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Watercolor Vs Acrylic: What Is The Difference Between The Two?

Watercolors and acrylics are both excellent options for an amateur painter. While acrylic paints are more forgiving as they allow you to correct mistakes easily, and are very versatile and lightfast, watercolors provide unique effects and textures.

Best Watercolor Palettes

Watercolor and acrylic paints are the first paints any beginner artist encounters. They seem similar due to their water-solubility and affordability. But, as you'll find out after reading my guide, they are pretty different.

Both watercolor and acrylic painting have their appeal. But which one is the best for you? How are they really different from each other? What are their respective strengths and weaknesses? Read ahead to find out.

Watercolor Vs Acrylic Paints

Watercolor Painting

Let's talk about watercolor paint first.

Watercolor paints are transparent and water-soluble colors that are made using organic materials. However, you might find some watercolor paints made out of synthetic material, such as synthetic glycol. But, mostly, they are a mixture of a binder, pigments, and organic materials. In the past, sugars, natural gum arabic, and hide glue were used as binders.

These water-based paints are very vibrant paints that are perfect for abstract creations and free-flowing designs. They basically come in two forms: tube and pan. Watercolor pans are very good for beginners compared to other mediums since you can start painting right away. With tubes, the color is more intense, creates opaque layers, and is great for painting large spaces.

Properties Of Watercolor Paints


Watercolor paints have a great range of transparency. They can go from transparent to translucent to opaque with just the right amount of water. Even though the transparent pigments might seem less saturated than other types of paints, they retain vibrancy. To use them as an opaque watercolor, use less water. In the same way, for translucent or transparent layers, use more water to dilute the color.

Suitable Surfaces

Watercolors require specific surfaces to showcase their beauty. They are commonly used on special watercolor paper, boards, or pads. The paper surface should be able to absorb the water properly for the watercolors to show up. You can also use watercolors on surfaces that have been primed with a thin layer of watercolor gesso.

You can get watercolor paper in varying thicknesses. Thicker the paper, the more watercolor paint it can handle. If not used on a suitable surface, the paper will just absorb the water, and the paint will bleed through.

Drying Time

Watercolor paints have a quick drying time of about 5 to 15 minutes. It generally depends on the amount of water you use and the humidity conditions in your area. However, you don't have to worry if you have any dried-up watercolor paint on your palette. You can easily use the paint again by re-wetting it with water.


Watercolors are quite affordable for the average artist. Firstly, you don't have to worry about wasting any paint since you can re-wet the dry paint and use it again. Secondly, you don't need any additional tools to start painting with watercolor paint. All you need are the paints, a paintbrush and watercolor paper. Lastly, watercolor paints come in tubes and pans, which are very easy to carry around. Hence, watercolor paints are a very budget-friendly option.


Lightfastness is defined as the ability of a paint to retain its color in the face of sunlight over time. The lightfastness of watercolors is not great. That means though your watercolor painting might look excellent at present, it is not going to retain its vibrancy for a long time. The paper, too, starts to become brittle over time. You can delay this by protecting the painting from sunlight.

Correcting Any Mistakes

While watercolor painting, you will find it challenging to create new layers without reactivating any layers beneath. So, you need to wait an appropriate amount of time for the paint to dry before applying a new layer to your watercolor art. To correct any mistake, you can wet the wrong area and lift it off with a rag or a paper towel.

Techniques Used In Watercolor Painting

Watercolor techniques can be quite tricky for a beginner. The various techniques used in watercolor mediums are negative space painting, blending, masking, wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, variegated wash, etc. Most of these techniques are unique to watercolor paints and cannot be used with any other kind of paint.

Make sure you are performing these techniques with the best watercolor tools, that is, the best watercolor brushes and watercolor paper.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Watercolors

Acrylic Painting

Coming to acrylic paints, they are a great choice for beginners. Acrylic paints are water-soluble when wet but become water-resistant when dry. So, they leave behind an acrylic polymer that is hard and water-resistant. 

Acrylic mediums are made from an acrylic polymer emulsion. It consists of acrylic resin, pigment, and a binder. The resin here is artificial, unlike the natural binder used for watercolors. 

Acrylic paint comes in tubes, jars, and bottles. There are also different types of acrylic paint: medium-viscosity acrylic paint and fluid acrylics, which is the best option for a beginner. All these different types have different drying times and textures. 

Properties Of Acrylic Paints


Acrylic paints are quite saturated and very opaque. Once you begin painting, you can thin the acrylic paint if you wish to have a characteristic watercolor effect, but note that it will still have a milky appearance. 

