Watercolor vs Acrylic: 21 Differences Between Acrylic and Watercolor

difference between acrylic and watercolor

You came to an art supplies store and you are captivated by the variety of colors, tubes, and tools. Where to start? We know that there is 4 main paint we can consider: gouache, oil, acrylic, and watercolor. Oil scares a lot of beginners and they mostly choose between acrylics and watercolor, but what exactly is the difference between acrylic and watercolor paint?

I can think of about 21 differences between them in their history, paint composition, use and techniques, choice of brushes, but I’m sure, you really want to know which paint is the best to start with and how much they cost, let’s start from the most important and then dig into more differences and some similarities too!

1 – Which paint is best for beginners?

Acrylic paint is the best option for beginners: it is easier to master and forgives your mistakes while you’re learning. It is also fast-drying and is very opaque. Watercolor is easy to clean and may seem simple to use, but it takes more time to master and is less forgiving. I’d say watercolor painting is great for more patient beginners.

You are right, all techniques take time to be good at, and the final choice fully depends on your preferences. You can always try both paint and use them both!

Good acrylic paint brands: Golden, Liquitex, Winsor & Newton, Mont-Martre, Amsterdam

Good watercolor paint brands: Holbein, Winsor & Newton, Daniel Smith

2 – Which is harder to use acrylics or watercolors?

Watercolor seems easier but it is tricky. To really master them you need a lot of time, some beginners spend about 6 months getting really comfortable with watercolor. With watercolor is more difficult to cover a mistake, while with acrylics you can wait until it dries (10-20 min) and just cover it with another layer of paint and redo.

As watercolor mostly uses the paper surface, it makes it more fragile compared to acrylic painting on canvas: one drop of water can ruin small details which took you hours to paint, an excess of water can also ruin the paper itself.

Acrylics are easier to work with: you can just directly apply them from the tube, or slightly diluted with water.

Acrylics are faster. It is fast to create a shape, it is fast-drying and fast to clean.

3 – Price for supplies: is watercolor cheaper than acrylic?

Watercolor is assumed as the most affordable paint compared to oil or acrylic. In general, it is slightly cheaper than acrylic paint but it depends a lot on brand and paint grade. Let’s compare prices for watercolor and acrylic paint on one of the online art supplies stores:

Watercolor paint prices
Acrylic paint prices

Let’s also compare a specific brand, e.i. Winsor & Newton, lemon yellow.

Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Paints 2 oz$7.79
Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Paints and Sets0.7 oz$6.29

Or, Blick, as they are well-known for affordable prices and high quality:

Blick Artists’ Watercolors0.47 oz$5.43
Blick Artists’ Acrylic Paints and Sets2 oz$6.59

As we can see, watercolor seems to be cheaper. But watercolor paints have small-sized tubes and last longer than a tube of acrylics. They are not much cheaper and No quality mediums will be cheap.

4 – History: is watercolor older than acrylic?

Watercolor has a longer history than acrylics. While watercolor was already known in the ancient world, acrylic resin was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by Otto Röhm, then it was patented by the USA. Synthetic acrylics were developed like a medium combining oil and watercolor properties.

First acrylics were mineral spirit-based and some of them were toxic. But the initial use of acrylic paint was for houses and exteriors, and only after the water-based option was created, did artists begin to use it as a painting medium. Golden and Liquitex were the first manufacturers to start producing acrylic paint.

Watercolor paint was popular in ancient Egypt, East Asia, India, Ethiopia, and other countries, but it became common among European artists only during the Renaissance. Back at that time, artists were using watercolor mostly for sketching and copies, and also they were used to grow plants and make their own natural pigments for paint.

In the 18th century, England introduced watercolor as a sign of a good level of education, expeditions where watercolor artists paint all journeys popularized watercolor and brought them to the next level.

The three English artists who contributed to setting watercolor as an independent painting medium are Paul Sandby (1730–1809), often called the “father of the English watercolor”; Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). 

