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Oil or Water Painting: Decoding the Difference

There are numerous times when even a beginner sees a painting or an art piece and realizes that there is something quite different between the two, aside from just the different design and color scheme.

What is it that makes certain art pieces have texture and others lay flat on the surface? Why is it that one can have the slightest of washes of color, while the other is full of thick strokes and paint that doesn’t dry for days, or even months?

It’s the different mediums of paint. As beginners, we may not realize the impact it may hold to use oil paints to create a certain piece as compared to using water paints. However, it is vital to know the difference between the two and how it can impact an art piece.



Difference Between Oil-Based Paints and Water-Based Paints

The primary difference between an oil paint and water paint is the type of solvent used in the paint. Oil based paints usually use an organic solvent, typically a mineral turpentine, while making the paint. On the other hand, water based paints are made up using water. The same is the case for acrylic paints.

Which Paint is Environment-Friendly?

Organic compounds, specifically volatile organic compounds (VOC) are the organic solvents in the form of vapor.  Volatile organic compounds are released from an oil paint-based art piece when the paint is drying and the solvent evaporates. It leaves behind a strong odor, which we all recognize as the ‘paint smell’.

VOCs are highly flammable and hazardous to not only human health, but also the environment. High exposure, in terms of both volume and period of time, can cause skin irritation, headaches, as well as nausea for people. Hence, while using oil paint to create an art piece, it is important to ensure there is good ventilation and air flow in the room. On the contrary, water-based paints are made from solvents that hold water as their primary component. This is the biggest reason why water-based paints are much safer to human health, as well as the environment, since they release much fewer VOCs.

Characteristic-Based Differences of Oil-Based and Water-Based Paints

Sheen and Luster

Oil-based paints, quite obviously, enable artists to gain a high level of sheen when applied, owing to the presence of oil in the paint. However, with time this sheen becomes dull. Water-based paints, although holding a lower level of sheen, can retain it for longer periods of time.


Oil-based paints are known to dry harder, proving highly resistant to wear and tear. However, this also means that oil-based paints, with the passage of time, pose a risk of becoming brittle, chalky, and even cracked as the paint dries harder. Aside from this, oil-based paints also turn yellow over time.

Water-based paints, with numerous experiments and developments, also have the capacity to dry hard like oil-based paints and be more resistant to wear and tear. This flexibility found in water-based paints also means that the paint is capable of adapting to weather changes, making it less susceptible to cracking and flaking.


Oil-based paints are typically harder to apply as the paint is stickier and thicker, as compared to water-based paints. This also means that oil-based paint dries slower than water-based paints. During the painting process, since the oil-based paint doesn’t dry as quickly as water-based paints, oil-based paints can easily be used to create different textures, transitions, and gradients since colors can be merged effectively on the canvas. Water-based paints, on the other hand, dry quickly, giving limited time for the artist to merge and mix, and create smooth gradients within their piece.

While this is not an exhaustive list of factors, we hope it has provided insight for you to make better decisions when approaching a new art piece!

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