What Every Oil Painter Needs to Know About Artist Oils, Part 2

In part 1 of “What Every Oil Painter Needs to Know About Artist Oils,” we looked at the ingredients that go into artist oils and the various lightfastness ratings. In this continuing article, we’ll take a closer look at the different grades of oil paint and what they mean.

Artist Oils: Artist-Grade vs. Student-Grade

artist oilsArtist oils come in two grades: artist-grade and student-grade. The main difference between the two types of oil paint is the potency or concentration of the pigment. This means that artist-grade oil paint will stretch further than a student-grade will because it contains more pigment.

Artist-Grade Oils

Artist-grade paints (sometimes called professional paints) are made from the purest ingredients and contain a higher ratio of pigment to oil base. That percentage can be as high as 75% pigment to 25% oil base for some colors. This usually makes them more expensive to purchase than student paints. However, it also means artist-grade paints will be more economical in the long run because they will stretch further. Also, artist paints have better mixability and truer color because there are no fillers like in student-grade.

Student-Grade Oils

Student-grade colors are often called “hues” on the label. The word “hue” means imitation or fake. This means that the pigment is artificial and not a true pigment. For example, Cadmium Red Hue is an imitation version of the actual pigment known as Cadmium Red. Student-grade paints were created to reduce the cost or toxicity of true pigments.

They have different mixability and opacity characteristics than true pigments, and they tend to get muddy and dull when mixed. Student-grade of paint is cheaper because of the ingredients – they contain less pigment and more filler. Filler costs much less than the purer, concentrated ingredients in artist-grade paints. However, just because the paint is priced cheaper does not mean it is more economical. When mixing color with student-grade paint, you will need much more paint to get the final color you are trying to mix. This is because the strength of the pigment is weaker (less potent) in student-grade and will take more to mix the color you desire. In addition, student-grade oil paints come in fewer colors than artist-grade oil paints.

Whenever possible, it’s best to purchase artist-quality paint rather than student because you get more pigment in a tube, and the results from color mixing are more intense and brighter. In addition, if you mix student-grade with artist-grade, you risk reducing the quality of the better grade paint rather than improving the quality of the lesser grade. If you need to save money, consider painting on smaller canvases or using the lesser grade paints as the under-painting saving the finer quality paints for the upper layers.

Knowing which oil paint is best suited for your particular needs will save you time and money in the long run. Do a little research on your own, compare labels and prices. Look at some consumer reports and reviews written by other artists. You should be able to find the type that suits you best.

I hope this article takes some of the mystery out of which oil paints to use for your paintings. Being more familiar with the materials you work with will make you a better artist.

Additional Reading

For more information on the subject of artist-grade vs. student-grade oil paint, see the article titled “Artist Grade or Student Grade Oil Paint, Making a Choice.”

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UPDATED: 15 March 2021

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What Every Oil Painter Needs to Know About Artist Oils, Part 1

about artist oilsThere is such a wide selection of oil paint brands available it’s hard to know where to begin. Hopefully, when you finish reading this two-part article, you will have a little better idea of what artist oils are and which one to use.

The Ingredients in Artist Oils

Oil paints are made up of pigment that has been ground into an oil base, called the vehicle or binder. The most commonly used vehicle is cold-pressed linseed oil. However, artist oils may be made with walnut oil, poppy seed oil, safflower oil, or other less popular oils.

Linseed oil comes from the flaxseed and gives oil paints a longer drying time. This allows the paint to be worked with for extended periods, sometimes even up to several months. The advantage of a longer drying time means the artist can develop a painting by making changes and corrections at the artist’s leisure. A disadvantage of longer drying times is the painting might take months or years to completely dry, depending on how thickly the paint was applied to canvas. This might be an issue if you have a customer anxiously waiting for the painting to dry so he/she can take possession of it.

oil paint pigment

The pigment is where paint gets its color. A paint color gets its name from the pigment that is used. We first got our pigments from the earth in the form of rocks or powder, but now it is also manufactured from synthetic materials. Some of the oldest pigments known to man are made from colored earth, like Yellow Ochre, Sienna, and Umber. Other pigments are derived from mineral salts such as White Oxide.

Pigment can be divided into two categories, these are:

    • Natural pigments – A pigment derived from naturally occurring compounds, either inorganic, such as rocks, minerals, and metals; or organic ones, such as plants and animals. Examples include Mars Brown, which comes from iron oxide, or Ivory Black that comes from charred animal bones. Natural pigments have been around for centuries and were used by the Old Masters, who would make their paints before starting a painting session. A lot of the natural pigments in use today are manufactured from inorganic substances.
    • Synthetic pigments – An artificial pigment made by chemists from carbon-based molecules derived from petroleum substances, acids, and other chemical compounds. Most of the oil paints we use today are made from synthetic pigments, such as quinacridone, phthalocyanine, and dioxazine. Fortunately, these paints have maintained their natural pigment names for historical and cultural reasons.

