.

How do you paint with watercolors?

Simply dampen your paintbrush with water and then place it onto your pan paint color of choice. The translucent paint mixture should then be applied onto a textured paper specially made for watercolor painting, a cold-press paper.

What are the main pros and cons of using watercolor paints?

Pro: Compared to both acrylic and oil painting, watercolor painting requires the least amount of tools and accessories.

Con: It can be difficult to control and takes a great deal of practice to use the right amount of water to pigment ratio to achieve your ideal finished painting.

What type of artists should use the watercolor paint medium in their practice?

Watercolor is a great medium for all styles of painting. An artist may choose to allow watery colors to bleed together, forming more transparent and impressionistic compositions, or use less water to create crisper lines with saturated hues yielding more realistic-looking results. This paint medium is ideal for artists with small studios and is perhaps the most economical medium when compared to acrylic or oil painting. Additionally, watercolor paints are non-toxic, making them accessible for everyone to use at any age and in any space.

Now that you’ve read about the three most popular types of painting, how do you determine which paint medium is best for you?

popular types of paint Medium

To decide which paint medium will work best in your artistic practice, begin by weighing your aesthetic objectives against the pros and cons of each medium. For example, if you really want to try oil painting because of its luminosity, but lack a properly ventilated space, then acrylic paint would be an appropriate substitute. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer, and the more paint types you try, the more likely you are to find your ideal medium. The most important thing to remember is that the best way to learn painting is to simply try it out and never be afraid to experiment with new techniques or materials.