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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Common Paint Media Used By Artists

common Paint MediaAn artistic medium is the painting material used by artists to create their art. (The plural of medium is media.) An artist may use “oil on canvas” or “tempera on wood,” etc., to compose a painting. Each item used in the creation of the painting is media. In this article, however, we are only going to look at paint as a medium. There are four common paint media used by artists: acrylics, oils, tempera, and watercolor.


Acrylic paint is a man-made, water-soluble paint containing pigment suspension in acrylic polymer emulsion. Even though they are water-soluble, acrylics become water-resistant after they have dried. Depending on how thickly the paint is applied to canvas, an acrylic painting can resemble a watercolor or an oil painting. Clean-up involves using soap and water. Acrylic paints are popular with many painters because of their fast-drying qualities.

    • Binder: acrylic polymer
    • Vehicle (solvent): water
    • Ground: prepared (gesso) or raw canvas, paper, wood, glass, etc.
    • Dries fast/permanent
    • Opaque/translucent/transparent
    • Versatile media – can be applied to almost any surface and may mimic oil, tempera, and watercolor paints.


Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint containing ground pigment (color) suspended in a natural drying oil (binder), commonly linseed oil. However, the binder can also be walnut oil, poppyseed oil, or other oils from plants. The artist uses turpentine or mineral spirits for cleaning oil paint from brushes. Oil paint has been the dominant medium since the 1500s. The richness and glow that oil gives to the color pigments make oil paint a popular choice with many painters.

    • Binder: linseed oil
    • Vehicle (solvent): turpentine, mineral spirits
    • Ground: prepared canvas, paper, wood
    • Dries slow/permanent
    • Opaque/translucent/transparent
    • Versatile media


Tempera (also called egg tempera) paint is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of colored pigment mixed with egg yolk and water. Because egg tempera dries so quickly, painting with it requires the painting to be worked section by section. Clean up with soap and water. Egg tempera painting was the primary method of applying paint to panels until after 1500 when the invention of oil painting superseded it. Tempera paintings are very long-lasting, and colors do not deteriorate over time.

    • Binder: gum Arabic and water
    • Vehicle (solvent): water
    • Ground: paper, prepared wood panel
    • Dries fast/water-soluble
    • Opaque
    • Dry, matte surface
    • Egg Tempera: egg yoke can be added to make it enamel-like and permanent


Watercolor is a water-based painting compound that can be either transparent or opaque. The pigment is suspended in a binder, generally natural gum arabic. It is a moist paint that comes in a tube, thinned using water, and mixed on a dish or palette. Use them on paper and other absorbent surfaces that have been primed to accept water-based paint. Use soap and water for easy cleanup.

    • Binder: gum arabic and water
    • Vehicle (solvent): water
    • Ground: paper
    • Dries fast/water-soluble
    • Transparent to translucent

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