(We are not financially affiliated with any of the artists or products mentioned in this post)
There are so many choices, almost too many it seems at times (somewhere North of 160 hues). That plethora of colors can become confusing – even for the seasoned artist. I have discovered that professional quality paints are made really well by each of the major brands. We just need to decide which slight variation we love most.
The most important consideration is professional vs. student grade paints. Remember, learning to paint well is tough enough – let’s not sabotage our efforts, especially with the most important ingredient.
As tempting as it may seem to save a few bucks and buy student grade paints…DON’T! The pigment load is much thinner. Think about painting a room – there are some paints that can cover your wall with one coat, other paints that may take quite a few coats – that’s pigment load.
It’s also much easier to learn when we use consistent quality materials.
This is the easy part, right?
After all, the best artists in the world have used the science of color to determine the exact pigments necessary for mixing every color we will need for landscape or portrait work – haven’t they?
Do a little research and you will find many of the top artists’ palettes online. What you will quickly notice is that no two professional artists’ color choices are exactly the same – in fact there doesn’t seem to be any real consensus at all – the colors vary widely, even among artists with similar styles or approaches.
As you study artists and their palettes you will notice that there is no secret formula for choosing paint brands or colors. The only perfect palette is the one that works for you, and even then you may experiment and switch a color now and then.
So in developing your palette, a helpful starting point might be to find an artist you particularly admire and use theirs, then add or eliminate a color once in a while and see how you like it.
My Palette consists of a warm and cool version of each of the major hues plus some earth colors:
Cadmium Lemon (cool)
Cadmium Yellow Medium (warm)
Cadmium Orange (optional)
Quinacridone Red (cool – for clean lavenders in my flowers rather than dirtier Alizarin)
Alizarin Crimson Permanent (cool – can’t do without it for my darkest dark shadows when mixed with Ultramarine Blue)
Cadmium Red Light (warm, but cooler than cad red med)
Cadmium Red Medium (warm)
Transparent Oxide Yellow (replaces yellow ochre)
Transparent Oxide Orange (replaces raw sienna)
Transparent Oxide Red (replaces burnt sienna)
Phthalo Blue Green Shade (cool)
Ultramarine Blue (warm)
Manganese Blue (optional – cooler than ultra blue)
Phthalo Green (cool)
Permanent Sap Green (optional – warm)
Chromiumm Oxide Green (very optional)
Back in the late 80’s I started using Utrecht and Gamblin paints because I could buy them in the larger 150 ml tubes. I still use them today – although recently I tried out RGH and Michael Harding. Michael Harding paints are incredible (which I didn’t really expect since I like most professional paints – I used Rembrandt in college and loved them – at the time they didn’t offer the 150 ml tubes or I might still be using them today) – many of the RGH paints seem to be high quality, but their titanium white paint has too much oil or something – it literally takes weeks to dry, rather than the usual 3-6 days – that alone causes me to pause when thinking of purchasing more paint from them (although I love the Blue Black they sent me as a free sample). Gamblin has the most complete selection of the colors I use, but often it comes down to what’s on sale when it’s time to replenish my supplies.
Paint Price Comparison
For those on a budget – when every penny counts (I’ve certainly been there) – here is an approximate cost per ml of the professional brands of paint, using Ultramarine Blue as the common denominator. Of course these costs can change, but overall they stay pretty constant unless you find them on sale.
How fast one paint dries compared to another isn’t something I think about, unless I try some paint from a new company like RGH and the white ends up taking weeks to dry, instead of days like I’m used to.
For those of you who really take the fat over lean concept to the limits, or you just have a deadline and need to make sure your painting is ready, it might be helpful to know how long it takes overall for one pigment to dry compared to another.
The most important paint on our palette is white – we use a lot of it – it’s mixed with just about every other color at one time or another. I would suggest getting a couple different whites and trying them out from different manufacturers. Some will be creamier, some stiffer, some brighter – each has advantages depending on our painting styles and techniques.
If you are using an acrylic gesso on your canvas or panel, be cognizant of any Zinc in your oil paints – it has a tendency to delaminate more easily than titanium. You don’t want to do a Pollock paint peel.
Also, even on an oil or lead ground, zinc in white paint tends to crack or become brittle. If you choose to use zinc white (a favorite of Richard Schmid and Dan Gerhartz is Lefranc white which uses zinc), it might be prudent to use a panel rather than canvas.
Have fun with it all. Don’t get overly anxious about paint – the major brands do a fantastic job of creating exceptional paint – much better than what our predecessors had.
So relax and enjoy the process. Happy Painting!
What has been your go-to paints for your palette, and what paints have you learned to stay away from?
I just purchased Williamsburg and some Gamblin to replace the Winton. It seemed that when the paint dried the colors faded. Now what do I do with all that Winton?
I often use some student grade colors (VanGogh) with Gamsol (Gamblin odorless mineral spirit ) for the block-in (plein air or studio ).
I proceed with professional colors after, when it becomes more serious 😉
Hope this will be helpfull for you 🙂
This is exactly what I do.
A lot of great suggestions for you Christine – I think I would be prone to the canvas toning idea – maybe mix them together for a warm or cool grey under color, depending on your subject and approach. Donating them to a school is a great idea – although do we want to take a chance on getting a budding painter hooked on inferior paint – maybe a yard sale or studio clean out sale?
