Learning watercolor vs oil painting. Here are the similarities & differences explained.

Painting With Watercolor

Watercolor paint is a paint that is made of pigments suspended in gum arabic. The paint colors are diluted with water. Watercolor paintings are usually artworks created on paper.

To begin a painting in watercolor, the painting composition may be sketched onto watercolor paper.

Watercolor paper is often stretched prior to painting. Stretching the paper prevents wrinkles from forming as the paper fibers absorb water during the painting process. Light washes of transparent watercolor are then applied.

Color saturation is built up layer by layer in a watercolor. If a highly transparent wash is desired, more water is added to the paint to dilute the color, making the color more transparent.

Watercolors are generally painted from light to dark. The reason for this is that layering watercolor will darken the color and add depth. The colors become darker and more saturated when layered one upon another.

The lightest highlights are left dry, untouched, or covered with a masking material to retain the white color of the paper.

The white of the paper serves as the brightest whites in the painting. Therefore the lights and highlights must be planned ahead of time. They must be left untouched to retain the clean whiteness of the paper.

    Watercolor Painting:
  • Paint From Light To Dark
  • Paint On Watercolor Paper
  • Manipulate Thin Layers Of Transparent Paint
  • Dilute Watercolor Paint With Water
  • Transparent Paint Colors
  • Paint In Transparent Layers

Painting With Oil Paints

Oil paint is a paint that is made of pigments suspended in oil. Oil paint colors are thinned with either solvent or the addition of oil, usually linseed oil.

Oil paintings are usually worked on canvas or wood panels.

Canvas and wood panels must be coated with a few layers of gesso to prepare the surface for painting.

If a transparent layer is desired, the artist can use oil paint colors labeled as transparent or create a glaze by adding oil to their oil paint mixture until it becomes transparent.

Glazes should only be applied in the upper layers of an oil painting to prevent paint cracking. Oil paintings are generally painted from dark to light. The lightest highlights are often painted last. The highlights are often painted with the thickest paint. The shadows are often painted in thin layers.

    Oil Painting:
  • Paint From Dark To Light
  • Paint On Canvas Or Panel
  • Surface Must Be Primed With Gesso
  • Manipulate Thicker Layers Of Paint
  • Variety of Opaque & Transparent Paint Colors Available

How to bridge the gap between watercolor techniques and oil painting techniques?

    Here's how to transition from watercolor to oil painting painlessly.
  • Painting On Paper
  • Choose Transparent Oil Paint Colors
  • Use Less Paint
  • Skip The Painting Medium - Use Linseed Oil Instead
  • Paint Wet Into Wet
  • Keep The Whites White - Luminosity

Here are a few simple suggestions to make oil and watercolor paintings similar in technique. Consider painting on Arches Huile oil paper, using transparent oil paint colors, using only oil paint and linseed oil. Doing so will simplify the oil painting process, making it more similar to a watercolor painting technique.

Watercolor & Oil Painting - Painting On Paper

Watercolor and oil painting can both be done on paper. While oil paintings are traditionally painted on canvas or panel, there are modern oil painting papers available. Consider painting on Arches Huile Oil Paper. This oil painting paper has been specially designed for use with oil media and the paper requires no preparation. The paper is made to be mechanically strong and already has a sizing and oil barrier built-in.

An artist who is used to painting on watercolor paper may find that oil painting on Arches paper has that familiar watercolor-like feel. Because one can use this special oil paper without preparation, it saves time as well.

Can you oil paint on watercolor paper? Yes, If you stretch and gesso the paper. Watercolor paper, unlike Arches oil paper, does not have the correct sizing or oil barrier so oil will seep into the paper fibers. A nice-quality watercolor paper can be stretched and painted with gesso. Quality paper properly coated with gesso can be used for oil painting. Learn how to gesso paper here.

Watercolor & Oil Painting - Choose Transparent Paint Colors

To make oil painting similar to watercolor technique, choose transparent oil paint colors. Visit the art supply store and read the oil paint labels. Choose paint colors that are marked transparent. Transparent oil paint colors can be manipulated in a similar way as watercolor washes. The color will remain slightly transparent when applied in thin layers. This allows an artist to build up oil paint layers in a way that feels similar to how one might paint in watercolor.

