Acrylic snobs


Dear Artist,

A subscriber asked, “What do you say to people who are acrylic snobs? One of the oil painters who is in a show with me said that it might not be a good idea for me to mention the word acrylic on the title cards. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘it’s just plastic goop.’ This hurt me and I can’t stop thinking about it. Worse, I couldn’t think of a nice comeback — nothing better than, ‘But I love acrylics!’ ”


“Spread” 1973
acrylic on canvas with bevelled edge
69 x 113.5 x 1.75 inches
(175.3 x 288.3 x 4.4 cm)
by Sam Gilliam (b.1933)

Most of the bad attitude you hear about acrylics comes not from collectors, but from other artists. This is unfortunate because the same narrow views can work against other media — watercolour for one. As an acrylic painter myself, I get around the problem by praising oils. I’m on solid ground here — I worked in oils for thirty years. I tell folks that nothing will ever beat them for texture and workability. Only occasionally do I mention oil-based problems: darkening, yellowing, oxidizing and sinking in, etc. It’s not the pigments, it’s the medium — traditional thinners, drying oils — particularly linseed oil. Also, because of technical ignorance and creeping amateurism, oils can require early restoration — some after only a few years. Interestingly, decaying oils these days are restored with acrylic. If you’re in the mood sometime, you can check out a few of the oil painters whose work has ended up as restorer’s hell: Rothko, Ryder, Pollock, etc.


“Orion” 1972
acrylic on canvas with bevelled edge
72 x 72 inches (182.9 x 182.9 cm)
by Sam Gilliam

Back in high school I made some early skirmishes in acrylics. We called them co-polymers in those days. Years later I noticed that they still looked fresh and bright. Working juicy, I had discovered that in acrylic you are okay using lots of medium. As well as being a big strong molecule, as far as we know the molecule stays big, strong and clear — almost indefinitely. Of course, being a relatively new medium (about 70 years), the jury is still out, but most experts think that the future looks great for acrylic.

What’s not to love about acrylic? Let me count the ways. Apart from apparent permanence and strength, there’s flexibility, controllable opacity, colour fastness, resistance to pollutants, opportunity for variety of creative methodology, adaptability to mixed media, as well as speedy drying and cleanup. Used knowledgably, there’s less toxicity with acrylic. More than anything, glazing and scumbling in acrylic are a piece of cake.


“Change” 1970
acrylic on canvas with bevelled edge
112.13 x 112.13 x 1.88 inches
(284.8 x 284.8 x 4.8 cm)
by Sam Gilliam

Best regards,


PS: “Today, very little serious oil or fresco restoration is undertaken in anything other than acrylics.” (Ian Hebblewhite — Artists’ Materials)

Esoterica: I switched from oils to acrylics in 1974. I did it for health reasons. My price structure stayed the same. Oils/acrylics — same prices, same increases. Resistance to the medium has been infrequent and generally from the ignorant. Collectors, I’ve found, have to like what they see, and by and large they trust the artists to know what they’re doing. Medium is not such an issue. I still love oils. I delight in cruising the surfaces of the masterful ones. But I tell people, “In acrylic, what you lose on the corners, you make up for on the straights.”

This letter was orginally published as “Acrylic snobs” on June 2, 2006.


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“There are many ways to paint and each expression should take its unique path. That is why acrylic is so rewarding – if you understand the medium’s potential.” (Stephen Quiller)



  1. I have worked in acrylics for 30 years after a love affair with watercolor. Seeking more richness, I started using oil again, then alkyds- for faster drying.I was an Art major in college and and acrylics were new- weren’t being used.
    One summer I cut up little boards & used acrylics to replicate some of my more successful paintings- it was heaven. You can use them like oils, glaze,etc. and you can use them like watercolor.
    Today I work exclusively in acrylics and most observers insist they are oils.

  2. I’m glad to see the snobbiness is lessening generally, though I still encounter it occasionally too.

    This is the first time I’ve heard of acrylics being used to restore oil paintings, though. I’m curious — anyone know how they’re able to make that work? Acrylics over oils? Since they don’t stick….

    • I decided to test this (acrylic over oil won’t stick) for myself. I painted a small study of some flowers on canvas using a base of oil, both thin and rich glossy, topped with acrylics used both wet and buttery. That was 35 years ago, and the painting still looks as good as new and hasn’t lost a flake of paint.