Lightfastness of Artist Oils

There is very little difference between modern-day natural and synthetic pigments regarding their potency of color and ability to mix well with other oil paints. However, an important factor to consider in any paint is its lightfastness. Lightfastness is a paint’s ability to resist fading when exposed to ultraviolet light. This is important because it determines the length of time a pigment will retain its original color. In other words, it determines the life expectancy of the work of art. A pigment must have lightfastness, and it must not break down chemically or physically if the work is going to last through the ages like the Old Masters.

To determine the lightfastness of your oil paints, look for the official American Society for Testing and Materials Standard (ASTM) rating information on the labels of each tube of paint. The ASTM is an independent organization that was established to create a worldwide standard for pigment permanence. The following pigment ratings were established in 1984.

Lightfastness ratings:

    • ASTM I – Excellent
    • ASTM II – Very Good
    • ASTM III – Not Sufficient enough to be used in artists’ paints

You would want your oil paints to have the lightfastness of an I or II.

To Be Continued…

This article is continued in “What Every Oil Painter Needs to Know About Artist Oils, Part 2,” where we’ll take a closer look at the different grades of oil paint and what they mean.

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Artist Grade or Student Grade Oil Paint, Making a Choice

artist grade or student grade oil paintArtist grade or student grade oil paint, making a choice on which is best to use, is the topic of this article. But first, an introduction on what oil paints are.

Traditional oil paints continue to be the most popular of all painting media used by artists today. They are versatile and provide a richness and depth of color that is unsurpassed by any other painting media. Drying time takes longer; however, this allows the artist to blend and rework the paint to achieve the desired effect. In addition, oil paints are more durable than other painting media and are more resistant to fading.

There are two types of oil paints available, artist grade and student grade. However, there are differences between the two, and the most notable difference is the price. Knowing the qualities each grade offers will make it easier to decide which one is just right for you.

Artist Grade Oil Paints

Artist or professional grade oil colors are made with the purest and finest quality ingredients. That means a full load of pigment, suspended in a drying oil called a binder, either linseed oil, safflower oil, poppy seed oil, or walnut oil. Linseed oil is the most common binder, however. As a result, the colors in artist grade oils are much more vibrant and concentrated. They are also ideal for gaining color mixing experience. Artist grade paints come in a wide variety of colors and work best when used on gesso-primed surfaces.

Click for more information about using gesso as a primer on canvas.

Student Grade Oil Paints

Student or academy grade oil colors have less pigment concentration; however, less pigment means less expensive formulas. This is an added benefit for the art student or novice just starting. The more costly pigments are generally replicated by hues. Although working with student oils is similar to working with professional artist oils in terms of consistency and opacity, no matter the color, the hues may not have the same mixing characteristics as regular full-strength colors. In addition, student grade oils come in a limited range of colors.

How To Choose

The primary difference between artist grade and student grade oil colors is the amount of pigment in the paint. The extra pigment accounts for the higher cost of artist-grade oil paints. It also means that the color covers more surface when used with mediums and is available in more colors than student grade.

Student grade oil colors have their advantages. Some artists prefer using them as the underpainting and then finishing up the detailed work with artist-grade oils. Because they are more economical, they can be used for experimenting with and covering larger canvas areas.

A summary of the benefits of each grade will help you to decide.

Artist Grade
– High quality
– Vibrant colors
– Gain better experience with mixing colors
– Larger range of colors

Student Grade
– Less expensive
– Great practice for beginners or novices
– Same price for every color
– Great for the large areas in a painting

Popular Artist Oil Paints

Below is a list of some popular brands of oil paint. This is by no means a complete list; however, it will get you started. Eventually, you will come across a brand you like better than any of them and stick with it. In addition, some brands manufacture both artist-grade and student-grade oil colors.

Artist Grade Oil Colors
– Gamblin* Artist’s Oil Colors
– Grumbacher* Pre-Tested Artists’ Oil Colors
– Old Holland Classic Oil Colors
– Rembrandt Artists’ Oil Colors
– Winsor & Newton* Artist Oil Colors

*Brands that manufacture both professional and student grade oil colors.

Student Grade Oil Colors
– Gamblin 1980 Oil Colors
– Grumbacher Academy Oil Colors
– Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colors

For more information about the different grades of artist oils, see the article titled “What Every Oil Painter Needs to Know About Artist Oils, Part 2“.

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