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

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.)

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An experiment in acrylics & limited palette

“Jason in Acrylics,” 4×5″ acrylic on canvas panel. Thanks to Jason Aaron Baca (model) and Portia Shao (photographer) for the stock photo used as reference!

Another experiment with student paint (sort of) as well as an attempt to get better at acrylics! I dabbled with some acrylics recently, and was so abysmal at it, that I have now decided to try to improve my skills. I don’t recall having such dire issues with acrylics when I was much younger, but I paint differently now, I guess.

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A word about student paint

“Jorge – Zorn Palette” approx. 4×6″ oil on unstretched canvas. (From a canvas pad.) If loving Jorge Salinas is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

So… I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to do a review, or perhaps a treatise, on the subject of student-quality paints.

Lately I’ve had reason to shop at the North-American-based chain craft/art supply stores, Michael’s and Hobby Lobby. I realized that for many people, these types of stores are their only access to art materials, at least hands-on. So, I thought I’d explore what it would be like for a new artist to try to select paints (oils or acrylics) from one of these stores, while also being budget-minded.

So I purchased some oil and acrylic sets from both stores (haven’t finished collecting my samples yet) with the intent of trying them out and reporting back what I experienced.

An overview of chain craft store brand paints.

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Mini Tutorial: A bit about paints

I have “Tutorials” listed as a menu item in this blog, but I barely have any tutorials! So I thought I’d do a quick one on one of my favorite subjects: Art materials. I’ll cover some of my favorite products and give a few recommendations as well.

PAINT: Oil and Acrylics, which are better?

Some people who haven’t done a lot of painting get a little confused about which is “better,” oils or acrylics? The answer is, there really isn’t any “better,” these are different types of paints and will fulfill different needs.

Oils are my favorite, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like acrylics as well. I like oils because they’re so forgiving—mess up and you have time to fix it, wipe it off and blend it away . . . not as easy to do with acrylics.

Acrylics are great too, no fuss, just thin with water, easy to clean, don’t have to wait to dry! What’s not to love?

Each will appeal in their own way.

OIL PAINTS

Oil paint myths, or things you may have heard about oils that are not actually true.

They really don’t cost that much more. Oils are more dense (you can tell this when you pick up a tube, they are often heavier!). Less goes farther. That’s why tubes of acrylics are larger, to compensate for the relative ‘fluffiness’ they have compared to oils.

They are not so deadly toxic, so don’t be afraid of them!  In some cases they are no more toxic than acrylics (depending on which pigments you choose). Cadmium is cadmium (toxic pigment that you don’t want to breathe in or ingest). It doesn’t matter if it’s cadmium in oils or acrylics, it’s still cadmium, right? Don’t assume that all acrylic colors are non-toxic and won’t hurt you. Check the health warning labels on both acrylic or oil colors to see what the risks are. (And remember, just because some of these pigments are classified as toxic, it doesn’t mean anyone who paints with them is immediately going to drop dead. Don’t bring food to your painting area, don’t breathe dried paint dust, wash your hands and change dirty clothes after painting: all these things reduce your risks significantly.)

It’s the solvent (thinner) you use, not the paint itself, that has more potential to be harmful. If you paint in oils but remain “solvent-free” (don’t use paint thinner, turpentine, mineral spirits) then basically all you’re breathing in is the oils (which for most people is not a problem) and whatever additives are in the paint, most which are not going to cause problems. You can get around painting with solvents by either thinning everything with an oil like linseed, safflower oil, etc., or using a non-toxic thinner like Weber Turpenoid Natural. (I use a lot of this stuff myself, but don’t mix it too heavily into my paints—mostly use it to clean my brushes between mixing colors.)

They don’t have to take forever to dry: I use an alkyd-based medium like Winsor & Newton Liquin which speeds up the drying time by a lot. Often my painting is dry to the touch after about 12-24 hours. If you paint thicker, the drying time will be longer, but not weeks and weeks!

