About Student vs. Artist Grade Oil Paints—Products & Brands

Posted by on January 18, 2016 in paintings, Tutorials | 14 comments

My web stats tell me that my page “A word about student paint” gets plenty of visitors. I think there’s a lot of curiosity about which products to buy, which ones are “best,” and which are rip-offs.

Well, before I start giving my opinions, bear in mind that it is just, like, my opinion, man. But, I think most of what I say here will be not too far off the beaten path, or in other words, will not conflict too much with popular opinion.

A small portion of my paint collection.

SUMMARY OF STUDENT VS. ARTIST GRADE OIL PAINTS:

You’ll see “Student” paint sold alongside “Artist” grade paint, but at a lower price. For instance, Winsor & Newton’s Artist and Student line are as follows: Winsor & Newton Artist Oil Color and Winton.  Winton is the student grade. Maimeri Puro is (one of the) artist grade brands from Maimeri, while Classico is their student grade (though actually Classico isn’t that bad). Some brands (like Blockx or Old Holland) only sell artist grade. Other brands (like Soho, sold through Jerry’s Artarama) are only student grade. (And Soho is very low-end, by the way. Just saying.)

Many times a manufacturer will be quite up-front at indicating which brands are student and which aren’t. They’ll describe the product as “for students and beginners” or maybe use more flattering, flowery language, but it’s not hard to discern which brands are for students and which aren’t.

Student grade usually has more “filler” in the tube, so while it may appear to be thick and buttery, there’s less pigment (color) in there. This means you need more paint to get the same tint or coverage that you’d get with Artist grade. Student paint also tends to use cheaper lookalike pigments, that may not have the same strength or lightfastness as their artist-grade counterparts. Student paint may not mix the same as artist-grade, so if you’re following a color mixing recipe (two parts titanium white to one part cadmium red light, or whatever), your mixture may not turn out as expected.

There is some debate about the importance of all of this. Some artists cite famous painters who can be seen with student-grade paints in their studio. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!” Others want “only the best.” I think many of us can strive for a balance. While I mostly use artist-grade, I have managed to use student-grade paint sometimes, and it’s not always horrible. A recent teacher, Adam Clague, used to use Winton-brand white and did great things with it! (Though I confess to recoiling in revulsion and shock at seeing the tube in his paint box! 😉 )

The thing to do is to be educated and buy with your eyes open. Realize that some student-grade paint is abysmal and impossible to use. Using it is an exercise in futility. You will only frustrate yourself if you try. Don’t always use the cheapest brand with the assumption that since you’re a student, it’ll suffice.

In my previous article about student paint, I reviewed two chain craft store brands of paint (Hobby Lobby and Michael’s store brand paints) and a few of those colors were like tinted glue! They were completely unworkable with no pigmentation at all!

In fact, I’d argue that it’s especially important that students not use the bottom-of-the-barrel, low-quality paints. Students are not familiar enough with what oil paint “should” be like, and they might assume that it’s “normal” for it to be like colored glue. A more experienced painter will immediately know that it’s the paint—not them—that is at fault. It’s easier to solve a problem when you know what’s causing it.

WHAT THIS ALL MEANS:

If you’re seeking the definitive answer to which product is unanimously considered “the best,” no one can give that to you. There are too many variables.

For the most part, artist grade is preferable.  Students shouldn’t assume that student grade is ‘all they deserve,’ because let’s face it, some student paint is so abysmal (as I have outlined above) that it’s not fit for anyone’s use. But at the same time, students shouldn’t be blowing their budget on all pricey artist grade just yet either. There are some brands that are “middlin” good, like Classico from Maimeri, which would probably be a fine compromise.

WHAT I LIKE, AND WHAT I THINK:

I have my favorite brands, just like everyone else. I’ll be more than happy to list them. But I’ll be the first to say that my favorite won’t be everyone’s favorite. So, I’ll be listing some brands that seem to be quite popular with many of my artist friends. That will give you a good idea of what seems to be consistently favored among many artists.

Top PERSONAL Faves:

Blockx: These are pricey paints if you’re getting a cadmium or cobalt, but for whites and earth colors, their prices aren’t too far in the stratosphere (though they definitely aren’t “cheap”!). I love their Titanium-Zinc White, Ultramarine Blue, and Transparent Mars Red. They are a soft, rich, buttery paint, which suits my painting style!

