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.


national park wall painting“Monument Valley”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
16″ x 12″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


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
Pigments

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.


TX Hay bales Oil on canvas“Life in Texas — Round Hay Bales”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
16″ x 20″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


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.

Lightfastness

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.

Common Paint Media Used By Artists

art bin paint boxAn artistic medium is the painting material used by artists to create their art. Everything a piece of art of made with is its medium. (The plural of medium is media.) For example, an artist may use “oil on canvas” or “tempera on wood”, etc. to compose a painting. Each of the items used in the creation of the painting are media. In this article, however, we are only going to look at paint as a medium. There are four common paint media: acrylics, oils, tempera, and watercolor.

Acrylics
Acrylic paint is a man-made, water-soluble paint containing pigment suspension in acrylic polymer emulsion. Even though they are water-soluble, they 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 can mimic oil, tempera, and watercolor paints

yellow rose flower painting“Yellow Rose of Texas”
Flower Art by Teresa Bernard
18″ x 18″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Oils
Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint that contains ground pigment (color) suspended in a natural drying oil (binder), commonly linseed oil. However the binder can also be walnut oil, poppyseed oil, or many other forms of 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 1500’s. The richness and glow that oil gives to the color pigments is what makes 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
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 main method of applying paint to panel until after 1500 when it was superseded by the invention of oil painting. 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
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. Uses soap and water for easy cleanup.

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