You don’t always save money by buying student paint. It depends on which pigments you use, and where you go to shop. If you shop at your local Michael’s or other chain craft store, you might be paying almost as much for student grade paint as you could pay for artist grade through mail order. For example, wait until there’s a coupon or code and you can get some very nice cadmium colors for very affordable prices from Utrecht. Utrecht Oil colors, 37ml tube. I get a lot of my paints from Utrecht (always during a sale, always!). Many other brands of artist grade are on the “lower end range” (but still artist grade) and will do better for you (and be as cheap or cheaper) than student grade. Such brands include Lefranc & Bourgeois Artists’ Oils and Richeson Oils The Shiva Series. Wait for the sale, the discount coupon, something, and get a higher quality paint for a student grade price! (By the way, some friends have reported that some of the Utrecht colors “gum up” [start to dry] faster than other brands, so if you are concerned about that, either use some sort of covered palette [like this one, I love this one], or only place down enough paint for one or two days, so you don’t waste paint.)

Recommended oil colors (some of my favorites):

WHITE is the most important of all. If you can’t afford any other artist grade paint, at least get an artist grade white. Some nice quality whites are:

You can also choose the “Titanium White” variation on any of these brands (except Permalba, only get “Permalba White”). I just like the Titanium-Zinc mixtures best. Utrecht’s “Utrecht White” (Titanium-Zinc) is also good, but I was too lazy to put it on the list! Either Titanium-Zinc or Titanium will do you fine!

If you want to go up a little higher on the paint food chain, here are some pricier (but fabulous) whites:

What about other whites, like ones that contain lead?

I like lead white (aka Flemish White, Flake White, Cremnitz White). You don’t have to use them, but they are nice for portraits. Just take care, because you know, the lead thing. For an affordable (and in plentiful supply) lead white, I recommend Utrecht Flemish or Flake White (when on sale, the 150 mL tubes are very affordable!). You’ll have to do a quick search on Utrecht’s site for their Flemish or Flake whites.

OTHER OIL COLORS:

I spend so much time obsessing about white, I neglect the other colors! Here’s my current short list of favorite oil colors that are must-haves for my palette:

  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson: (Currently I’m using Blick’s Permanent Alizarin Crimson, but Winsor & Newton and Gamblin’s Alizarin Permanent are excellent too. By the way, the great Richard Schmid recommends the Winsor & Newton and Gamblin! So there you go!) BE SURE TO GET THE “PERMANENT” variant of Alizarin Crimson. The regular Alizarin Crimson will fade over time and is considered “fugitive.”
  • Cadmium Red Light:  Right now my favorite is Holbein but many other brands are fine. Utrecht is also good. (Watch out for it gumming up early, but for the lower price, it’s worth the risk!) I’m also very partial to Blue Ridge Artist colors—very high quality, and surprisingly affordable prices for Cadmiums!
  • Yellow Ochre: Many brands are fine. I don’t have a strong preference in brand right now.
  • Cadmium Yellow Lemon (or Light): It’s got to be a cool, cool yellow. Lemon is best if you can get it. Right now I’m using Richeson Oils The Shiva Series brand, but again Utrecht’s version is good too.
  • Ultramarine Blue: There are so many good Ultramarines! Lefranc & Bourgeois is a good but affordable blue (anything that says “Ultramarine Blue” in it will work) but I admit that I find Blockx’s Ultramarines to be soooo fine!
  • “Bright Blue”, Prussian Blue or Phthalo Blue: Another richer, stronger blue. Both Prussian Blue and Phthalo are super-strong blues, a little goes a long way. They can easily overpower a mixture, but they are great for mixing blacks and other strong, dark colors. Most brands will do, because both Prussian and Phthalo are so strong that even the cheaper brands still pack a punch. Another variation that I like a lot is Utrecht’s Bright Blue. It’s a mix of Phthalo and Ultramarine and is a nice, nice blue. (You’ll have to do a bit of hunting on the Utrecht page to find Bright Blue, as I can’t seem to link to it directly.)
  • Transparent Red Oxide: Lefranc & Bourgeois has a good version of this, as well as Blockx’s Transparent Mars Red. Sublime! I consider Transparent Red Oxide as a must-have, even more important than other earths (like Burnt Sienna). They are great in mixtures as well as for tinting the entire canvas in preparation for starting a new painting.
  • Burnt Sienna, English Red, Mars Red or other “earth”: Most earth pigments are fairly affordable, so even the cheaper brands should be okay. But some are better than others! Blick Artists’ Oil Color have some good colors.