Acrylic paints are also available in varying viscosities and mediums, each having a different level of transparency. So, you get a lot of customization when using acrylic paint. 

Suitable Surfaces

Acrylic paints can be used on many different surfaces. You can apply it on any porous area, like wood, canvas, fabric, glass, cardboard, etc., and easily create detailed paintings. However, you should prime your surface with gesso before applying acrylic paint to it. 

Drying Time

Acrylic paints are quick to dry and become hard in about 10 to 20 minutes. So, it would help if you were very careful while painting with acrylics when it comes to blending and covering large areas. You will not be able to re-wet the paint after it dries, so you need to be quick with your acrylic art.

One way you can prevent this premature drying is to keep a spray bottle filled with water around. Just mist your paints every few minutes to keep them flowy and wet. Please don't leave any paint on your paintbrushes either, since they will get ruined after the acrylic paint dries. 


Acrylic paints can be costlier than watercolor paints, but they are cheaper than oil paints. But you need to remember that acrylic paints dry fast and cannot be used after they have dried. This means there might be a lot of wastage, which can prove to be an expense. 

On the other hand, acrylic paints are quite versatile. You can add some water to them to create watercolor-like textures, and you can also use them as a paste for an oil paint-like texture. Hence, they can prove to be cheaper in the long run if used efficiently. 


Acrylic paints have quite a good rating of lightfastness. They are more durable and resistant when it comes to sunlight and UV radiation.


As said above, acrylics are available in different consistencies and viscosities, from fluid-bodied to heavy-bodied. You can purchase different chemicals that will help you change the consistency of the acrylic paints. This is what makes acrylic paints so versatile and customizable, which you don't get with other types of paints. 

Texture and Finish

Acrylic paints have a shiny finish and dry darker compared to when they were wet. This color shift might take some time to get used to for a beginner. But it will become second nature once you get the hang of it. This does have a sort of magical effect on your acrylic art. 

The texture of your acrylic paints depends on their viscosity and consistency. You can also thin your acrylic paint by adding some water to it to imitate the effects of watercolor paints. 

Techniques Used In Acrylic Painting

Since acrylic paints have their own unique painting style, you can use many different techniques with these paints, like a palette knife, stippling, splattering, washing, dry brush, dabbing, detailing, pouring, etc. 

You can add a little bit of water to the acrylic paint and create thin layers to imitate watercolors. And you can also use it as a paste for an oil painting look. 

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Acrylic Paints

Comparison Between Watercolor And Acrylic Painting

1. Difference in Drying Time

Both acrylic and watercolor paints have quick drying times, completely drying in about 10-15 minutes. But watercolor paints can be re-wetted with some water and used again. On the other hand, acrylic paints cannot be reused after they dry. So, you need to work quickly and carefully while using acrylic paints. 

2. Difference in Mixing Colors

Both watercolor paint and acrylic paint are fairly easy to mix together to create custom colors and shades. You can use the color wheel to know which colors to blend to create the desired color. For example, you can mix red and blue together to create purple. As for the tools, a palette knife or a paintbrush is the best tool for mixing and blending.  

3. Difference in Transparency

Watercolors have quite a range of transparency- they can go from opaque to translucent to transparent. It all depends on the amount of water you mix with the paint. You can play with this range by creating different layers and having fun with the vibrancy. 

Acrylic paint is less transparent compared to watercolors. It is a lot more saturated and produces intense shades. You can thin down acrylics to a transparent or translucent consistency, but it will still have a milky appearance. 

4. Difference in Opacity

Watercolors are not very opaque since they are less saturated. However, they retain their vividness regardless of the opacity. Acrylics, on the other hand, can be compared to oil paints when it comes to opacity. They can be completely opaque, depending on how you apply them. 

5. Difference in Texture

Watercolors have great coverage, as a small amount of watercolor paint can cover quite a big area. They are also easy to layer since they don't create thick layers. 

Acrylic paints have an extensive range of consistencies and textures, varying from fluid to thick. You can purchase different mediums to change the consistency of your acrylic paints. This means you can easily alter the drying time, the finish, the texture, the consistency, the opacity, and the transparency of your acrylics.

6. Difference in Difficulty Level

Both acrylic and watercolor paints are easy to use, being highly water-soluble and pigmented. But acrylics are easier to use since correcting mistakes is easier: you can just paint over the mistake without activating any of the layers underneath. While using watercolors, correcting mistakes can be almost impossible since there is always a chance you will activate the layers underneath and ruin the entire painting. 

