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 oil paint and the various lightfastness ratings. In this continuing article we’ll take closer look at the different grades of oil paint and what they mean.

Different Grades of Oil Paint

tube of oil paintOil paint comes in two grades: artist grade and student grade. The main difference between the two types is the potency or concentration of the pigment that is in the paint. What this means is, artist grade oil paint will stretch further than student grade will because it contains more pigment. Artist grade paints (sometimes called professional paints) are made from the purist ingredients and contain a higher ratio of pigment to oil base. That ratio 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 as they can be stretched further than student grade. Also, artist paints have better mixability and truer color because there are no fillers like there are in student grade paints.

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 true 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 do true pigments and they tend to get muddy and dull when mixed together. 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 because the strength of the pigment is weaker (less potent) in student grade paint and will actually take more paint to mix the color you desire than if you used the stronger (more potent) artist grade. 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.

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

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

art brush careThere is such a wide selection of oil paint brands available it’s hard to know where to begin. Hopefully when you finish reading this article you will have a little better idea of what oil paint is and which one to use.

The Ingredients in Oil Paint

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, it can be made with walnut oil, poppy seed oil, safflower oil or other less popular oils.

Linseed oil comes from the flax seed and gives oil paints a longer drying time. This allows the paint to be worked with for longer periods of time, 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 artists leisure. A disadvantage of longer drying times, is the painting might take months or years to completely dry depending upon how thick 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 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 from organic ones, such as plants and animals. Examples include Mars Brown which comes from iron oxide or Ivory Black which comes from charred animal bones. Natural pigments have been around for centuries and were used by the Old Masters who would make their own paints just prior to 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, pthalocyanine and dioxazine. Fortunately these paints have maintained their natural pigment names for historical and cultural reasons.


There is very little difference between the modern day natural and synthetic pigments in regards to 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 paints ability to resist fading when exposed to ultra violet 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 they must not break down chemically or physically if the work is going to last through the ages like the Old Master’s.

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 individual 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

Obviously you would want your oil paints to have a lightfastness of a I or II.

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

Artist Grade or Student Grade Oil Paint, Making a Choice

tube of 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 desire effect. 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. There are differences between the two, however, the most notable difference is the price. Knowing the qualities each grade has to offer will make it easier to decide which one is just right for you.

Artist Grade Oil Paints

Artist or professional 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. 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 oil colors have a less concentration of pigment, however, less pigment means they are less expensive formulas. This is an added benefit for the art student or novice just starting out. The more expensive 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. 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 for covering larger areas of the canvas.

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

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 will stick with it. 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 article titled “What Every Oil Painter Needs to Know About Artist Oils, Part 2“.