Top Secrets to Check if a Painting is Oil or Acrylic- Beginner’s Guide

A novice cannot tell the difference between oil and acrylic painting, and even an artist may get confused because there is little difference between oil and acrylic paint on canvas. Determining the type of paint in a painting is very important if you are looking to buy or sell a painting.

This blog aims to deliver a step-by-step guide on checking if a painting is an oil or acrylic. Whether you are an artist, buyer, or collector, this blog will help you to differentiate between oil and acrylic painting.

Table of Contents

Oil paintings are glossy due to the presence of oil in oil paints, but acrylic paintings are matte. Also, acrylic paints have no smell, while oil paintings may contain the scent of some mediums. Acrylic paints are also more vibrant and brighter, but oil paints are bold. These differences can quickly tell if the painting is oil or acrylic.


  • Oil Paintings

    1. Glossy or reflective surface 2. Visible & rough brush strokes 3. Bold colors 4. Have some smell of mediums 5. Longer age

  • Acrylic Paintings

    1. Matte surface 2. Smooth brush strokes 3. Bright colours 4. No smell 5. Smaller age

To know the difference their difference, first, you need to know the characteristics of both oil and acrylic paints because it would be an easy task if you could get some basic knowledge of both these paints. Follow these steps to know the difference.

Step 1: Analyze the painting surface

Analyzing the painting surface is the primary step to determine the type of paint. Acrylic paints are far different from oil paints because acrylic paintings have a smooth, matte finish that is not reflectable. Although, the surface may also vary depending on the painting technique.

Put the painting in front of a light source or turn on the torchlight and look at the painting’s surface. If the character does not reflect the light and you cannot feel any unevenness after touching your hands, this is an acrylic painting.

Oil paints are bolder, but they are shiner because they are oil-based. If the painting reflects the light and you can feel an uneven surface by touching your hands, then it is most likely an oil painting.

The presence of gesso can also help us to differentiate the nature of paintings. In most oil paintings, gesso is an essential primer to prevent the oil paint from soaking into the canvas, but in most acrylic paintings, there is no need to use gesso as a primer.

Step 2. Checking Brushstrokes

Brush strokes to measure the difference between oil and acrylics
Oil paint brushstrokes

Brushstrokes can also help to differentiate the painting because oil paintings have visible and differentiable brush strokes while acrylic paintings have smooth and, sometimes, no brush strokes. To check, place the artwork on a table or let it hang on the wall, and use a light to limit if the brush strokes are visible or not. If visual, that must be an oil painting.

For those who don’t know, brushstrokes are brush marks that can be left by an artist’s brush while painting. These strokes are differentiable by the canvas’s texture, the paint’s thickness, and the technique used to create them. Oil paint is bold and thicker than acrylic paint, so you can always measure brushstrokes in oil paintings.

Step 3. Checking Colours

Although both paintings look the same, when you check them a little closer, you will also find some color differences. Oil paints contain linseed oil and pigment that is high in quality, and acrylic paints are water-based, just simple colors mixed with water. Their quality is the differentiation of their mediums.

Primarily, oil paints are bolder and more vibrant, meaning they are highly opaque. But acrylic paints are brighter colors that are softer in appearance. Oil paints have richness and depth that can be seen with a careful look.

Step 4: Smell

We all know that acrylic paints are just water-based, and we do not need any medium instead than water and acrylic colors. But oil paintings contain mediums such as linseed oil, turpentine, thinner and mineral spirits, etc.

Oil painting is not just oil and paint but a complex mixture of various mediums. That’s why oil paints contain some smells that can be pungent or like a smell of an old shoe, but acrylic paints don’t contain any easily detectable odor.

Step 5: Age of the Painting

If your painting suspects be an ancient artwork, what is the best way to tell the difference because most old paintings were oil-based? Acrylics were unavailable until the early 1900s; all the paintings before the 1900s were oil paintings.

Difference between oil and acrylic paint on canvas

There are so many differences between oil and acrylic paints that we cannot know until we try both. Here, you will get a summary of the difference between oil and acrylic paints from a perspective of a professional painter.

How to tell if the painting is oil or acrylic?
Oil and Acrylic Paint

Oil and acrylic paints have differences in drying time, color, texture, layering, and durability.

  • Drying Time: Oil paints dry slowly due to the presence of oil that cannot get evaporated quickly. The average drying time could be 72 hours, but on the other hand, acrylics are known to dry faster, usually within minutes or a few hours. An oil painting can take up to 6 months to dry completely, but an acrylic painting can dry entirely in just a few days.
  • Color Difference: Oil paints have some richness in color because their pigments are made from natural materials. They are bold but shiner in appearance. Acrylics are bright and smooth in appearance.
  • Consistency: Oil paints are thicker and dense than acrylics on the same surface.
  • Durability: Oil paints are more durable because they are more resistant to environmental damage. Water can ruin the whole acrylic painting, but the same water cannot ruin oil paint.
  • Layering: Oil paints take a lot more drying time between layers. That’s why artists get a lot of time to make changes. Conversely, acrylics dry very quickly between layers, and changes are impossible.

Difference between oil and acrylic paint brushes

Oil and acrylics require a different types of brushes to control the texture. The bristles of oil paint brushes are naturally made with animal hair, like a hog, but acrylic paint brushes are made with synthetic bristles that are commonly made from nylon.

As oil paints are thicker in consistency, oil paint brushes must be strong and durable, which is why oil these brushes are thick and robust. Acrylic paint is smooth, so their brushes are softer and more flexible.

Washing an oil paintbrush is not an easy task. Many toxic materials are used to clean the oil paint brushes, such as distilled turpentine. A standard synthetic brush cannot stand after interacting with distilled turpentine, but an oil paint brush does due to the high quality bristles. And yeah! Oil paint brushes are more costly.

Is oil or acrylic painting easier

Acrylic painting is easier because you don’t have to deal with many complex things. Acrylics are like a sketch pencil in the hand that is enough to create the whole sketch. The entire acrylic painting procedure requires canvas, priming (optional), acrylic paints, brush, and some skills.

Oil painting is more complex, and there is no confusion in the answer. In oil painting, your skills will be on one side, and mediums such as turpentine, linseed oil, thinners, varnishes, gesso, liquid white, and hundreds of substitutes will be on another. As a beginner, I prefer acrylics.


Can you paint oil over acrylic?

Yes, you can paint oil over acrylics. When applying acrylic gesso as a primer for oil painting, you can also use oil over acrylics. Please read our complete guide about painting oil over acrylics.

Final Words

Checking the difference between oil and acrylic painting is difficult because both artworks are nearly identical, and a novice cannot tell the difference at first sight. If you want to purchase some original artworks of your favorite mediums, then note the essential points mentioned.

The most convenient to tell the difference is to take a torch light and see if there is any reflection in the surface. Smelling is also an easy way. This blog is efficient in solving your problem; read more from us!

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