Blue Ridge Artist: As I write this, this small company is recovering from a studio fire which closed them down for quite a spell. They are projected to open any day now (early 2016). What I love about this paint is that it is expertly made, has a rich buttery texture, AND it’s so affordable! Some have said that you can get “Old Holland” quality (well, nearly) for a much lower price with Blue Ridge. The owner, Eric Silver, seems like a genuinely decent person. Favorite colors are Alizarin Crimson Permanent, Titanium-Zinc White, and Naples Yellow.

Old Holland: A lot of artists swear by this paint, and for many, Old Holland is “the” gold standard of oil paints—expensive, greatly coveted, and the subject of many enthusiastic raves about its quality. Well, I won’t go that far, but I do like these paints. I don’t think they’re the ultimate in oil paints, but I won’t argue with those who do—everyone has different reactions, and it also depends on how you use the paint. I like Old Holland’s stiffness (it’s rather dense) even though I typically prefer softer, butterier paint. Recently I used some of their Mixed White and loved it. I’m also a fan of their Alizarin Crimson Lake Extra (which is a permanent version of the classic—but fade-prone—Alizarin Crimson).

Holbein: This is what I guess I call a “sentimental favorite” and probably a “guilty pleasure,” as some of Holbein’s colors are not lightfast (though I always avoid their non-lightfast colors). I must recommend them with caution, because you really need to inspect each label (or look at their color chart—the paints with one or two stars are iffy) to assure that what you’re getting is lightfast (meaning it won’t fade prematurely). I call Holbein a sentimental favorite because when I was growing up, I didn’t do mail order of art supplies, and all the local art stores always carried mainly Grumbacher and Winsor Newton (often to the exclusion of anything else). When I found Holbein in a store, and when I could afford it, it was a rare treat. So I always treasured my Holbein paints. Favorite colors are Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Lemon, and Naples Yellow. I also am crazy about their Foundation colors, which are lead-based, but which make a fabulous painting surface! (I’ll have to do a separate post about that sometime soon!)

Vasari: I can barely afford to get these paints all that often, but oh my word, they are luscious. Many artists consider these the “best of the best.” Right now (early 2016) they are having their once-a-year grey sale, and in addition, Titanium-Zinc is on sale. I LOVE their whites! Their minimum mail order is $100, but as I type this, shipping is free for a limited time! Their large tube of 175 mL white is about $35 on sale, which is not a bad deal when you consider that Old Holland’s and Blockx’s 200 mL tubes sell for $40-$50 or thereabouts these days.

“Scottish Wildcat” oil on canvas panel. I stuck it in here to break up the monotony. Painted with artist-grade paints.

SHORT LIST OF OTHER OIL PAINT BRANDS THAT I LIKE AND USE: Because I love paint too much and want to have it ALL!

Gamblin, especially their Cadmium colors, Cerulean Blue, and Alizarin Crimson Permanent. I tend to avoid their whites.

Maimeri Puro. All of these paints are very nice. I love their Titanium White. A bit pricey, but I’ll still pick up a tube now and then.

Michael Harding, especially their whites. I have large tubes of some of my all-time favorite colors, like Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Red Oxide. Lovely paint!

Williamsburg: OH MY GOSH, their Titanium-Zinc white is the bomb! All their colors are great. Love them. If you want a “cream white” (a warm white for mixing) try Williamsburg’s Brilliant Yellow Extra Pale. Wonderful stuff.

“CHEAPER” Artist Grade Paints that I will buy and use: Okay, some of these are not that much cheaper, but they’re still listed here.

I think you are already getting the impression that there is no paint that I won’t use at least some of the time! That is mostly true. Most paints listed on DickBlick’s “Artist Grade” category have a place in my paint box. That ought to tell you something—either I’m not too picky, or most artist grade paints are okay. I think it’s the latter.

Winsor & Newton Artist Grade: Flake White Hue, Cerulean Blue, and Permanent Alizarin are must-haves from W&N. I confess that I tend to avoid W&N paints, because as I mentioned earlier, all I ever got to use growing up was W&N and Grumbacher, so I feel like I want to branch out. But that doesn’t mean that W&N isn’t a perfectly acceptable brand to use.

Grumbacher Pre-Tested: I’m using a lot of Grumbacher’s Transparent Oxide Red these days. Such a good deal! Like with W&N, I feel like I “overused” Grumbacher when I was growing up (I started painting young). It’s still an okay brand, though.

