I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really, really, really understand the difference between watercolor and acrylic paintings so I can make a clear and educated decision about which medium fits my style.
Hello all! Today's topic is actually not photography related, but I wanted to take a little break to talk about my other business – pet portraits. While my site may give the appearance that I'm more experienced as a photographer, I've actually been in business as an artist for much longer; my degree is in fine arts! My number one subject is pet portraiture, and one of the top questions I get asked is what the difference is between watercolor and acrylic paintings, and which one should you choose?
First and foremost, neither of these mediums are better than the other. Both are equally beautiful, but they're quite different from each other in terms of how they're applied and their end result of style.
Let's start with watercolor. This is a great option for those who are looking for something on the smaller end; all of my watercolors come in sizes 5x7, 8x10, and 10x14 at the largest. This is also a better option for those looking for a more affordable option, due to their size. Watercolor can be a finicky and difficult medium to control, which is why it's fairly common that watercolorists tend to work small. It's also done on paper as opposed to paints like acrylic and oils, which are done on canvas.
So here's how watercolor works, and what it looks like. It needs to be done on paper, because the paint itself is activated by a high ratio of water – meaning, it won't stick to a canvas surface, unlike thick-bodied paints like acrylic and oil, which are being layered on top of canvas. You can think of watercolor more like a stain; we are mixing pigments with water, which is then staining the paper (paper is absorbent and accepts the staining, unlike a canvas which repels it). Acrylics and oils are much more thick/sticky paints, and watercolor is extremely liquid.
Here's where watercolor can become tricky – unlike acrylics and oils, which are opaque paints and allow you to fix and layer over mistakes, watercolor is much less forgiving. Because of watercolor being more like a stain, this means that it is transparent. You can't paint over a mistake in watercolor, or erase it; you can make things darker, but you can't really get them lighter again! This is because there isn't really such a thing as white in watercolor, so you can't layer lighter colors onto darker ones. Once it's dark – it's dark.
Take a look at the paintings above; wherever you see white in the painting – that's actually the blank paper itself, with no paint at all! The lighter areas are sheer, minimal layers of pigment over the white paper, and the darker the painting gets, the more layers were added and higher ratio of pigment was in the water mixture.
As you can probably guess, this means watercolor requires very careful planning and thought while working. If you make a mistake, you essentially need to make it work for you, or start over! However, you can also see all the beautiful jewel tones and fun textures this medium makes; this is from the pigments separating as the water evaporates, leaving just the pigments behind where they settled. Overall, watercolor (based on my style) is a great option if you're looking for something small and subtle, yet detailed, elegant, and luminous.
So now that we know the science behind watercolor, let's talk about acrylics. Acrylics are done on canvas, and in my portfolio I currently offer 16x20s. Something that's different already about a canvas painting is that you don't need to frame it – I paint my edges, which means you can easily hang it on the wall as it is for a more modern look!
Acrylics also give opportunity for a bit more of a pop-art feel. In my work, I offer two different types of backgrounds – classic or illustrated. My classic backgrounds are the slightly cheaper option, which can include a solid color, a few blended colors, stripes, spots, or basic pattern. My illustrated price tier allows for more detailed patterns, like florals and botanicals, mandalas, donuts, pizza, or pretty much any cute pattern you can think of! In this tier I can also do realistic marble or even galaxy backgrounds.
So here's how acrylic works, and it's a bit more straightforward than watercolor. While watercolor is about careful planning and translucent layering, acrylic is opaque and allows you to cover mistakes and redo old areas. It also provides a starker contrast for jet blacks, and you can really make colors pop. I also love acrylics because they're great for creamy fur texture, but only if you're quick! The biggest challenge of acrylic painting is that the paint dries extremely quickly, so you need to mix a big puddle of each color, so you can quickly blend while the colors are still active. Unlike watercolor though, you don't need to carefully plan out your highlights, and instead can add in glimmers of white on top to create glossy tongues and glassy eyes. If you're seeking something that's more of a statement piece you can view from across a room, I'd definitely recommend an acrylic canvas.
The other neat secret about acrylic is, it's essentially waterproof! If you spill a cup of coffee on a watercolor, it's done for and even after you blot it dry, that coffee stain is on that paper forever. A canvas with acrylic paint though is water repellent (as long as the paint is dry), so you can swiftly take a damp paper towel and wipe the spill up. The paint won't budge! You can think of acrylic paint almost like a plastic, because that's basically what it becomes once it's dry.
Now that we've talked about what makes these two mediums different from each other, I hope this might help you gain a better perspective on which one might fit your style. In short, my watercolors are a bit smaller and a little more on the subtle, elegant side; they almost have a bit of a glowy, luminous quality, and you'll see a lot of texture left from the watercolor "bleeding".
My acrylics are a bit larger and also have a bit of a pop-art style to them. This is where we can really make a statement with colors and fun designs, and also make fur very creamy and soft, and noses wet and glossy. And my personal opinion? I generally find I enjoy longer-haired pets more in acrylic, and extremely short-haired pets (think doberman, pitbull) more in watercolor, but I also feel short-haired can go either way. I'm not quite sure why this is – I think it's because I find acrylic allows me to make longer fur look more silky and creamy than what watercolor allows for, but I digress.
I hope you've learned some new cool facts, and you can test out your new knowledge in my gallery to see if you can notice these subtle differences in all these portraits!
Morgan Ofsharick specializes in proposal, engagement, wedding, maternity, newborn, and family portrait photography, servicing New Haven, Fairfield, Hartford, Middlesex, Litchfield, and plenty of other regions around Connecticut. She is also an artist and specializes in custom pet portrait paintings in watercolor and acrylic! –MEO Photography