While oil paints have been used by artists for many hundreds of years, acrylics are the new kids on the block, having only been mass-manufactured since the 1950s. And while acrylic is often dismissed as a distinctly amateurish medium, its properties have a whole host of advantages that can be utilised by both amateur and professional artists. Acrylic’s tough, durable plasticity also makes it a perfect material to be used in other crafts: it can be painted on to wood, ceramic, glass, metal and pretty much any material with a clean surface.
But as with pretty much every art material on the market, there are many different choices of acrylic paint out there, at a wide range of prices. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you pick out the perfect acrylic paint, followed by our pick of the best acrylic paints available to buy. Happy painting!
Best acrylic paint: At a glance
How to choose the best acrylic paint for you
What is the difference between oil and acrylic paint?
At the molecular level, oil is made up pigments suspended in an oil-based binder, while the pigments in acrylic paint are suspended in a polymer binder. That simply means that acrylic paint is water-based, which has all sorts of advantages: you don’t have to work with odorous substances like turpentine, which is not only toxic but a pain to dispose of. This makes acrylic paint safe for kids, although make sure you dress them up in overalls: it’s nigh-on impossible to remove from fabric once dry.
The other chief difference to oil paint is acrylic’s significantly faster drying time. Thinly applied acrylic can dry in little more than a minute, while even thick layers of paint will dry in the space of an hour. Oil paint, by contrast, might only become touch-dry in 24 to 48 hours.
That fast drying time divides opinion. Portraits who make use of subtle gradations in their paintwork are best sticking to oils; those creating flat, graphic, Pop-style work will almost definitely fare better with acrylics. Ultimately, there are no hard-and-fast rules: how acrylic’s properties play out in your painting is completely down to you.
Are there different types of acrylic paint?
The chemical properties of acrylic are much of a muchness from brand to brand. Where they differ is in their consistency and the levels of pigment they contain. We’ll go into pigment in the following section.
Standard acrylic paints have a consistency that’s just a little runnier than toothpaste. It can be thinned easily with water – although only to an approximate 50/50 mix, after which the polymers break down and it starts to bead on whatever substrate you’re using. There are heavy-body acrylics which are more butter-like, which are well-suited for textured paintings; fluid acrylics, on the other hand, have a cream-like consistency that doesn’t retain any brushwork. We’ve included all three types in our round-up.
You can also choose from a wide selection of extra media that can be mixed into your colours. If you want to create particularly textured (or ‘impasto’) paintings, there are texture gels that thicken your paint. If you want it to paint in translucent layers (‘glazes’), you can buy matt or gloss medium gel that renders the paint less opaque. And if you want to prolong those pesky drying times? Invest in some retarder gel.
How many colours should I start with?
On the assumption that you’re not working monochromatically, you should aim to have, at the very least, all three primaries (red, blue and yellow) and white in your palette. From these four colours you can, in principle, mix all others. In reality, most painters like to also have a green, at least one earth tone and black in their palette. That’s why most acrylic paints sets from prominent brands cover this spectrum of colours.
Newbies, beware: there are many so-called ‘beginner’s sets’ that contain as many as 24 different colours. While this range of colour might look enticing, the choice is likely to be a little bit overwhelming. Far better you rely on a limited range and develop your colour-mixing skills.
How much should I expect to spend on acrylic paint?
Beginners are often taken aback by the cost of painting materials, be that paint, brushes, canvases or other supports. This is the frustrating reality of artmaking: it asks for investment not just in time but in money, too.
The chief characteristic that sets pricer acrylics from cheaper ones is their ‘lightfastness’, or durability under light. You might not notice in your paintings until weeks, months or even years after their completion, but certain patches of colour can bleach and fade in the daylight. Not ideal.
If you’re unsure whether acrylic is the right medium for you, we suggest you invest in some student-grade paints. These cheaper colours won’t be as bright and lightfast as with higher-end options, but you’ll get a feel for the application, consistency and texture of acrylic paint. If you’re a committed artist with a mind to selling or exhibiting work, you probably already know it’s worth spending what you can: you’ll see the results in the vibrancy of the colours, and they’ll better stand up to the test of time.
The best acrylic paint to buy
1. Winsor & Newton Galeria: Best all-round acrylic paint
Price: £25 (£4.15 per 100ml) | Buy now from Amazon
Winsor & Newton traces its roots as an art supplier all the way back to the 1830s, and today is one of the most prominent paint manufacturers in the UK. The company’s Galeria range of acrylics is, by our reckoning, the best all-round paint set on this list. While the cost-per-100ml is markedly higher than Cass’s range, the coverage and vibrancy that Galeria paints offer is superior, and the price tag remains excellent value for money. This set also offers an extra two colours, the earth tones Raw Umber and Burnt Sienna, which are handy shortcuts to darkening and muting your primary tones.
Key features – Number of paints: 10; Tube size: 60ml; Colours: Titanium White; Mars Black; Raw Umber; Burnt Sienna; Yellow Ochre; Phthalo Green; Winsor Blue; Crimson; Cadmium Red Hue; Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue
2. Cass Acrylic Set: An excellent budget set for beginners
Price: £16.95 (approx £2.82 per 100ml) | Buy now from Cass
While lots of high-street shops create their own-brand line of acrylics, these are nearly always produced with poor-quality ingredients with low pigment level. One notable exception is Cass, a hugely successful chain of art stores that is popular with curious hobbyists and serious professionals alike. The company’s own-brand, eight-colour set will set you up nicely for a foray into acrylic painting – and the inclusion of Sap Green will be very handy for those interested in painting landscapes, since organic greens are notoriously hard to mix.
The 75ml-size tubes are also that bit bigger than other brands, which will be good for newbies – trust us, you’ll get through far more paint than you might expect.
Key features – Number of paints: 8; Tube size: 75mlg; Colours: Titanium White; Cadmium Yellow Hue; Cadmium Red Hue; Permanent Rose; Ultramarine; Sap Green; Yellow Ochre; Black