I’ve had a lot of parents ask me about the difference between Acrylic paint and poster paint when it comes to buying art supplies for their children. I understand that as parents, you want to get your child the best of everything, and I am here to help you make the right paint selection for their needs.
You walk into an art supplies store, and you are overwhelmed by all the available choices and you’re not sure where to start or what to get your child that will be suitable for their age and skill level. Does this sound familiar? I’m here to demystify some of the options and give you the pros and cons of each choice so you’ll be more informed the next time you go shopping for art supplies.
Let’s start with the basics, in almost every art supplies store you’re going to find these four choices; Oil paint, Acrylic paint, Watercolour paint and Poster (Tempera) paint. For any child below the age of 12, I would highly recommend you stick with either Poster paint or Watercolour paint. Older and more experienced children can easily learn how to use acrylic paint and I personally wouldn’t advise oil paints until they’ve mastered how to properly use materials and have shown a commitment to art. I’ve based my advice on both economic and functional reasons.
Watercolours are probably the easiest medium to use in its most basic function. When applied to the paper, they give a more translucent (transparent) effect that’s very serene, but they also can be really vivid and bright, making them perfect for a child's artwork. While there are a variety of techniques and fun tricks that range from the simple to the very advanced in watercolours, it’s really quite simple for a child aged 4 to learn how to use watercolours easily. Watercolours are also more economic in the sense that a tray of watercolour can last years, even with excessive use, they’re pretty easy to clean when the colours get contaminated with other colours, and they’re not so easily damaged by accident. When using liquid paint (like acrylic or tempera), children have a very high tendency to waste a lot of paint, an issue which can be very easily avoided with watercolours. Watercolours also come in a wide variety of price ranges, so you can always find something that suits your budget. When selecting watercolours though, I would choose a student quality, go for the trays of powder colours, not the tubes, and avoid the very expensive brands as they are better suited for experienced artists. My favourite higher end brands for children would be Stadeler or Faber Castell, but I would personally go with the much less expensive generic brands. Little tip, when using generic brand watercolours, just advise your children to add plenty of water to the brush to activate the colour. The more water you add, the brighter the colour you’ll get.
Poster paints are liquid paints, they come in bottles or small containers, and usually require a separate paint palette in which you can mix the paint before applying it to the paper. Poster paints come in a very wide variety of colours, you can find almost any colour you’re looking for, in addition to such fun finishes like metallic, pearl, pastel or neon finish. Poster colours are great for children because they give an opaque finish, and are thicker than watercolours in their application, making them a fun medium for children to explore. Poster paints also allow for techniques such as double loading, printmaking or adding texture, which cannot be achieved with watercolours. They are also generally very safe, non toxic so they can be used by children as young as 3 years old. They are water based, which means you can use water to dilute the paint, lift it off the paper in case of a mistake or to reconstitute the paint if it dries in the container. They are also economic in the sense that you can buy bigger containers that will save you money. One problem with poster paint though is that children tend to waste a lot of paint when left unsupervised. Children tend to overestimate how much paint they will need for a project and will pour too much and throw away the unused paint. To avoid this though you can first instruct them to start by pouring out little paint and then adding more as needed. Also, you can always cover up the leftover paint palette with a plastic wrap you use to cover food. That will keep the paint from drying and you can use it at a later time.
Not all brands have good coverage, you might need to add another layer, or mix the paint with glue and you’ll get a thicker texture with more coverage.
For more experienced artists, acrylic paint can be a lot of fun. Acrylic paint is water based, is thicker than poster paint and provides more coverage and a more shiny, glossy finish. You can apply all the techniques you learned using poster paint to acrylic paint, and get a more glossy, professional looking end result. On the other hand, one problem with acrylic paint is that It is a lot harder to clean off the palette unless it is still wet. Once acrylic paint dries on a plastic palette, it becomes very difficult to remove and clean. In order to avoid this problem you can either use disposable paper plates or clean your palate immediately once you finish painting. The same applies to the brushes, they will need to be thoroughly cleaned as soon as you are done painting. Acrylic paints also come in a wide variety of colors, student grade (for beginner painters) and a more professional artist grade. Liquitex is a great student grade brand of acrylic paint, which you can get in convenient 75 ml tubes in a variety of colours. When buying acrylic paint, I always advise students to start with the basic colours; blue, white, red and yellow and learn to mix their own paints first before investing in ready made paints. Acrylics are a lot more expensive than poster paint, so we advise more experienced artists to use them otherwise, there will be a lot of wasted, expensive material. Acrylic paints are also water based, so you can use water to thin them down, but you can also use a special medium for the same purpose that will give you a more vivid finish.
Now that we’ve covered the different types of paints your little ones can use, I want to give you a quick idea of the different surfaces on which they can paint. Now personally, as long as they are still learning, I always advise that children work on paper, not canvas. When using watercolour, you have to use watercolour paper, which will be 300 gm and a cotton blend. The reason for this is it allows the water to stay on top of the paper for long enough that you can apply different, fun techniques. For acrylic and poster paint, you can use heavy paper (think 240 gm or more) that can handle the weight of the paint and added water. You can get a mixed media sketchbook that will be great for different materials. Alternatively, you can buy sketchbooks specific for the media you prefer. Before investing in an expensive canvas, you can try painting on canvas paper, which you can get also in the form of a sketchbook. It will allow your little ones to experiment, and practice before creating their favourite masterpiece on canvas when they are ready.
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