United States started to love watercolor in the 19th century with early practitioners John James Audubon, William H. Bartlett, and George Harvey. 

5 – Different Paint composition

Acrylics and watercolors have slightly different compositions. Diluted with water acrylic painting can resemble watercolor, but watercolor can not imitate acrylics.

Acrylic paint is water-based and fast-drying. It is made of pigment, binder, and some other agents. Acrylics are non-toxic, thick, and opaque.

Watercolor paint is made from a color pigment dispersed in a backbone composition that binds the pigment and allows it to adhere to a surface when dry. The binder can be natural gum arabic or synthetic glycol. For acrylics, the binder is usually a 100% polymer.

Watercolor is water-soluble, but contrary to the acrylics pigments are not dissolved in water. Watercolor can also have some additives like glycerin, ox gall, honey, and preservatives. Acrylics do not have any of them in their composition, but they can have some additives like plasticizers, silicon oils, defoamers, stabilizers, or metal soaps.

Modern paints generally use synthetic pigments.

Other comparisons with acrylics:

6 – Watercolor types VS acrylic types

There are 2 main types of watercolor paint: paint that comes in tubes or pans and liquid watercolor paint. Acrylics also have some varieties. Normally, all artist-grade acrylic paint comes thick in tubes or jars. We also have fluid acrylics, open acrylics, acrylic gouache, craft acrylics, interactive acrylics, and exterior acrylics.

Watercolor doesn’t have parameters like viscosity or opacity, while it is quite important when you work with acrylic.

Watercolor typesAcrylic types
1. Tube paint – Paint in the tube has thicker consistency more like acrylics.
1. Heavy body acrylics are typically thick and have high viscosity.
Great for impasto and thicker application.
2. Paint in the pan comes as a small dry cake in small plastic pans and requires more water to create the right consistency.2. Fluid acrylics have a lower viscosity but generally have the same pigmentation as the Heavy Body acrylics. These paints can imitate watercolor techniques and are good airbrush applications.
3. Liquid watercolor is made with pigments and dyes. They are fluid and can be diluted with water for paler hues. It is good for airbrushes as well as traditional brush methods.3. Open acrylics – Golden Open Acrylics – have a longer open time, which means they dry slower and you have more opportunities to work with them. They dry to touch in 60 minutes but can be reopened several times.
4. Acrylic gouache is water-resistant and dries matte.
(Lascaux Gouache and Turner Acryl Gouache)
5. Craft acrylics are used in decorative painting techniques and faux finishes. Craft paints usually contain vinyl or PVA resins to increase adhesion and lower cost.
6. Interactive acrylics have the characteristic fast-drying nature of artists’ acrylics but are formulated to allow you to delay drying or re-wet the paint.
(ex. Atelier Interactive)
7. Exterior acrylics are paints great for outdoor and exterior paintings. They are water and UV-resistant. Like craft acrylics, they adhere to many surfaces.

7 – Surfaces

While acrylic paint is mostly used on canvases, watercolor paint is generally used on watercolor paper that has a weight of 140lb. (300gsm). Be careful, you need only watercolor paper, not all kinds of paper.

You can apply acrylics on all absorbent surfaces such as wood, paper, canvas, and fabric, acrylics are also well known for their exterior use.

You can not use the same canvas for acrylic and for watercolor!

Other supports for watercolor include papyrus, bark papers, plastics, vellum, leather, fabric, wood, and watercolor canvas (coated with a gesso that is specially formulated for use with watercolors), but they are very rare to see. You can not use watercolor for exteriors.

8 – Water

Acrylics are water-based and water-soluble but they don’t really like water. Acrylic paints dry due to the water evaporation process while all pigment and binder elements stick together. The more water we add, the worse will be the stability of the paint. Water dissolves acrylics and ruins their composition.

You are not recommended to add more than 30% water to the acrylic paint. When acrylics dry, they become water-resistant.

