How to Decide What Paint to Use

A row of oil paint tubes
Caspar Benson / Getty Images

The most commonly used paints are acrylics, oils, watercolors, and pastels. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Which you select will depend on your personality and, to some extent, where you're going to paint.

Besides the characteristics of the different types of paint, there are also a few other considerations:

  • Cost: Top-quality paint and canvas is expensive but dirt-cheap paint won't give you good results when mixing colors. You need to find a balance between paint that's of a quality to give good colors but cheap enough that you don't worry too much about using it up (or wasting it).
  • Poison hazards: If you've small children, you may not want to have the solvents used in oil painting lying around. Some people are also allergic to the solvents, in which case you might investigate low-odor versions or are water-based oil paints. Soft pastels can product a lot of dust; be careful to minimize the amount you inhale. For example, don't blow on your work to remove loose pastel. Poisonous pigments, such as cadmium red, are usually available as a non-toxic hue. Not that any paint is made to be eaten! (See Also: Safety Tips for Using Art Materials). Personally I think acrylics are the best choice for beginners as they're easy to learn to use, dilute and clean up with water, and there are brands available that are a good balance between quality and price. So let's look at the Advantages of Acrylics...
Artist squeezing acrylic Paint
Christopher Bissell / Getty Images

Advantages

  • Dries very fast
  • Mixed with water or mediums/gels
  • Brushes cleaned with water
  • Once dried, can be overpainted without disturbing underlying layers
  • Can be used thickly (impasto), like oils, or in thin washes, like watercolor
  • Water-resistant, so good for murals
  • Works as a glue, so good for collages

Disadvantages

  • Dries very fast, though working time can be increased by adding retarding medium to paint, spraying water on a painting, or using one of the brands with a longer drying time.
  • Completely waterproof once dried, so cannot be removed by rewetting the paint
  • Difficult to remove from a brush if it's dried in it
  • Except when used in thin washes, colors dry a bit darker than when applied

Cost

There is a large range of acrylics on the market, from top-quality paints with high pigment content to cheap paints with little pigment and lots of filler. You will need a selection of colors, at least one brush, and some paper or canvas to paint on. You don't need anything other than tap water to dilute the paint or to clean the brush.

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Brush with red oil color
Malandrino / Getty Images

Advantages

  • Dries slowly, allowing plenty of time to work and to blend colors
  • Once dried, can be over-painted without disturbing underlying layers
  • Rich, deep colors which maintain their intensity when dry
  • Can be used thickly or in thin, smooth glazes
  • A classic (used by the Old Masters) 

Disadvantages

  • Thinned with solvent and/or oils, so need to work in a well-ventilated area
  • Slow-drying, so consider working on several paintings at once
  • Using an alkyd medium will speed up drying
  • Have to wait several months to ensure a painting is dry before it can be varnished
  • Brushes usually cleaned with solvent, though you can use oil or dishwashing liquid

Cost

There is a large range of oil paints on the market, from top-quality paints with high pigment content to cheap paints with little pigment and lots of filler. You will need a selection of colors, at least one brush, some canvas to paint on, medium to dilute the paint, a palette for putting out your colors and mixing them.

Water-Soluble Oils

A relatively new alternative to traditional oil paint is water-soluble oils. These are formulated to thin with water, and can be mixed with traditional oils.  More »

Watercolor Paint

An artist painting with watercolours
Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

Advantages 

  • Mixed with water and brushes cleaned with water
  • Paint can be lifted off by rewetting
  • If paint squeezed from a tube has dried, it becomes reusable if you add water

Disadvantages 

  • Being quite transparent, it's hard to rectify or hide mistakes in a watercolor painting
  • Need to allow for colors being lighter once they've dried than how they appeared when you painted
  • There is no white paint in watercolor; the white comes from the paper you're painting on

Cost

  • Watercolors are the cheapest to set yourself up with; all you need buy is a set of basic colors, a brush or two of different sizes, some paper, plus a board and brown gummed tape if you intend to stretch the paper.

Pastels

Portrait painting
aloha_17 / Getty Images

 

Advantages

  • No waiting for pastels to dry
  • Colors are mixed on the paper, not on a palette, by overlaying or blending them
  • A wide range of colors are available
  • No brushes to clean
  • Easy to use outside the studio
  • Oil-based pastels can be thinned and blended with turpentine, or scraped off to reveal colors underneath, known as sgraffito

Disadvantages of Pastels:

  • Requires a greater range of colors to create a picture than for other media
  • Different brands and pigments vary in softness
  • Soft pastel works tend to be liable to smudging and the pastel coming off the support. This can be prevented by using a spray-on fixative, taping a piece of tracing paper over it, or framing it with a mount that keeps it away from the glass.

Cost

You will need a range of colors, some paper, a board to hold the paper, and some fixative.

How Can You be Sure You've Chosen the Right Paint?

Paint and brush
Peter Zvonar / Getty Images

Quite simply, you can't be completely sure until you've worked with it for a bit. You'll soon discover whether you enjoy working with it and the results, or not. Be sure that any frustrations are with the paint itself and not because your painting doesn't look as good as you visualized it. The gap between what you think your painting should look like and how it actually looks is one that will narrow with experience as you acquire more painting technique and skill.

If you like different things about different paints, you could mix them – then you'll be working in what's called mixed media. If there's an art college near you, see if they offer an introductory course on a particular medium. You get to try the paint among other novices and will learn basic skills. It may also provide you with a contact for cheaper art materials.

Pastels and watercolor pencils are popular cross-over drawing/painting mediums; painterly effects can be achieved with them while retaining the immediacy of drawing. Other painting media are gouache, tempera, and encaustic. Special paints are used for painting on silk or fabric, which are heat set (usually with an iron) to stop them washing out.