Watercolor vs acrylic: A quick guide for beginners

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Watercolor and acrylic paint are all-time classics in the arts & crafts arena and are enjoyed by creatives regardless of age and skill level.

(Remember the days of finger painting and watercoloring on paper plates? That was the stuff.)

But have you ever wondered what sets these two mediums apart? Watercolor vs acrylic? What they’re made of? If one is easier to learn than the other?

Keep reading to get some answers and learn the basics in this quick watercolor vs acrylic guide for beginners. 

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Watercolor vs acrylic: What to know

Watercolor vs acrylic_FEATURE
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Watercolor and acrylic are both timeless water-based paints. However, they differ significantly in overall composition, performance, and outcomes.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what characterizes each of these paints and how they’re used.

You can also find a watercolor vs acrylic comparison chart further below for more details!

Watercolor paint

Watercolor wash_watercolor vs acrylic
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Watercolor is a water-based paint that results in beautiful translucent, luminous finishes.

These pigments are suspended in a natural, water-soluble binder, meaning they can be easily thinned and diluted with just a few drops of water. This makes them especially receptive to blending and bleeding.

And while this is part of what makes this medium so fun, it’s also what makes watercolor vs acrylic more challenging. Watercoloring is a lot about unpredictability and knowing how to work around unexpected outcomes.

That said, there are quite a few techniques that require mastering, whether to edit your work seamlessly, create effects, or blend colors.

Painting over Micron pens_Do Micron pens bleed with watercolor
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

One of the perks of watercolor is its quick drying time. This paint is primarily destined for absorbent surfaces, specifically watercolor paper and blocks.

Some use watercolor on other types of paper, but I don’t recommend this. Standard sketching or copy paper will eventually warp, and pigment will bleed through very quickly.

It’s also important to point out that watercolors aren’t necessarily lightfast, and colors tend to fade over time if exposed to direct sunlight. This isn’t great news if you love to display your artwork, I know!

In addition to paint brushes, water brushes are very popular tools for watercoloring, not to mention affordable and easy to use. To learn more, check out our article on how to refill a water brush in just a few seconds.

Overall, there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to watercolor, but with a good watercolor set and a few online watercolor classes, I’m confident you’ll quickly get the gist of things.

Acrylic paint

Mixing acrylic paint to refill Posca pens
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Acrylic is a versatile water-based paint available in various forms, ranging from fluid to ultra-viscous, to suit different surfaces and projects.

This paint is not as organic and natural as watercolor and consists of plastic-based resin. On the other hand, this makes it so that acrylic paint is particularly durable and flexible.

Adding water to acrylic will result in consistencies of different thicknesses and textures. For example, adding the right amount of water can easily transform opaque, milky acrylic paint into lighter, watercolor-like pigments.

Also, compared to watercolor, acrylic paint takes longer to dry. This is a big plus for many since it provides a convenient time gap to re-apply fresh layers and/or edit your work when needed before fully drying.

Acrylic paint example_ watercolor vs acrylic
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Another perk of acrylic paint is that it’s lightfast and water-resistant. How well paint performs in the long run will depend on the quality of your product, but in general, you should have no issue with fading or vibrancy.

Also, remember that acrylic can be applied to more than just canvas! Paper, wood, metal, and fabric are other popular materials, to name a few.

This versatility also means a wider selection of paintbrush options, from large, rough-bristle brush tips to teeny tiny brushes. It also means more room to explore different techniques and painting styles.

Lastly, know that acrylic paint is a very beginner-friendly medium, although there is obviously a lot to learn if you’re adamant about honing your skills more seriously.

Watercolor vs acrylic: Top features compared

Watercolor vs acrylic comparison image
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Below, I’ve set up a watercolor vs acrylic comparison chart for a quick overview of differences, similarities, pros, and cons.

Binders/formulaNatural binders (usually gum arabic)Plastic acrylic resin binder (synthetic/ man-made)
FinishTransparent, translucid. Paint dries lighterOpaque, matte, or shiny. Dried pigment tends to darken vs. wet paint
Paint variationsWatercolor sets, watercolor pans, watercolor markers, tubes, watercolor pencilsTubes, jars, bottles, acrylic paint markers
Drying timesUnder 10-15 minutesUnder 15-20 minutes
LightfastnessNot resistant to UV, paint will eventually fade Lightfast, although this may also depend on the quality of your paint + if you add a protective coating
SurfacesWatercolor sketchbooks and watercolor blocks Canvas, heavyweight paper, cardboard, glass, wood, fabric, metal
Cleaning/maintenanceCan be easily cleaned up with water.Usually requires more than water for cleaning and removing dried paint, like soap or solvents.
Skill levelFor all skill sets but will present a learning curve and will require practice to masterEasier to learn and a great option for beginners getting into their first painting ventures
CostWatercolor is generally more affordable. You can find everything from cheap sets designed for kids to professional-grade pans produced by reputed brands.Acrylic paint sets and individual tubes are usually more expensive. Acrylics come in many different types, color themes, finishes, and qualities. Prices will also vary significantly depending on the brand.

In conclusion, considering the factors around watercolor vs acrylic doesn’t mean you need to choose one over the other!

I advise trying both out to discover which is your cup of tea or best suits your upcoming projects.

That’s it for this beginner’s guide on watercolor vs acrylic. Which of these mediums do you prefer? Feel free to drop questions or suggestions in the comments below.

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