    • Brian Dickinson on

      Hi Karen , I know what you mean about oil and water not mixing , I can only imagine that once the oil has finally finished oxidizing acrylic can then be applied to an inert surface , well that’s my take on it

    • Brian Dickinson on

      According to the Smithsonian , a ( type ) of acrylic is used in restoring old oils not the sort bought at the art store

  3. I have to admit that I love love love my oils. I been painting in them for 20 years. I started with no technical knowledge and am sure all those have fallen apart by now, but I soon learned more about mediums and better techniques and for the most part have very few technical issues. (for example alternative oils yellow less… I use poppy oil instead of linseed and adjust the medium slightly to make up for the longer drying oil.

    That said, I do more and more collage work and so typically begin most of my work in a form of acrylic. I also typically recommend it as the paint to learn with for beginners, even those I may be teaching myself, because it does not require the technical learning curve of oil and with modern mediums the techniques and avenues for exploration for newer artists are wide open. It is also helpful to have that faster drying time so that you do not loose the concentration of the new student.

  4. As a colored pencil artist who works on Ampersand Pastelboard and varnishes so my work hangs like an acrylic or oil painting, saturated and full of pigment – I often find snobbism of media a problem. And I know my acrylic friends also find collectors and some galleries show the “Oil is King” mentality. Trying to educate that artist grade pigmented materials are the same, preserved and protected with a barrier layer first, then sealed, is a full time job.

    I do mention toxicity for the artist and environment, but never do have a snappy comment or at least a well thought out one, without rambling as I’m doing here. So I am also interested in a comeback that is respectful to all.

    If you are interested in what a colored pencil painting looks like my work can be seen at:

    • BTW, Gloria Callahan, your work is delicious!

      I suppose the risk of creating anything may be open to “snobbery” especially in the arts. (Ironic)
      Oils are really toxic, yet luminous, acrylics are plastic, yet glorious to work with (less fumes, so I choose those)
      Nothing too terribly harmful about watercolours, they produce amazing results; and pencils/crayons/chalks/ result in amazing works, yet, they often lack “status”
      I say, do what you love! :) great article, thank you :)

      • I love painting in acrylics…they dry fast in wet Vancouver and are less toxic to my health than oils.There is no “better” way between oils and acrylics, only the originality of the finished work matters.

  5. I have always loved pastels and been sneered at by the ignorant that “They are nothing but chalk” but painting with acrylics and acrylic inks have become my favourite without doubt. Having been diagnosed with a wonderful bouquet of auto-immune diseases, one of them being rheumatoid arthritis, I don’t have the strength I need for pastels and I don’t have to time waiting for oils to dry. I now use acrylics and everything that has been written is absolutely right. Long live the discerning public and artists who are not snobs and follow the herds and the untalented state as fact!

  6. I started with acrylic and transitioned to oil, only because of the snob factor. I would challenge anyone to look at my portraits and tell me which is which… Having said that, I firmly believe if acrylics had been available to the ” Old Masters”, they certainly would have used them!

  7. I’ve had the same thing happen to me only I work with polymer clay and the snobbish comments have come from those who work in natural clay or ceramics. As artists we simply create, no matter what medium we choose.

  8. For nearly six decades I have made my living painting watercolors. Some of the best artists I know are doing watercolors only. If the acrylic painters are scoffed at, try watercolor exclusively for a while. To some it’s still considered only a planning medium and not finished art. Fortunately there are many in the viewing public who are interested in the value of the work and not the medium. Praise to those who offer us such a wonderful variety of ways to do our art.

  9. Thank you for this take. I started in acrylics, self taught painter just enjoying the process. I have never tried oils though many artists I have met insist I do, however I am only now after a few years feeling comfortable with my acrylics with much more to learn. I appreciate hearing acrylics getting the thumbs up as I too have felt a certain dislike over oils when showing my work, thanks again for all the encouragement.

  10. Very interesting and informative facts about acrylic. I prefer acrylic and I’ll bet that within ten years you will see very few oils. Great article.

  11. Very interesting discussion, I am happy to read about all the deserved support for acrylics. I specially like the comment by Levi …. worth repeating: “Fortunately there are many in the viewing public who are interested in the value of the work and not the medium”.