Perhaps toss it or maybe use it to tone ypur canvas b4 u start.
I really enjoyed this blog. I have asthma and use M. Graham paints. These do not affect my breathing at all. They are creamy and have beautiful colors. My only problem is their Alizeran. It is not lightfast so i will not waste my money.
In response to Christina N, contact a local high school or Community College. They will be greatful for the art supplies.
So glad to hear you enjoyed the post Christy! I agree, I think those who are affected negatively by oil paints are using some type of solvent. Use oil, especially walnut, as a solvent and there shouldn’t be any adverse reactions. I still like Gamblin’s permanent alizarin the best.
I have mostly Windsor Newton student grade simply due to the costs. Some colors like Cad Red or Cad Yellow are not great in this line so I have higher quality tubes in those colors. I’ve also been experimenting with other brands and higher quality paints. once my paintings begin selling for thousands, not hundreds, maybe I can afford all professional grade paints!
oh, and I avoid any paint sold at Hobby Lobby – terrible!
I think that is a sound policy Steve – canvases as well – although I do get some products from them with the 40% coupon that work well, like the Quick Dry spray!
You have not rated the water miscible oils. I use Artisan and Cobra. Do you have any suggestions with them. I also use M. Graham oils but have trouble with them in plein air because I have not found a way to thin them, without solvents, that is fast drying for a block in. Any suggestions?
You may want to sample Lukas Berlin water soluble oils (made with safflower). I catch them onsale at Jerry’s. However, I have gone to regular professional oils but use walnut oil for medium. I wasn’t satisfied with transparents in the water-based so have gone to mostly Rembrandts.
Rembrandt paints are excellent Kathy. I used them in the 80’s – if they had offered the 150 ml tubes like Gamblin and Utrecht I probably would have continued to use them. I am now trying other brands like Michael Harding and finding that I like them a lot. I will have to try out some Rembrandt colors again and see the comparison – in fact I still have some tubes from the 80’s that are in great condition – amazing how long high quality lasts.
I have not used water miscible oils Pam, but I have heard good things about Cobra and the Lukas Berlins Kathy mentions – many say the Lukas are more creamy than the other brands. As far as the M Graham, I use walnut oil to thin for my block-ins – no it isn’t fast drying and that can be inconvenient sometimes, but I love not needing any type of solvent (make sure you don’t use too much walnut oil though on an acrylic ground – it will bead up and not adhere well – at that point you will want to wipe it off and go again, or add more straight pigment to the mix). If you take straight paint and apply a thin layer with a paper towel or rag you will find it works also. There might be times that I revert back to some Gamsol for a specific type of wash, like a multi-colored light wash, but it’s been about 5 years and I haven’t needed it yet.
check out Marc Hanson’s reviews on the water soluble oils
What do u think about ARCHIVAL ?
I believe in using the highest quality materials I can find that work for my purposes Hakim. The word archival is tossed around a lot, but it’s not very useful since even professional grade products have flaws and will eventually deteriorate – very few products are likely to last centuries in today’s environment – I just hope my paintings last my lifetime and the life of those who purchase them – if it’s worth it to someone after that, some conservator will figure out how to preserve them. The reason to use professional grade is that they have much higher grade ingredients that will generally last decades longer than student grade and for most styles of painting they look and perform better which saves us unnecessary frustration – painting is challenging enough without the added problems that come from student grade materials.
Archival is a brand of oils made in Australia by Chroma, they are very flexible and not prone to cracking.
Great comments and ideas – thank you for sharing your insights everyone!
I have been using Georgian Paints and they are creamy and have good colour. I see that they are listed here as Student Grade. Should I be replacing them now? Since my paintings are selling (a few) and my work is improving, I would like to use good quality paints. I enjoyed this blog and am finally starting to use my subscription ! I have mostly all large tubes of Georgian Paints. I have been tied up with ‘life’ and haven’t updated my website, but do get out to paint at the Gibson Center with a retired Ontario College of Art professor as a mentor. I am nearing retirement age and would like to do my painting as my income. What are your comments on the Georgian Paints?
Good middle of the line paints for professional use are Winsor and Newton Artist grade and Gamblin oils. I can get W&N at Hobby Lobby and Gamblin at Michaels. Since they both offer 40% off coupons weekly, this has made it affordable for me to use artist grade paints. I, like you, am transitioning into selling my work and want to use quality materials. My favorite paints are Gamblin and Rembrandt but I also find that the W&N artist grade paints are good too and mix well with the Gamblin paints. To get a starting set of Gamblin paints, you may want to purchase a set at Amazon. The sets on there are very reasonable and some of the colors you get would be quite expensive otherwise, like the cadmium yellow light. I like the Gamblin gel medium too, it’s in a blue and white tube and it contains alkyd which makes the paints dry more quickly. Gamsol is a pleasant odorless thinner you may want to try as well.
I would never buy cheap canvases either. Learn to make your own canvases or boards so that they will be archival and save you some money.
The Georgian paints are full of fillers that will yellow and fade over time. I had an instructor who impressed this on viscerally by taking a tube of some yellow icky looking medium gel and putting a big glob of it on a palette. He took a bit of paint and mixed it with the gel. He said this is what you are getting when you buy cheap paints.
BYW – You show Utrecht ACRYLIC paint in your low price section.