LeFranc & Bourgeois: Their Titanium White and Titanium-Zinc White are some of my favorite whites, and so affordable too! I’m also fond of their Transparent Oxide Red. Good quality for the low price.

Weber Permalba: I confess I mostly only use their Permalba White and Permalba Black. But I have a few of their other tubes in my paint box and they are okay. I don’t feel that they’re always very strong, but not bad. Some people love Permalba White, others don’t—it’s a matter of taste. Since I am in the camp that loves it, I stock up when Permalba White is on sale for less than $10 per 150 mL! Such a deal. My first oil painting teacher, Shirlee, always had Permalba by her side, so I guess that’s partly why I love my Permalba too.

Rembrandt: This is a lovely line of paint, and most of their colors are perfectly fine. I like their Ivory Black, because it has a touch of blue in it (which makes for a cooler black, which I prefer).

Richeson Shiva: These are very affordable, but within the “artist grade” range. I was not impressed with their Transparent Red Oxide, alas. I do sometimes use their cadmiums and their Whites. Be careful, a few of their colors may not be lightfast.

Utecht: Their Utrecht White is great! (It’s their version of Titanium-Zinc.) I also like their Cadmiums, but they do tend to dry and gum up rather quickly. When you can get these paints on sale, they can be an exceptional deal.

DaVinci: They tend to be a bit on the stiff side for my tastes, but I have used them and will occasionally still buy a tube.

Lukas 1862: Another “guilty pleasure,” because while these are perfectly fine paints, they do tend to dry a bit fast. I think that Lukas tends to overdo the driers in their colors. Don’t get me wrong, they still are fine, but I am finding that some of the tubes I got a few years ago are starting to get a tad stiff. Their cadmiums are quite nice for the price, though. I am not at all crazy about their Titanium white (too opaque). The “Lukas Studio” white is better, probably because it’s got a bit more filler in it, and therefore is not as opaque.

Charvin Fine: These could be classified as “high end student grade,” but I find that I love their custom mixes! I can’t do without Charron Blue and Julia Pink. (Other pale cool blues and pinks would also work okay.) I use these two colors all the time to lighten a mixture while adding some needed coolness or warmth. Charron Blue is similar to King’s Blue, which is a favorite color (for mixing) among many artists. While I could get the more expensive Charvin Extra Fine, I find that they are too high-priced for the value (except that I do love the Extra Fine Alizarin Crimson, which has good lightfastness). Also, I got quite a few tubes of Charvin Extra Fine which had already started to stiffen. So I stick with Charvin Fine only.

STUDENT GRADE PAINTS THAT ARE OKAY: While many artists still use student grade and still claim that it works fine for them, I’m done with my student paint days. That’s all I used for way too long! But, I will admit that a few brands are okay in a pinch:

Charvin Fine: As I mentioned above, I like their custom mixes the best. I will sometimes use regular colors like white, black, yellow ochre, and they seem fine. I wouldn’t switch to using them all the time, but in truth they are okay.

Maimeri Classico: These are actually pretty good, considering! Their cadmiums seem decent. Some colors tend to get excessively oily.

Lukas Studio: I don’t use them all the time because they use “lookalike” pigments and color mixtures more (instead of real cadmium, they use some mixtures of cheaper pigments to emulate cadmium). But they’re not that bad! Their white is pretty decent.

“Blue Dreds,” 5×7: oil on oil-primed panel. Painted with all student paints as an experiment.

WORD OF MOUTH, OR WHAT BRANDS ARE OFTEN FAVORED BY OTHER ARTISTS: Many artists I know like Winsor & Newton and Grumbacher. Gamblin, Utrecht, LeFranc & Bourgeous, Rembrandt, Blockx, and Old Holland are among the brands I’ve heard others rave about. There seems to be a great fondness for Old Holland among many as well, as it’s often considered “the” best brand out there. (I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s great paint!) I first learned about Blue Ridge thanks to some online artist friends, who were hardcore fans.

THAT’S ALL FOR NOW. I love to talk about paint, but enough is enough! I will need to write a second part to this post later. This is already oppressively long!

 

 

 

 

14 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. Great information, with a touch of Clague humor!

    • Thanks, Peggy! You know how I am! I am unabashedly a paint snob! Poor Adam has endured me looking at that tube of paint as if it was something profane! LOL!