7. Difference in Color Change After Drying

Watercolors dry lighter than when painted. This means you should use more of the paint while painting to make sure your color shows through. After all, it is better for your watercolor to show up darker than not to show up at all.

The opposite happens with acrylics. Acrylics dry darker than when painted. So, keep that in mind while using acrylics to make some room for the darkening. 

8. Difference in Lightfastness

Watercolors have low ratings of lightfastness. They get highly affected by sunlight and UV radiation and tend to fade after a few years. You can delay the fading by keeping the painting away from direct sunlight and protecting it by using a glass frame. 

Acrylics generally are better than watercolors when it comes to lightfastness. But you should always check the ratings beforehand to get the exact measurements. 

Watercolor Vs Acrylic FAQs

  • Can you mix watercolor and acrylic paint together?

    Yes, you absolutely can. You can experiment with mixing watercolor and acrylic paint as much as you want. You can mix both and apply the mixture directly onto watercolor paper. Or you can also paint acrylic paint over dried watercolor paint. Additionally, you can also apply a layer of watercolor over acrylic.

    Just keep in mind that applying watercolor over acrylics will cause the water to start pooling in any existing ridges. Also, don’t forget to use suitable watercolor paper!

  • Which medium is better for beginners- watercolor vs acrylic?

    Acrylic paints are amazing mediums for beginners. This is because it is pretty forgiving- you can quickly correct any mistake by painting over the erred part after it has dried. Conversely, watercolors can be tricky to get the hang of and tend to run off in different directions. Layering with acrylics is also easier than with watercolors. 

    Thus, if you are a beginner, I suggest you start your art adventure with acrylics and then move on to watercolors. 

  • Can I create a watercolor effect using acrylics?

    Yes, you can. All thanks to the varying consistencies of acrylics. First, you need to get soft-bodied acrylic, fluid acrylic, or acrylic ink. Then, make sure you don’t dilute the paint with more than 25% of water since that might lead to the breakage of the pigment binder. You can also just use a thinning medium to add to your acrylic paint.

    Just note that you might not get the perfect watercolor effect, and it might leave you with a milky texture.

  • What are some common misconceptions about watercolors?

    Even these paint mediums are not barred from having misconceptions. Certain misconceptions about watercolors are-

    • You can use an acrylic brush with watercolors

    Make sure to use only watercolor brushes for watercolors since they are specifically designed to absorb water.

    • You should never use white paint with watercolors

    Many watercolor artists will advise you to conserve the white in your watercolor paper. But it will not be the end of the world if you use some white paint in your paintings.   

    • You should throw away leftover dried paint

    This is absolutely wrong and will lead to a lot of waste. Watercolors can be easily reused if they dry up by adding a little amount of water.

  • What type of surfaces can you use for watercolors and acrylics?

    Acrylics are pretty forgiving when it comes to suitable surfaces. You can use acrylics on paper, canvas, wood, fabric, glass, cardboard, etc. You might have to apply a layer of varnish on some surfaces before using acrylics on them.

    Watercolors, on the other hand, are not so forgiving. They require a surface that can withstand the amount of water used without warping or turning into pulp. So, for the best results, you should use only good quality watercolor paper, watercolor canvas, and watercolor board for watercolor painting.

  • Can acrylics be a health hazard?

    Although acrylics themselves are non-toxic, they should neither be ingested nor applied directly on the skin. Be sure to check the label before you make any reckless decisions. Additionally, acrylics have a characteristic odor that can cause headaches and dizziness for some people. So, be careful while using acrylics.

  • Are oil paintings more valuable than acrylic paintings or watercolor paintings?

    This is a misconception. The value of the painting comes down to the painter’s talent and the painting itself and does not depend on the medium. So, whether it’s oil paintings or watercolor paintings, the value will ultimately depend on the painter’s talent, not on the paint itself.

    Many of the most famous abstract paintings were made using acrylics or watercolors. So, don’t think you have to have mastery over oil painting to get value for your painting.

  • Conclusion

    So, there you have it! I hope I’ve effectively compared the two most common painting mediums: watercolor vs. acrylic. You should try out both paints and check your own needs before you make a decision about which one to use.

    Both paints have many similarities, and it's not a competition. Both are special in their own way and are perfect for you to start your painting journey. So, I hope this article helped you to make a decision about which paint is perfect for your needs.