  12. About 45 years ago, I switched from oils to acrylics – at the time, I had young children and was concerned about having turps, linseed oil, etc. around. Though I love acrylics I found the colors often lost their vibrancy once dried. I had always used the Matte Medium until I watched a tutorial about 4 years ago that recommended Gloss Medium – what a difference! The chalk that is added to the Matte Medium to cut down the sheen also slightly dulls the colors. The reason I hadn’t tried this before it was that I feared the finished painting would have an uneven glossiness – depending on thickness of paint applications, and various directions of brush strokes. But that didn’t happen . I dilute the gloss medium with about 25% distilled water.

  13. I studied at the Art Students League with Issac Soyer painting with either oil or acrylic paint. During one class Mr. Soyer asked me what was wrong I told him that the paint thinner I was using, { from a precursor to Home Depot, Channel Lumber}, was getting me sick . He suggested that I just use acrylics. So since 1979 I have painted exclusively with acrylic paint. I have developed a wonderful working relationship and enjoy painting with them I like that I can paint over previous paintings w/o having to worry if the painting underneath is dry. I also like that I did not have to deal with fat over lean or varnishing afterwards. Of course during the last 39 years research lead by Golden in particular has shown that acrylic paintings should be varnished. I have found that for myself, palette knife painting has been difficult with acrylic paint. I have had very few technical “issues” with these paints. I prefer using Daler Rowney System 3, Golden Heavy Body, Sennelier , Liquitex, Utretch & Amsterdam. Over the last few years I have begun to work not only with soft pastels but also oil pastels and paint sticks. This lead me to re-investigate oil painting. Since I have forgotten much of the correct oil painting techniques I had a lot of catching up to do. At first I used W &N Artisan . After doing research on the Gamblin web site I realized that due to the effort of Robert Gamblin I do not have to work with water mixable oil paints. Gamblin has made tremendous strides with making oil paint safer with solvent free mediums and Gamsol. I still paint primarily with acrylics but have made Gamblin my primary oil paint. I noticed that a big difference between oil and acrylic painting regards the choice of painting surfaces. Reading through the comprehensive Gamblin web site I agree that boards are the best support. Acrylics I have found can be painted on any surface that is not oil primed which includes most of the lower quality canvases available. Given the fact that oil paints as they age do not have the flexibility of acrylic a better quality canvas should be used. The canvases available in stores is in my opinion are not the best surface for oil painting. Additionally the store bought canvases have another problem. I find that because of the weight of canvas used too much paint can create a “dead zone”. That happens when too much acrylic paint builds up creating a noticeable plastic look. Other than carefully sanding that area and trying to incorporate that into the painting I have not found other ways of dealing with this . Although the faster drying of acrylic paints have never bothered me I do enjoy the more open time available with oils . I also enjoy oil painting with a palette knife. I have tried the acrylics that give you more working time. I really didn’t want to deal with all the various mediums that Atelier offers. Golden’s Open is a very good acrylic but since I like to paint thickly at times I stay with the heavy body paint. I have though incorporated some colors from
    Golden Open into my palette. I respectfully disagree with Eddie that in ten years we will see few oils.
    I think that while acrylic painting is popular and becoming more so oil paint will still be very much
    in favor. Unfortunately the price of good quality paint will continue to cost more and more lower quality
    student grade oils and acrylic will be introduced to the market. I find that most artists will gravitate
    to the medium that best works for them. I have tried watercolor but unfortunately I never ended
    up getting the hang of it. Instead I found that I gravitated to pastels and colored pencils, acrylics and oils.
    I can see in many of my art magazines such as Art of the West many artists still paint with oils. I would
    think though that if someone really loves a painting and it speaks to them they will buy it no matter
    what it was painted with. I guess that some oil painters who have painted with oils for many years
    would not be comfortable with acrylics and the reverse with acrylic painters. Artists develop a
    relationship with the paint that they use and that familiarity enables them to create fully without
    having to figure everything out every time a brush is picked up. Each type of paint has its own beauty.
    Acrylics are wonderful to paint with and so are oils. There is so much to explore with each type of paint.
    I still have not given up entirely on watercolors but for now it is used as a base for dry mediums,
    colored pencils, soft & oil pastels.

