Thinking of taking up painting as a hobby? You may be wondering which painting medium is easiest for beginners. To be honest, learning how to paint requires consistent practice and effort. However, some painting mediums are easier to get started with than others.

I believe acrylics have many qualities that make them more beginner friendly than oils or watercolors. Acrylics are great for beginners because don’t require solvents or ventilation. They’re easy to work with too. All of the advantages that acrylics have over other mediums are explained in detail below.

The Benefits of Acrylics

Easy Cleanup

When it comes to cleaning up after a painting session, acrylic paints couldn’t be easier. Simply wipe the excess paint off the brush with a rag, and clean the brush with soap and water.

Regular hand soap works well for cleaning brushes. The special brush cleaners found in art supply stores can be useful for restoring neglected brushes, but it’s not something that you have to use every time you clean up. I like to save the leftover slivers of soap from my bathroom and use those to clean my brushes. Leftover hotel soaps work well too.

Rinsing acrylic paint from a brush with water
Acrylic paint can be rinsed off of a brush in a container of water while you’re painting. Clean your brushes with regular hand soap and water at the end of each panting session.

Odorless Thinners May Require Ventilation

Oil paints require some sort of solvent for cleanup. Odorless paint thinner may not have obnoxious odors but that doesn’t mean it’s nontoxic. Read the Safety Data Sheets before making any assumptions.

For example, the safety data sheets for Gamsol contains a warning about excessive vapor concentrations:

“Vapor concentrations above recommended exposure levels are irritating to the eyes and the respiratory tract, may cause headaches and dizziness, are anesthetic and may have other central nervous system effects.”

The safety data sheets for Turpenoid suggests using an “exhaust fan along with a fresh air source to avoid a vapor buildup.”

Alternatives to Solvents in Oil Painting

If you’re interested in oil painting there are other less toxic oil painting methods and materials. M Graham uses walnut oil in their paints and they claim you can use walnut oil cleaning brushes so you won’t need to use solvents. Water soluble oils are another option worth investigating.

While you can safely learn how to use oils, you can begin with acrylics right away, with less issues to deal with. Please keep in mind that the pigments in artists paints have varying degrees of toxicity so you want to use some caution regardless of which medium you choose.


Some of the solvents used in oil painting are flammable so you have to be careful with how you store them. Rags that contain solvents and linseed oil are a fire hazard and have to be handled responsibly.

Linseed oil is the “oil” that’s used in most oil paints, and is often used as a medium to adjust the characteristics of the paint. Rags that have been soaked in linseed oil can cause spontaneous combustion. The drying process of the oil creates heat and it can build up enough to catch fire without being exposed to a spark or open flame.

Acrylic paint is water-based and doesn’t require any flammable liquids, so there is less for the beginner to worry about and fewer items to purchase and learn how to use safely.

Acrylics Have Virtually No Odor

Acrylics have little to no odor so they’re more suitable for the home studio. When I work with acrylics, I can’t detect any odors.

I’ve noticed that certain brands of acrylic painting mediums can have a slight ammonia odor to them. It’s not usually noticeable unless I open a gallon container of acrylic medium and or spread it over a large area. Gloss medium, and matte medium are examples of acrylic mediums.

Another potential cause of an odor with acrylic paints is the age of the paint. Occasionally I find old tubes of paints that have a strange odor because they’ve gone bad. Acrylic paint can spoil and if this happens it’s best to replace them.

You can begin painting at home with Acrylics without having to figure out how properly ventilate your work area.

Acrylics Have Fewer Rules to Follow

There are fewer rules to follow when painting with Acrylics compared to oil painting. Acrylic paints are available in a variety of thicknesses and you can combine them in any manner. For example, you can apply thin paint over thick layers of paint and vice versa.

Fat over Lean in Oil Painting

Painting in oils requires the “Fat over lean” approach where each successive layer should contain more oil (fat) so it dries slower than the previous layer. The first layers of paint are typically thinned with turpentine so it dries quickly. As the painting progresses, more linseed oil is added to the paint so it will dry slower. This approach to oil painting prevents cracking because it dries from the bottom layer on up to the top layer.

If this doesn’t make sense then imagine a layer of brittle chocolate over a gooey layer of caramel. If you apply pressure to the chocolate it will crack because the layer of caramel underneath is soft and will shift under the pressure. Dry oil paint is brittle like the chocolate. So if the topmost layers of a painting dried first, they may crack if there’s any shifting of the softer wet paint below.

