Friday, March 8, 2013

Vasari Classic Artists’ Oil Colors

Vasari Classic Artists' Oil Colors, Alla Prima Pochade painting box
Most artists who work in oils recognize three general grades of oil paints. For lack of better terms, they can be called student grade, artist grade and premium grade. There are numerous levels of variation within those categories, of course, but they will do as a generalization.

In student grade paints, the price is kept to a minimum and an attempt is often made to keep a level of price consistency across most colors, both by using fillers and extenders in the paints and by substituting “hues” for expensive pigments.

(When you see the word “hue” in the name of an oil paint, it means a substitute for a particular pigment, created by trying to match that pigment’s hue with other, often cheaper pigments, sometimes mixtures of two or more. For example, paint labeled “Cadmium Yellow” is made with cadmium sulfide, an expensive material that produces a beautiful color with excellent covering strength; but “Cadmium Yellow Hue” is made with materials other than cadmium, like arylide, that are modified to initially look like Cadmium Yellow out of the tube, but in use produce a weaker, less desirable color.)

Some examples of familiar student grade oil paints would be Winsor & Newtons’ “Winton” line, or Grumbacher’s “Academy” student grade paints.

The middle level, “artist grade” would correspond to Winsor & Newton’s more familiar “Artist’s” line of oil colors, or those by Gamblin or Holbein. These are noticeably more expensive than student grade paints, and within any of these lines, the range of prices for different pigments within the same brand varies more dramatically, reflecting the varying cost of the actual pigments.

These are the most familiar oil paints. They have fewer fillers or extenders than student grade paints, though there is often some adulteration to facilitate machine-filling of tubes or to maintain a price point for competition within the larger art materials market.

The third level is perhaps less familiar to some, and that is premium grade artist’s oil colors. In these, the manufacturers compete more on quality and reputation than on price, working to produce paints that are more pure combinations of pigment and oil, using higher quality materials and taking greater pains in the preparation and grinding of the pigments. Often the tubes must be filed by hand when additives intended to make machine filling practical are eschewed.

Familiar names in this category might be brands like Old Holland or Williamsburg. They sell at a premium price, often considerably more expensive than the mass market “artist’s” colors, and the difference in price between expensive and inexpensive pigments within a given brand (e.g. between cobalt colors and earth colors) is even more dramatic.

I think most experienced painters have learned that student grade paints are seldom the bargain they are positioned as, their much weaker pigments actually require more paint to produce a similar effect in mixtures, and they often evidence an overall dullness of color and less than desirable handling characteristics. “Hue” colors in particular, are usually much weaker than their nominal genuine pigment counterparts.

Many painters, though, find a similar value in using premium grade paints over the more common artists grade, with an apparently similar valuation of the latter as false economy. They find the more intensely pigmented formulations and handling characteristics of premium oil colors worth the higher initial cost.

Others will insist that the main difference in premium grade paints is just marketing and branding, and don’t see a difference in value worth the expenditure (and will sometimes be quite adamant about it).

Some will pick and choose particular colors from one range or the other, as they prefer certain colors by certain paintmakers and find them individually worth the expense. (There are also proprietary colors, mixtures formulated by particular paintmakers that are not offered by others.)

Until recently, my personal experience had been limited to the first two grades of oil colors, understanding the value of using artist grade paints over student grade, but thinking of the premium colors as an unnecessary luxury — nice if you can afford it, but not likely to make enough of a difference in the practical sense to justify the expense on my part — basically an “Audi vs. Toyota” kind of difference.

There is something to be said, however, for making your judgment after having driven an Audi and then going back to driving a Toyota. Similarly, I’ve found that having had the opportunity to work with premium artists oil paints has changed my attitude about their value.

The paints I’ve had the opportunity to work with are from a small independent paintmaker called Vasari Classic Artists’ Oil Colors, and here I must make a disclaimer.