  14. Fascinating discussion. Yes – the presumption that oils are somehow ‘better’ than acrylics is rubbish – pure snobbery or misinformation. I do love painting with oils because I love the feel of it – but it’s marginal. I’m just trying out a new flow improver medium which acheives almost the same feel – but have you all tried spit ? Brilliant stuff if you just want to add viscosity/flow to a small amount of paint and of course famously used by Turner. (But do get anyone with you when you’re painting to turn away when you spit as it’s not a pretty sight!) What settled it for me though was reading autobiographies by two of our greatest ever art forgers. The so-called experts in the finest fine art galleries and auctioneers totally failed to discover that the ‘oil paintings’ they made were not in oil paint at all but acrylic and even house paint. Nowadays they can DNA test to see exactly what the paint is – this was before that became the norm in testing for authenticity of a great Master’s or any hugely expensive painting by a contemporary famous artist. So – if anyone is disparaging about your work being in acrylic not oil, just smile to yourself. I use acrylic mostly for the quick drying speed – but can’t resist oils sometimes as above for the feel.

  15. This is a bit off the subject, but relevant. Change is fraught with fear. I am a printmaker and the processes have changed rapidly in the last few years with the introduction of offset lithography, silkscreen, and other commercial processes. We now have digital pushing the envelope, no doubt the scariest new process of them all. It has turned the purists in the field into a frightened group of “Chicken Little”. Any hint of the process is not allowed in most professional shows and is shunned by so called professional galleries. Why? Well, a lack of education always heads the list, but secondarily, it takes us out of our comfort zone as change is an unknown entity. We are not as open minded as we pretend. We want rules where rules are the last thing that artists should even consider. You want rules, be an engineer. Limitations are not something that we should entertain. Art is our last bastion of freedom. No one ever made a difference by doing the same.

  16. I still miss my oil painting! It was the texture of it I loved. I absolutely adored that wonderful cadmium red light that is so poisonous! It went on like butter! Nothing matches it. Color, feel, brightness…. I also had a problem working on portraits with acrylics. It dried too fast, made too hard edges and I was so used to the slowness of oils. Blendability.

    I now work in pastels since I live in a small house and the oils are too smelly for this place. Had a choice this past summer of working in either medium on a large painting and chose acrylics. Convenient and I was in a hurry. Cleans up nicely. But I work more in a poster style with it.

    I think that we all have the right to choose what medium we love to work with. Too bad that some are snobs. Donna V.

  17. Charles Eisener on

    I started with oils when in public school, and had a lot of fun even though I knew little about what I was doing. By the time acrylics arrived on the scene, I was doing a lot of knife painting and exploring textures. Trying to repair those cracks after the oils finally dried was a nightmare. Upon the suggestion of a retail clerk, I tried acrylics and have never looked back.
    Painting has not been “regularly” practiced, as I became very heavily involved in photography for many years. Now retired, the acrylics again have called out. They certainly have changed over the years, and the range of gels and mediums have opened new possibilities for exploration and expression.
    One thing that does bother me is the tendency for some artists to represent their medium as oils when they are in fact using acrylics. Are they ashamed? Do they feel their work is less valuable? I have also noted pieces in smaller galleries that do not bother to note the medium used.
    If we are not confident in the quality of what we create with our chosen medium, I am not sure we have the right to demand the respect of our peers or clients.

  18. I’m the subscriber who wrote that letter in 2006. I was just as thrilled to see it repeated this week as I was then. Only the answer came so fast from Robert, that I was terrified the person who I was writing about would see it before the show. It was my first show, so I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. Nothing like that happened though.

    Over the years I have painted in both oil and in acrylic and honestly on some of the older paintings I can’t tell which I used.

    Thanks for keeping the letter going. It’s wonderful,
    Cyndie Katz

  19. Years ago a photography snob was looking at my daughter’s brilliant photographs. He commented, “I only shoot in black and white.” I responded, “Oh, I am so sorry.” He did not say anything else. There is no room for art snobs. Not any longer!

  20. Who else paints with acrylics? Among many more that you would know are Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichenstein, Mark Rothko, Thomas Hart Benton, David Hockney. And ME. Need I say more?

  21. Its funny that I read this article tonight after discussing my Brother-in Law Arthur Elias ,Artist from the group of CMU who with Warhol, Pearlstein went to New York to find their future. Arthur only worked with Oils until four years ago ago when he discovered acrylics and fell in love with the ability of what acrylics would and could do that oils could not do with manipulation of the media on canvas. It was a shame that this experience came a little late for him to continue to experiment with the media of acrylics on canvas.

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