The layer of chocolate on this candy bar is brittle and it will crack when you apply pressure because the layers underneath are soft. The same is true for an oil painting that dries from the top down.

Acrylic paints can be applied in any order and in any thickness. The only rule that applies to acrylics is that you don’t want to dilute them with too much water. Manufacturers recommend a maximum dilution of 25%. This is easy to follow because acrylic paint is available in a variety of thicknesses. If you select an acrylic paint that’s thin to begin with then there’s no need to add water. Click the following link to read more about how to dilute acrylic paint.

Acrylic Paint Dries Fast

The fast drying nature of acrylics and the opacity of some of the colors makes it possible to paint over areas almost immediately. This is probably one of the best features of acrylics when it comes to beginners–there’s no worrying about making mistakes because you can paint over them immediately.

Experienced artists who have painted in oils often complain about the quick drying properties of acrylics because they want to spend more time blending and manipulating the paint. If this is a problem for you then there are slow drying acrylics available. There are also retarders that you can add to regular acrylics to make them dry slower.  Another option is to develop a style that takes advantage of the fast drying times.

Oil paints dry slowly so you can take your time blending them. Professional artists exploit this property of oils and produce beautiful results. Being able to finish a painting in one session requires mastery of the wet into wet oil technique. This is an advantage for artist who have more experience painting experience but it can be a challenge if you’re a beginner.

The Disadvantage of Slow Drying Paints

Once there’s a certain amount of wet oil paint on the canvas it’s difficult to add more. The only way to add more paint is to let it dry or to scrape it off. This can be frustrating if you’re a beginner because you’ll probably make a lot of mistakes when you’re first learning how to paint. It’s also difficult to scrape off a small area without affecting the surrounding areas. Acrylics dry to the touch in minutes so you can just keep on painting without scraping off the wet paint.

Another issue with slow drying paint is that it’s easy to get paint stains on everything you touch. Wet oil paint can spread from your hands and tools to your clothes, shoes, car seats, furniture, etc.

Acrylic Are Easier Than Watercolors

Watercolor paints have many of the benefits of acrylics. They clean up with water, have no odor, and are non flammable. However, they are much more difficult to master because they’re less forgiving.

The transparency of watercolor paint makes it almost impossible to cover over mistakes, or to lighten areas that are too dark. Experienced watercolor artists have spent years becoming familiar with their materials and practicing their craft. A professional watercolor artist can make it look easy–they can paint a beautiful watercolor on location within a couple of hours. This ability comes from years of experience.

Watercolor painters rarely use white in their paintings. The exception is for putting in the small highlights and finishing touches.  However, you can’t use it to cover large areas because it will stand out too much. The solid opaque white areas will look out of place against the transparent areas of color.

It’s possible to “lift” watercolor by scrubbing it with a wet brush and blotting it with a paper towel. However, many of the colors are “staining” colors that permanently stain the paper. The phthalo pigments a good example of staining colors.

It’s my experience that watercolor painting requires more planning for these reasons. It helps to try out color schemes on scraps of paper, or to do small studies before moving on to the final painting.

Conclusion and Some Tips for the Beginner

Acrylics have a number of characteristics that make them friendlier for the beginner. If you’re trying to decide between learning acrylics or another painting medium, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. It’s not an either/or decision. You can switch to oils or watercolor when you gain more experience. Color mixing, drawing, and composition are skills that apply to all painting mediums.

If you don’t have any experience with art, I would recommend learning how to draw before diving head first into painting. Otherwise, you’ll be learning how to draw and paint at the same. It’s possible to learn both skills at once but it’s a much larger challenge. The risk is that you’ll become frustrated with the slow progress and give up.

Focusing your efforts on learning how to draw will create a lot of small successes in a short amount of time that will encourage you to continue on. I’ve seen many artists progress with their drawing skills by using this strategy.

When do decide to take up painting it will help to learn how to mix colors before you try and tackle a painting. You can try and match paint samples from the hardware store, or cut out small squares of solid colors from magazines and try to match them. Another option is t match colors from direct observation such as mixing the color of a blue sky.

Once you have confidence in your drawing and color matching abilities, learning how to paint is a matter of combining both skills. It will be much easier than if you were totally new to it.

With the right strategy and consistent practice, you will make quick progress!

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