What Is the Difference Between Acrylic & Enamel Paint?

By Bill Brown
Acrylic paint, water
red acrylic image by Andrew Brown from Fotolia.com

You can use acrylic and enamel paints in a fine arts painting. Both kinds of paints have advantages and disadvantages, so it is generally helpful to know how much time you have and what result you are looking for prior to diving into a project that requires these paints. Enamels are more widely available and can be obtained at paint and better hardware stores. Acrylic paints are typically found at art supply stores.

Base

Acrylic paints have an acrylic base that is water soluble. Enamels are usually oil based and need to be thinned with mineral spirits. As a result, if safety or ventilation is an issue, acrylic paints are a better choice.

Drying Times

Because acrylic is water based, the drying time is much faster. Generally, you can paint over a surface that you have painted with acrylic as little as 30 minutes later. Enamel paint needs much longer to dry, in most cases overnight. In addition, if you use a heavy application of enamel, the top can dry faster than the paint underneath, creating a skin that will wrinkle later, marring your surface.

Form

Acrylic paints for artists come in tubes generally and are in a soft paste format that is highly concentrated. You can apply acrylic paints straight from the tube for impasto effects, but they are more versatile and can be thinned to wash consistency as well. Enamels are packaged as liquids in a can, ready for application. Jackson Pollock used them to pour directly onto the flat canvas.

Color and Extenders

As acrylics are made for the fine artist, they come in a wide range of colors. In addition, there are compatible mediums, gels and extenders that can add body to the paint or change its texture. Enamels, developed as industrial paints, are offered in more limited color lines but they can be mixed.

Finish

Enamel paints dry to a sheen. They will retain a nice gloss if used out of the can and not overly thinned with mineral spirits. Acrylic finishes of wider variety are accomplished using mediums suited to the purpose. While acrylics are largely matte out of the tube, gloss mediums will increase the sheen. Interference acrylics have a refractive effect that is pearlescent. When thinned with water alone, a dye-like effect can be achieved, as the paint will soak into the porous surface of the canvas or gesso.