Are acrylics as durable as oils?

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Comparing acrylics and oils can often be like the proverbial task of comparing apples and oranges.


If oil paint was just now being invented, and had to sell itself to the marketplace as a new medium, it would probably have an incredibly difficult time – especially if we knew beforehand that its list of problems would include yellowing, cracking, wrinkling, flaking, embrittlement, hydrolysis, fatty acid crystallization, protuberances and delamination caused by metallic soaps, and even cases where some oil paints are liquefying after being seemingly stable for decades. This is not to say acrylics do not have their own challenges as well! The softness of the acrylic system makes it easy for dirt and dust to become embedded in the surface, for acrylic layers to easily stick to other materials, and for textures to be imprinted into the surface when things are pressed against them (especially in a warm environment.) And there are known difficulties with surfactant migration and challenges with cleaning. Ultimately deciding which medium is more durable is like the proverbial one comparing apples and oranges – for all their overlap, the two remain distinct, with their own list of strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless the question is a common one and we wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts and point to a few resources one can go to.

In terms of lightfastness, oils and acrylics largely draw from the same pigments, which are then tested using the same procedure laid out in ASTM D4303, Standard Test Methods for Lightfastness of Colorants Used in Artists’ Materials. So from the standpoint of lightfastness there is little difference to be concerned about as long as the colors you are using have ASTM lightfastness ratings.

As for an actual document that lays out the differences in durability between acrylic and oils, there are very few that compare artist oils and acrylics directly but will rather focus now on one, now on the other, and often around very narrow subject areas. That said, the following article written by a very prominent researcher in Materials Science, Dr. Frank Jones, gives an excellent general overview:

Aspects of Longevity of Oil and Acrylic Artist Paints

As the above point outs, acrylics have proven advantages in terms of resistance to yellowing and long term flexibility, while the harder surface of oil paints provides clear advantages in terms of cleaning and solvent resistance.

Here are also a few articles that detail some of the challenges acrylics face in conservation, as a way to balance the generally held belief that, given everything, acrylics should prove the more durable system over the long term:

Conservation Concerns for Acrylic Emulsion Paints: A Literature Review

Conservation of Acrylic Paintings

Defining the Acrylic Patina

As one can imagine, the literature speaking to the problems conservators encounter with oil paints is simply too vast to go into here, and few people realize that our sense of oil paints doing well over a long period of time is due to a virtual army of professionals who work full time to maintain, repair, and restore the works that we see in museums.

In the end, while one can easily draw up these types of lists contrasting the weaknesses and strengths of oils and acrylics, it’s important to also celebrate the fact that the two mediums are truly different and allow for unique forms of expression and ways of working.  Both have been central to the production of some of the finest and most important artworks we know, and as a company we are ultimately dedicated to supporting each of them with a sense of passion and love for the materials all artists depend on for their creativity.


3 Responses to Are acrylics as durable as oils?

  1. Randall June 4, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

    Hi Sarah,

    I just wanted to comment and let you know how much I appreciated your article regarding the comparison of oil paints versus acrylics. I have been painting with oils for about 45 years and acrylics for 35 years. Although I have read articles on this subject in the past, I have recently wanted to know more on the comparison between the two in regards to the longevity of each. I also appreciate the links your article provides for additional info. I truly love both mediums, and both have things which I like and dislike about them. With oils I really enjoy the smell of linseed oil and oils buttery consistency. But, I am a huge fan of acrylics drying time and “tri-medium” effect. I’m referring to the fact that I can paint in acrylics and my paintings can have characteristics of oil paintings, watercolors, or distinctively acrylic. In many of my paintings someone would be hard-pressed to determine what medium was used. So, for me, acrylics remain a miracle medium!

    • Sarah Sands June 6, 2018 at 10:07 am #

      Hi Randall –

      You are so welcome – and thanks for the warm feedback. We are glad that you found this and other articles helpful, and I completely understand the allure and love of both mediums, having come from 25 years of oil painting into the last 15 years of acrylics. Perhaps the most wonderful is that it is not an either-or proposition. We truly are free to use both as the project or our needs determine. An expansive of the range of expression that I have to believe would have been the envy of painters in the past.

      Anyway, happy painting as you continue to explore these mediums. And if we can ever do anything else to help, just let us know!


  1. CAA News | College Art Association » Blog Archive » News from the Art and Academic Worlds | CAA - August 3, 2016

    […] If oil paint had to sell itself to the marketplace as a new medium, it would have a difficult time—especially because its list of problems would include yellowing, cracking, wrinkling, flaking, embrittlement, hydrolysis, fatty-acid crystallization, and protuberances and delamination caused by metallic soaps. This is not to say acrylics do not have their own challenges as well! (Read more from Just Paint.) […]

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