Save money, and learn color control by using limited palettes:

This works for both oils and acrylics.

If you are trying to trim down how many paints you use, or are afraid to invest in a lot of oil paints for fear you won’t like them, try a limited palette. The most obvious first choice is the Zorn Palette:

Painting done with Zorn Palette. (Thanks to Jason Aaron Baca and Portia Shao for the stock photo I used as reference!)

The Zorn Palette consists of only four pigments: White, Black, Vermillion, and Yellow Ochre. (Read more about it in this post.) There’s so many colors you can get from just these four colors. For doing a painting like the one I show above, I recommend a Cadmium Red Light (which is more vibrant and a bit “cooler” than other vermillions). An Ivory Black is “cooler” than other blacks, so that’s a good way to go.

Okay, that’s enough about oil paints for today!

Please note: I’m an “affiliate” with the online stores, whose links I give above. That means that I may get a small commission for any sale that results from visitors visiting these links. I shop at these stores all the time and would link to these stores regardless of whether I would get a commission or not! 🙂

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Blue Dreads – oil on panel

Yep, another study from a stock photo I found on DeviantArt! This time it’s a fellow named This-is-RArt. I loved his blue dreadlocks.

Blue Dreads, 5×7″ oil on panel

I’m studying warm and cool tones, and how they relate to the portrait especially. After attending a workshop taught by Adam Clague, I have felt like something has “clicked” and I’m seeing things differently! It’s strange, because it’s not like I didn’t “see” before—I’ve been drawing and painting for a long time.

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Zorn Study with Soho Oil Paints

Zorn Palette Study w/ Soho Oil Paints

One of the things I like to do sometimes is to see how “low can I go”? I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean in price and affordability, not necessarily quality.

Soho Oil Colors, sold exclusively in the USA by Jerry’s Artarama and ASW (sister companies) is touted as an affordable student paint with a buttery consistency. I have tried several tubes because the prices can be soooo tempting. If you wait for a sale, you can get a large 170 mL tube for about $4-5 dollars!

But it’s a budget paint. They don’t promise artist-grade quality for that price. However, if you choose your colors carefully and mix with higher grade paints (Lukas Studio will do, as well as the ever-popular Winsor & Newton Artist Oil Colors, Old Holland, Blockx, and so forth) you can do pretty well.

For this little oil study, I thought I’d use several stronger colors from Soho and add a higher quality white. The colors I chose were:

  • Michael Harding Titanium White
  • Soho Light Red (an iron earth red/brown)
  • Soho Yellow Ochre
  • Soho Ivory Black

This is sometimes called the “Zorn Palette” because it uses a very limited palette consisting of an earth red/brown, an earth yellow, black, and white. A cool black (like Ivory) can almost create the illusion of a blue, if mixed right.

What I like about using this palette is that you can save a lot of money, use only a few colors, yet get a “full color” painting. This palette can work very well for portraits.

 

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Lady with a Flowery Hat — Limited Palette

Recently I decided to enter a Jerry’s Artarama art contest. I had nothing to lose, and if I won, I’d get a gift certificate for Jerry’s. Since I am officially an art materials junkie, this sounded very appealing!

The challenge was to use specific art materials. For the contest I entered, it was Jerry’s “house brand” of Soho oil paints. Soho is student grade, and very affordable. I had already bought a set of Soho Oils (because I’m an art materials junkie, remember?) so I proceeded to do two paintings using these paints.

I won’t lie, I love my artist-grade oil paints, but this challenge was a lot of fun and I’m glad I undertook it.

lady in flowery hat6×8 inches on Pintura Painting Panel, using Soho Oil Paint brand. Limited palette of Titanium White, Light Red, Ultramarine Blue, and Prussian Blue. (Another painting where I used no model or reference.)

Well, I got the news a few days ago, I got an honorable mention. So that means a nice little gift certificate for Jerry’s, which was of course, the whole point! 😉

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