For the watercolor water is essential, it is due to dilution with water that you can create this famous watercolor effect. When you do not add enough water to watercolor, the paint won’t flow or will create visible brush strokes. The color saturation and wash effect are very important for watercolor artists.

9 – Different techniques and styles between watercolor and acrylic

Some techniques are almost impossible with watercolors, such as impasto or pouring, and some others are not applicable to acrylics as a wet-on-wet technique which is a common basic technique for watercolor.

The impasto technique creates an interesting texture, it is a thick and heavy paint application, usually with a palette knife and special paint or normal paint mixed with heavy gels.

Acrylic pouring is extremely popular nowadays because it is quite easy and allows you to create a huge variety of paintings and let your creative soul enjoy. For acrylic pouring, you basically need a canvas, paint, pouring medium (Floetrol or other), and cups.

Watercolor pouring also exists but it has a completely different appearance and effect, which you can not also copy with acrylics. Compare these two paintings:

Wet on wet is when you paint with “wet” paint over the wet paper. This creates a fluid, fun, and unpredictable effect. Basically, with acrylics, you always work with the wet on dry technique, because the surface is dry.

10 – Acrylic can imitate watercolor

Thinned with water acrylic paint can imitate watercolor painting, while even thicker application of watercolors will not allow achieving an acrylics effect.

11 – Dark to light VS light to dark

There is a big difference between acrylic and watercolor in how we work with colors and how we paint.

With acrylics, it is recommended to paint from dark to light, which means we paint darker areas first and then move gradually to lighter areas and finish with highlights and small details.

With watercolor, it’s important to paint from lighter to darker colors. With watercolor, it will be impossible to paint over dark color due to the natural transparency of watercolors. For watercolor light colors, this “air” around the painting is crucial.

Related: Do You Paint Acrylic Light to Dark or Dark to Light?

12 – Transparent Vs Opaque

Watercolor is translucent by its nature and acrylics are more opaque compared to watercolor. In fact, opacity and transparency are more pigment characteristics than paint. Some pigments are more or less opaque than others.

The opacity allows acrylics to cover up mistakes and cover large areas, creating an even, deep, heavy finish.

Keep reading: 7 Ways How to Make Acrylics More Opaque & Full Opaque Colors List

13 – Different use of white

White color is important for acrylic painting: you use it for highlights, for creating diverse tints, and to make other colors more opaque. Watercolor painting usually doesn’t use white color, as watercolors are lightened and thinned with water to create transparency and white color is opaque.

In the watercolor pouring technique you can see artists using masking white like tapes – to keep some areas clean.

14 – Differences in priming the surface

Using acrylic paint on canvas or wood, you need to prime it with a primer – usually, a gesso, applied in 2-4 layers. With watercolor, you use watercolor paper which does not need any primer. However, watercolor canvases need to be primed with a special watercolor primer.

Basically, you need a special canvas for watercolor, or you can also prime a canvas with a watercolor ground like Golden Absorbent Ground to make it more comfortable to work with watercolor.

Check the full guide about using gesso for acrylics.

15 – Does watercolor last long?

Acrylic paintings on canvas can and are supposed (if properly protected and maintained) to last for centuries. Watercolor artwork on paper is more subject to deterioration, as the paper is not as solid as a canvas.

If you will place your watercolor painting under the glass or use a UV protective artist quality varnish, it will allow you to protect the painting for years.

Both paint, acrylic and watercolor are sensitive to UV and fading, but with watercolor, it will be especially noticeable because the layers of paint are thin and it is transparent by nature.

An ideal environment for paintings: well-aired area, 65-75 F, 40-50% humidity, no direct sunlight

16 – How fast do acrylic and watercolor dry?

Acrylic paint is fast-drying, 10-30 minutes, which is why it has so many adepts. It is also a great advantage for impatient beginners. Watercolor dries even faster – 5-10 minutes because it is applied in thinner layers. However, watercolor takes more patience, because you need more layers.