Use Small Amounts Of Paint

Watercolor artists are used to working in very thin layers. Oil paint artists often work with thick paint. Here lies a contrast in painting techniques. Oil paint can be applied in very thin layers. Simply use less paint. Thin the oil paint with a couple of drops of linseed oil as necessary to create a thin transparent paint layer. Thin paint is easier to manipulate than thick paint, especially for beginners.

Thinning Paint - Watercolor Paint vs Oil Paint

Oil paints are thinned with oil. Watercolor is thinned with water.

Oil paint can be thinned with oil in a similar way that watercolor is thinned with water. There is a rule in oil painting that each layer should contain slightly more oil than the last. This rule is known as the fat over lean rule. Fat means oil in oil painting.

Painting Wet Into Wet - Watercolor vs Oil

Watercolor is often painted wet into wet. While you won't get the same type of color bleeding, the oiling out method allows you to paint wet into wet in oil. The oiling out technique is often done between dried paint layers in oil painting. To oil out a painting, simply paint a thin layer of linseed oil over the entire painting or the are to be worked, then wipe excess oil off with a rag. This leaves a thin layer of oil on the surface which allows painting wet into wet when beginning a new paint layer.

After oiling out several layers, the painting surface may become repellent. Fresh oil paint may bead up or streak across a repellent surface. If this happens, click here for a simple fix.

The fat over lean rule prevents paint cracking. Paint layers in watercolor can be applied in virtually any fashion. However, oil paint layers must follow the fat over lean rule. To follow this rule, simply use a couple of drops of turpentine or similar solvent for thinning the first paint layer.

Consider using paint straight from the tube for the 2nd paint layer. Add a couple of drops of linseed oil to your paint when painting the 3rd layer. Add a few more drops of linseed oil into the final layer. Doing so would be an example of the fat over lean oil painting method. Artist-grade transparent oil paint colors are creamy and easy to manipulate.

Art Supplies - Watercolor vs Oil Paint

Watercolor is a simple medium requiring only watercolor paint, water, and paper. To make oil painting simple, skip the painting medium. The painting medium is optional. Artist-grade oil paints do not require a painting medium. An oil painting can be completed with simple materials like artist-grade oil paints, linseed oil, and Arches Huile oil paper.

Keeping The Whites White

Oil painters are often taught to paint light over dark. This follows the theory that oil paint can be used to cover mistakes. The theory is that light or white paint can simply be painted on top of a darker paint. While this is somewhat true with opaque oil paint colors, transparent oil paint colors can be seen through.

Linseed oil becomes more transparent over time. Mistakes and corrections may eventually show themselves if the paint becomes see-through and only time may tell. Using white ground or white paper when oil painting creates luminosity. Light travels through the paint layers, and bounces off of the white surface, reflecting back through the paint layers to the viewer.

It's possible to plan an oil painting as one would a watercolor. Avoid covering intended light areas with a dark paint color. This preserves the luminosity provided by the white surface.

When it comes to creating luminosity by using the white ground, someone experienced in watercolor techniques could have an advantage.


If you follow these simple suggestions, I believe you can transition from watercolor to oil painting. The material and technique differences between oil painting and watercolor are many. Transitioning from one painting medium to another can be frustrating. When starting to paint with oils, simplify the process.

Simplify by working with these similarities between the two mediums.

Watercolor and oil painting can both be done on paper. Consider using Arches Huile oil paper which resembles the feel of cold-pressed watercolor paper.

Choose transparent oil paint colors. Their transparency resembles watercolor paints.

Use less oil paint. Thin paint is easier to manipulate than thick paint when oil painting. Keep your paint layers thin to create a similar amount of control.

Skip painting medium as painting mediums are optional in oil painting. Oil out between paint layers to paint wet into wet. Paint with artist-grade oil paint colors and use a few drops of linseed oil to thin as necessary. Leave light areas light as one would in watercolor, allowing light to pass through the paint layers, bounce off of the white surface, and reflect back to the viewer. This offers a similar luminosity that can be seen in watercolor.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones