Paint By Numbers Oil vs Watercolor – What’s More Newbie-Friendly?

There’s a paint by numbers oil vs watercolor debate all over the internet. Some people believe that oil is more suitable when you’re painting by numbers. Others argue that watercolor is the perfect medium for this type of painting.

All this talk can be very confusing, especially if you’re just dipping your toes in painting. So, let me start by clarifying:

  • Watercolor and oil are both great paints.
  • They both produce stunning art when applied properly.
  • And you can create some amazingly beautiful paintings with either of them regardless of your experience level.

Having said that, they do have some profound differences. It’s because of these distinctions that you may have to use varying techniques when painting with oil and watercolor.


A Short, Colorful History of Oil and Watercolor Paints

Almost all cave paintings were created with watercolor, which makes it (perhaps) as old as history itself. In fact, most Baroque painters used watercolors for their sketches.

A good example is Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). His watercolor masterpieces are among the best pieces of art in history. He popularized watercolors and made them as cool as any other medium.

At the time, oil paints had been in existence since at least the 5th century (thanks to Buddhist painters). But they weren’t popular in their early years, at least not until the 12th century.

It wasn’t until the height of the Renaissance when oil became the main medium for painting. It replaced tempera, and rightfully so considering the oil paintings that followed soon after.

Think of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso – they are all oil paintings.

Which brings me to the topic of the day. In paint by numbers oil vs watercolor, will you get van Gogh-quality if you use oil? And can you pull a Dürer if you use watercolors?

Probably not. But you’ll get great pieces of art nonetheless. The trick is knowing how different these two are and the techniques to apply in each case.


Paint by Numbers Oil vs. Watercolor: The Key Differences



The very first paint by numbers oil vs watercolor difference lies in how they are created. Oil paint is made by suspending pigment in an oil (typically linseed oil but walnut oil can be used too).

Watercolor paint, on the other hand, uses gum Arabic in place of oil. Gum Arabic is a tree sap that’s extracted from acacia tree. It creates the awesome watercolor paint that we all know when mixed with pigment.


Thinning and cleaning

Watercolor paint is water-based; the name kinda gives it away. Anyway, that property means that you can use water to thin your painting by numbers paint if it’s too thick. Similarly, you only need water to clean up after you’ve finished painting or to remove the paint from surfaces.

That’s not the case with oil paint. It requires white spirit or turpentine to thin and clean. Both of those liquids are highly flammable, which makes them fire hazards. So if you’re buying a paint by numbers kit for kids, you probably want to stay away from those that have oil paint.

Along the same lines, almost all the liquids that are used to thin and clean oil have a strong odor. Even if you’re highly tolerable to smells, continuous inhalation of these odors can ultimately affect you.

That’s why it’s always wise to use oil paints in a large, well-ventilated room where you can get fresh air. Watercolor doesn’t come with such an issue. It’s perfect even in small rooms.


Painting Techniques

One of the biggest differences in the paint by numbers oil vs watercolor comparison is their drying times. Watercolor is a lot like acrylic in that it dries quickly, very quickly.

There’s a good side to that. If you make a mistake – like painting outside the borders – you only have to wait for a minutes. The wrong paint will dry quickly and then you can paint the right one as an overlay.

On the downside, watercolor paint is not pliable. Once you place it on the canvas, that’s it. Oil is the exact opposite. It takes longer to dry, which makes it pliable. If you paint outside the borders, you can paint over the mistake or scrap it off with a palette knife or something similar.

As a rule of thumb, oil paintings look much better when you paint from dark to light. I.e. start by painting the dark colors first and then the light ones last. Again, this circles back to the fact that oil is very forgiving.

Mistakes don’t happen 🙂

You can make a mistake and correct it by painting over. Yes, you can overlay a black oil paint with a white one and the latter will completely and effectively cover the black one.

If you’re using watercolor, it’s always advisable to start from light to dark. That’s because it dries fast and the effects on a canvas are immediate. There’s little to no room for correction. By painting the light layers first, you can overlay them with dark ones whenever the need arises.

Still on matters technique, oil is an opaque paint. It’s an excellent choice if you want your painting to have a variety of depths (shadows and highlights). That’s one of the reasons why artists find it easier to create 3D impressions with oil paint.

Watercolor, on the other hand, is great for 2D art. If depth is not that important, you’re likely to enjoy using watercolor paints a lot more.

In the case of paint by numbers oil vs watercolor, look at the photo that’s included in the kit. If you feel that it will look better with some depth, you may want to consider choosing oil paints. If not, then watercolors will do the 2D magic.


Final Artwork

The difference in paint by numbers oil vs watercolor is more prominent in the final artwork than anywhere else. Because oil is thicker and has more pigments, oil paintings usually have richness in color and texture.

They are glossy and have depth (physical and perspective) that’s hard to achieve with watercolor. Which emphasizes the point that if you want your artwork to have depth in shadows and highlights, you may want to consider a painting by numbers kit that has oil paints.

Watercolor is absorbed by the canvas, so it lacks physical depth. In fact, watercolor paintings are usually transparent. When light passes through, it filters through the canvas, making for a bright and vibrant appearance.

The final piece appears more mate than glossy. Therefore, if you want your paint by numbers artwork to look colorful and striking, you may want to consider this medium.

There’s an interesting comparison of these two paints on this page. If you have the time give it read. It’s not specific to paint by numbers oil vs watercolor, but it makes the point nonetheless.


Which Is Better, Watercolor or Oil Painting by Numbers?

From what we’ve seen in this paint by numbers oil vs watercolor comparison, which paint edges over the other?

As you think about that, I just want to emphasize that both are great mediums for creating art. More often than not, if you apply the right techniques you’ll end up with an excellent painting regardless of the type of paint.

And while oil paints can seem a tad bit intimidating, they do offer realistic artwork. You’ll find that the reward is always worth the effort.

That doesn’t mean using watercolor is more of a breeze than oil. It’s fast drying time means that you always have to be on your toes. There’s very little room for mistake. But again, the final piece is always worthy because of the bright, vibrant colors.

So, to answer the question: paint by numbers oil vs watercolor, which is better? Both are good. It all depends on the type of artwork that you want to achieve and how you go about it.

Nevertheless, here are some recommendations to keep in mind:

When to Use Oil Paint by Numbers

  • Choose oil paint if you want a rich texture, variety of depths and glossy finish. If the photo in the kit looks awesome BECAUSE it has depth, then opt for oil paint over watercolor.
  • It makes a lot of sense to choose oil if you’re not in a hurry to get the painting done. Oil paint takes a while to dry; time which you can use to evaluate your work as you progress. So, if you’re the slow, meticulous type of painter, oil is your paint.
  • Oil paint is a good choice if your working space is large enough. It should also be well-ventilated so that you don’t inhale the fumes from turpentine or white spirit.
  • Oil is a classic. By the time you’re done with the painting you’ll be feeling like a really accomplished artist. That might just be enough motivation to keep painting in case you’re looking for some.


When to Use Watercolor Paint by Numbers

  • The first and most obvious situation is when you need the painting to dry quickly. If you only have a few days to get it done, oil might disappoint but watercolor won’t.
  • Watercolor produces vibrant artwork. It’s an excellent choice if your paint by numbers photo is bright and lively.
  • Additionally, you’ll find it easier to stay within the borders of your design if you use watercolor. Oil is generally thicker and tends to “spill over” beyond the borders. And this explains why beginners are usually introduced to watercolor first. Because it’s easier to maintain borders even with freehand.
  • The fact that it’s easier to clean makes watercolor the go-to paint if you don’t want the hassle of intensive cleaning. 


Comparing the Pros and Cons of Oil and Watercolor Paints


  • Has several mediums that you can use to manipulate e.g. linseed oil, alkyd gel etc.
  • Cleans easily
  • Creates depth and rich texture
  • Dries quickly, which means you can complete a project faster
  • Takes longer to dry and that leaves a painting pliable for long
  • Easier to paint crisp edges. 
  • Doesn’t have color shift. I.e. the colors won’t change after painting has dried
  • Final artwork looks bright and lovely
  • It’s a classic paint that always delivers quality
  • Doesn’t have an odor



  • Strong odor

Solution: work in a large, well-ventilated room or use an odorless thinner

  • Dries very quickly

Solution: add retarder or palette. It will keep the paint wet for longer.

  • Painting starts to “yellow” with time

Solution: none. This is a natural process with oil

  • Colors could change

Solution: none. It’s natural for watercolor to shift after drying

  • Takes long to dry

Solution: add alkyd to the paint or gently blow warm air on painting using hair dryer

  • Paint totally blends with canvas

Solution: consider adding retarder to thicken paint. If it’s thick enough you’ll be able to scrap off the surface.


Final Thoughts

In the end, I must admit that the paint by numbers oil vs watercolor debate boils down to technique. If you perfect your art, it won’t matter which paint you use. You’ll still be able to pull off a masterpiece.

That’s how Albrecht Dürer’s managed to create masterpieces that even oil paintings find hard to rival. Because he mastered his art.



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