In fact, dry time can vary depending on the thickness and numbers of the layers, type of paint, and technique you use.

The alteration between layers’ dry time can lead to cracks and deterioration. When acrylic paint dries it becomes water-resistant and a bit glossy and sometimes darker. The dried watercolor painting should have a more matte appearance and they dry lighter.

Related: How Long Does Acrylic Paint Take to Dry? 30 Brands Drying Time

17 – Choice of brushes: are watercolor brushes different than acrylic?

Related: The Best Brush for Acrylic Paint on Canvas in 2022

The difference between acrylics and watercolor lies also in the choice of brushes: we generally use synthetic brushes for acrylic paint and natural, softer brushes (kolinsky sable as the finest) for watercolor paint. Watercolor brushes are supposed to work with more fluid paint and they are shorter than acrylic brushes.

You can also use synthetic brushes for watercolor, but you won’t appreciate the quality.

The most common brush shape for watercolor is a round brush. Beginners in acrylic painting usually start with flat and round brushes. The main brush types are the same for both paints.

When choosing a brush for acrylic paint, you keep in mind the quality of the bristles, handle, and brushstroke, with watercolor you have more factors to consider:

  • how much water and pigment can this brush soak?
  • how well the brush holds its point?
  • how quickly do the bristles snap back into parallel with the handle after they are bent at an angle?
  • how smooth the color flows from the tip of the brush and how the paint is released upon the paper. A high-quality brush will have an even, consistent flow rate which results in a steady release onto the paper.
  • if a brush releases the entire pigment load at once. If it happens, it will create visible paint patches and it is not what you are looking for.

18 – Need for isolation coat

Acrylic painting needs an isolation coat, while watercolor painting usually does not because we put them under glass or plexiglass to protect.

When the painting is done and fully dried, you apply an isolation coat – it is a firm coat to seal the painting and create an even surface, and protect the painting from a removable protective finish because without an isolation coat a varnish will destroy the painting.

Watercolor painting definitely needs an isolation coat or fixative sprayed on before the varnish, like Golden Polymer Varnish, is applied.

The varnishing process is tricky and non-reversible, please, check the most important steps here.

19 – Do you need an easel?

While for acrylic painting, especially for beginners, an easel and vertical position of the surface is recommended, you will paint horizontally with watercolor, because the water can just leak overall painting if you place it vertically.

However, you can use special watercolor table-top easels which are easy to adjust to any angle you need, even flat.

20 – Washing off

Acrylic paint is very easy to wash off from the skin – it just peels off when dried. But with clothes it is different, fabric soaks acrylics and as they dry fast, it is very hard to wash them off from clothes. In this case, wear an apron.

Watercolor paint can be washed off with dishwashing detergent in hot water.

21 – Price for selling and competition

When you have at least 15 artworks, you can easily apply for online galleries and sell your painting.

The 2 main platforms are SaatchiArt and Artfinder, let’s check the competition and prices.

You may guess that the competition for acrylic painting is huge and it is true: there are more than 1 million acrylic artworks (1 116 435) in Saatchi art while only 214 700 watercolors.

On the real-time screenshot (made at the end of Feb 2021) you can see the highest price for watercolor paintings – is about $66.000 and for acrylics – $101.000.

Saatchi 214 726 original Watercolor artworks, 1 116 435 original Acrylic artworks 

On Artfinder the situation is the same – a lot of acrylic painting and less watercolor, but watercolor is much cheaper than acrylics.

Similarities between acrylic and watercolor

  • Both paint use grades to define paint quality – between student grade and artist quality paint, the artists’ grade contains more pigment and is supposed to be better quality. More expensive also.
  • With both paints, you can make the paint more opaque by adding white – Titanium white for acrylics and Chinese white for watercolors.
  • Both watercolor and acrylics are relatively cheap mediums to work with
  • Both paintings will need good protection: framing and UV protective finish because both watercolor and acrylics are sensitive to sun and fading.