  2. You could also mention that your actual painting technique can impact on what quality you require; I use student quality paint for a lot of what I have to do because I build everything up on layers of transparent and opaque washes to create urban landscapes scenes. The most expensive part of my process is the solvent ‘zestit’, which is less toxic and it smells much better than turps or white spirit, but it’s expensive. I use a lot of that to dissolve much of my painting that’s already on the canvas and then to run even more washes over it; you certainly wouldn’t want to be using expensive paint for that part. Then I tie it all together with drawing using LUKAS 1862. ‘Lukas 1862’ dries fast and is great for the final episode of the painting but it’s too expensive a product to end up washed or dissolved onto the studio floor.

    • Bill, thanks for your response! Very good point! For your process, I can understand why you’d use student paint for the lower layers, and that makes a lot of sense.

  3. If these paintings are examples of your work, then buy cheap, that’s my advice; plus learns to draw first rather than copy photographs. Basically you are no position technically do give anyone advice on painting or anything else to do with technique. Professional paints your having a larf, either that or your delusional, sorry but someone needs to break it to you.

    • Lisa, since your email address hints at what you’re trying to do (push buttons), I’ll just leave your comment as it is. LOL!

    • I find this comment very harsh and unessesary. I wish every artist would frankly and generously share their experience and findings with materials as J did here. We can all benefit from each other. BTW I can draw and do more than 90% of my drawing and paintings from life. I am also trained in a classical atelier for more than four years with an emphasis on techniques and materials. I still find these discussions very helpful. Using professional and high quality materials are important, especially when one is just starting and learning, therefore needs all the help they can get. Good brushes, paints and painting surfaces are of tremendous help and can save the artist a tin of frustrations when they are just starting out. I certainly felt as my technical abilities progress I learned to make slightly stiffer or runnier paints work, but when I just started at the atelier slight variations in the butteriness or drying speed of paints often made me very perplexed and frustrated. I wish more painters had shared their knowledge of materials like this! Recommending good materials is not being snobbish, or elitist. I will save on my clothes or car but not on my paints and brushes.

      J, can I ask you why you don’t like Gamblin’s whites? Are they too chalky, too opaque, not opaque enough… in general compared to, say, Williamsburg or Permelba?

      • Thanks, Arena! I think lisa goes around trolling art blogs. Especially ironic in this case is when she admonishes me to learn to draw, when so many of my posts show my drawings or paintings done from life, or are where I am touting working from life, etc! Silly, really. I think many trolls push it too far and then lose any chance of being taken seriously.

        I agree that discussion about art materials is important, and one need not be a master painter in order to discern what brands are good and which ones aren’t.

        The warning against Gamblin’s whites is due to something I saw online where a guy did a test of many whites. Over the years, Gamblin’s whites yellowed far more than the average (though it wasn’t the worst out there).

  4. I bought a set of Masters Touch. I’m going to try to paint southwest Texas landscapes, which require reds, yellows, blues, etc.

    I hope MT are up to the task…..

    I did lots of art in high school and college MANY years ago and now I thought why not pick it back up….

    We’ll see!

    Cheers!
    Brian

    • I hope they work out for you, Brian! Let me know what you think! 🙂

  5. I just bought a set of Masters Touch and probably should have read your blog before my purchase. Ive been recovering from a series of strokes and thought id see if i can still paint a bit. I especially liked the info on specific shades and brands in case i see improvement. I really appreciate your help.

    • Thanks, I’m so glad my post was helpful, Kat! If you find yourself struggling, especially with color mixing, remember that sometimes the cheaper paints can make it worse. Even swapping out a few problem colors for something a little better can help. I’m sure you’ll do great!

  6. Hi Mr. Dunster,

    Thank you so much for your very helpful article on paints you like! After reading this wonderful page I went to Hobby Lobby and bought a tube of W&N Flake White Hue! It is so spectacular! I love it! Maybe I’ll try the Permanent Alizarin or Cerulean Blue. You are extremely good at painting people and cats! 😀 I’m not a good painter but it is so much fun for me! It is a real challenge for me because my hand shakes sometimes. Now I know what the “good” paints are; thank you so very much for this explanation! 😀

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Matthew! You chose very well with W&N Flake White Hue! You keep on painting and enjoying the learning process–that is the path to excellence.

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