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What is Acrylic Latex Paint?

By Eric Tallberg
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are basically two types of paint: acrylic latex paint, often simply called latex paint, and oil-based, or alkyd, paint. Acrylic latex paint is essentially a paint made with water and an acrylic resin binder. Oil-based paint most often uses a hydrocarbon-based solvent as the “vehicle” and an alkyd resin.

All paints are composed of a solid, or binder, and a vehicle. Acrylic latex paint uses the acrylic resin as the binder and water as the vehicle. The binder will hold together the various pigments and the water to form the film that covers the painting surface. Binders are the major components that provide the paint with its application properties.

Acrylic latex paint, often advertised as 100% acrylic latex, is one of a number of water-based paints, and it is generally considered the highest-quality latex paint. Other resins used in this paint include styrene, epoxy, and polyvinyl acetate. Of the paints available, vinyl acrylic latex is the most popular.

The acrylic used as the binder is a type of synthetic polymer, or plastic. There are a number of synthetic polymers that are used for a variety of applications. Latex paints, however, use only one, called an elastomer. As the name implies, elastomers are quite flexible — or elastic — and thus give these paints their advantageous dry flexibility.

Latex paint, especially acrylic latex, has a number of advantages over oil-based paint. Application advantages include superior adhesion, flexibility, breathability, washability, opacity, and color-retention. In addition, the painting equipment (brushes, sprayers, etc.) used to apply the paint can be easily cleaned with plain water and, if needed, a mild detergent. This eliminates the expense and volatility of the cleaning solvents needed to clean the application equipment used for alkyd paint.

There are, of course, some limitations to latex paint. These include its poor adherence to glossy or shiny surfaces, and its unsuitability for unprimed steel, where the water-based nature of the paint might cause rust. Unless specially formulated, latex paint will also raise the grain on wood that is not primed.

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Discussion Comments

By Perdido — On Apr 09, 2012

I would not recommend using acrylic latex paint on shelves. I did this years ago, and it seemed to never fully dry.

Whenever the humidity was high, items would stick to the paint. It had been three years since I painted the thing, yet everything from cardboard to glass stuck to the shelf as though the paint were fresh.

I put shelf liner on the shelves as a temporary fix, but I am considering putting a coat of oil-based paint on top. Does anyone know if this would work?

By kylee07drg — On Apr 08, 2012

I used some acrylic latex house paint when repainting my bedroom, and I loved how easy it was to work with. It seemed to spread on the walls so smoothly, and it wasn't hard at all to correct lumpy spots or drips by running the brush over them again.

I painted it on kind of thick, and I like the flexible appearance of the paint. It was actually fun to use, and the end result was attractive walls.

To me, it smells a lot better than oil-based paint. I didn't feel like I needed to wear a mask while using it.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 08, 2012

@Oceana - I love painting with acrylics. Often, I need to correct mistakes on my paintings, and all I have to do is dab a cloth in water and rub off the paint.

I can also use a wet brush to blend a couple of colors together on the canvas. I just did a painting of daffodils, and I blended the highlights and shadows on the stems by dipping the brush in water and running it across the line between the shades of paint.

When I am done for the day, cleanup is simple. I use an old toothbrush and water to scrub my palette clean, and I simply rinse out my brushes with water.

By Oceana — On Apr 07, 2012

@Catapult - In my opinion, acrylic latex paint is superior to oil paint. I realize that not many artist would agree with me, but I have my reasons for thinking this way.

I did both types of paintings in college, and with oil paint, the process is much more complicated. You have to use a variety of products to clean up and to mix it, and you spend a fortune. You also have to wait a very long time for it to dry.

With acrylic paint, you can do a second layer in about half an hour or less. Also, cleanup is easy, since it comes off with water if it hasn't dried yet.

By BambooForest — On Apr 19, 2011

One of my best friends studied art in college. She likes to experiment with acrylic before trying oil painting for projects because it is simpler to use and dries much more quickly, though she thinks oil is the best paint for high-quality pieces.

By Catapult — On Apr 18, 2011

Artistically, I have known many painters who prefer oil paint. However, many people still purchase acrylic for at least practicing and less importance projects because it is far less expensive than oil paint.

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