Which Should I Use: Student or Artist Quality Paints?

Tubes of Winsor & Newton Winton student quality oil paints
Tubes of Winsor & Newton Winton student quality oil paints

This is a summary of what I teach about this topic in my studio classes.

You’ll often see hundreds of paints arrayed before you in the art supplies shop. Different brands and different ranges within brands and then different types of paint on top of that. Oils, acrylics, water mixable oils, alkyd oils, watercolour -it’s important to know what you want before you go in as you could get quite confused.

Many times I’ve had new students turn up with a mixture of paint types in their art boxes and they’ve told me that the shop assistant picked them out for them.

First: If you’re going to paint in oils, make sure you buy oils -and not acrylic paint. They don’t mix together.

The next important consideration is whether you should buy student or artist quality paints. Well; if you’re not afraid to spend and you’re definitely dedicated to painting; always buy artist quality. The pigments are stronger, contain more naturally occurring pigments, and there’s more of it in the paint than the student variety. Cadmium red, for example, will be more intense, brighter, permanent (and more toxic as there’s real cadmium salt in it.) It’s because of these pigments and how they’re obtained, that artist paint is so expensive -and why there’s a range of prices that covers the different colours. So, earth colours, like siena and ochre, are relatively inexpensive while cadmium and cobalt colours are double the price and more. The lapis lazuli that Vermeer’s made his brilliant blues from was probably mined in Afghanistan or Pakistan (Plus, he had Scarlett Johansson grinding down the pigments by hand; how expensive must that have been?!). Anyway; you’ll always see a price guide that has series 1-7 or something like that -the paint is price according to the type of pigment and the most expensive tubes can be eye-poppingly so.

Tubes of various brands of artist quality oil paints
Tubes of various brands of artist quality oil paints

Student quality paints use synthetic substitutes for the expensive pigments, so the colours are less intense, the pigment load is lighter -but the prices are kept low and even across the range. That’s not to say you can’t paint a good painting with them though. I expect that many of the great paintings you see around use at least some student quality paint in them. As usual, beware of categorical people; they’re either rich and foolish or they’re not telling you everything.

To summarise, if you’re starting out and not entirely sure that you’ll invest all your time and money in your hobby, student grade paints like Winton or Maimeri Classico.

If you’re a dedicated painter and not completely broke, always get artist quality paints as they’re a joy to use. You actually use less of the stuff because the colours are so dense. At the very least, you’ll never be able to blame the paint for your shortcomings.

One thing, though -just don’t even bother with those packs of paint that you can find in supermarkets or pound shops; those ones with about 15 tiny tubes. They’ll break your heart! There’s so little pigment in them that you may as well not bother -they’ll just put you off painting…

Go to my materials page to see what you’ll need for my in-studio art classes. Or better still -join my class and you’ll get lots more tips on how to paint successfully: email kevin@mcsherry.ie