Vasari Classic Artists' Oil Colors

Though I was familiar with them by name, my experience in actually using Vasari’s paints came about as the result of being hired in my capacity as a website designer to design a new website for them. Their current site is the one I designed (image above). So there is, of course, no way I can claim to be impartial. They are my client.

That being said, I think most readers of Lines and Colors know that I rarely mention something in my posts unless I actually think it’s of value, and I pretty much shoot straight from the hip, so you can balance those factors out and make your own judgment.

Vasari is in many circles the highest ranked of the premium oil paint makers, commanding a premium price and available only through their website (with a $100 minimum order) or at their one retail store in NY, but not in chain stores, catalogs or online art supply companies. They are smaller than most, and devote their efforts only to making oil colors, no other art materials or types of paints.

In the course of an initial meeting with Stephen Salek, the founder and principal paintmaker behind Vasari, he asked about what paints, and specifically what colors I use. Shortly thereafter, I received a box from Vasari in which he had sent me samples of his versions of the colors in my regular palette (which are fairly common), with, I thought, the intention of seeing if they would convince me of the superior quality of his paint while I was in the process of working on his website.

Vasari Classic Artists' Oil Colors

So I set out my usual palette using their colors to give them a test drive. I suppose I was expecting to notice some small difference between their paint and the regular artist grade I have been used to, but I frankly wasn’t thinking it would be dramatic.

I was wrong. I was surprised. I was delighted.

The paints handle with a smooth consistency quite unlike other paints I’ve used. The colors have a vibrancy and subtle strength that kept me fascinated with them.

For the first couple of weeks, in fact, it was a bit distracting. I would be mixing colors while painting and find myself getting lost in just mixing and playing with the colors. I would be in the process of mixing a color and stop partway through, thinking “That’s not the color I’m trying to mix yet, but OMG that’s a beautiful color!”

After working with the initial set of colors for a while, I turned around and bought another box of their paint, filling out from my normal limited palette of six colors to my extended one of twelve, dying to see what their Cobalt Blue and Transparent Red Oxide were like, fascinated with my paints in a way that I haven’t experienced since I was in art school.

Since then, I have tried going back to my other paints and found it disappointing, and I have to say that I’m now rather spoiled. Not only are these paints wonderful to work with, I see a difference in the surface quality and color of my finished paintings.

Of course, using premium paint won’t necessarily make someone a better painter, any more than better brushes or higher quality canvas. A good artist can make a good painting with cheap materials — but it will be more difficult. If I have the option of using the best materials I can get, why not take advantage of them?

I’m not suggesting that everyone run out and buy premium oil paints; their relevance to any individual artist will inevitably depend on each artist’s values and personality — i.e. “Your milage may vary.” I’m just reporting on my personal experience.

Some will fall on the side of not finding the difference significant enough, but some may find the experience an eye-opener, as I did.

To be clear, I don’t mean to intimate here that regular mass market artists grade oil paints are somehow “bad” or inadequate, just that there is value in the difference found in premium paints.

I should also point out that the Vasari Classic Artists’ Oil Colors are the only premium oil paints I’ve worked with to any significant extent, so I can’t make any across the range comparisons. However, I have done some reading in artist forums and blogs about comparisons between premium brands, and have found that when Vasari is mentioned, they’re generally at the top of the list of premium artists’ oil colors.

The take-away is simply that in my experience there is a significant difference between regular artist grade oil colors and premium colors like Vasari; and that if you have the opportunity to try them (and aren’t afraid of being spoiled), they may well be worth a look.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get back to playing with these beautiful colors… oh yes, and painting.

36 thoughts on “Vasari Classic Artists’ Oil Colors

  1. Alia

    I had a similar experience the first time I splashed out and got Golden acrylics, having used nothing but student grade previously. They were so glorious, buttery and brilliant… I ended up getting new brushes to fully appreciate my fabulous new paint. Taking the plunge into a new “grade” of materials can be a revelation.

    That said, I never would have been able to fully appreciate the difference in grades before grinding through all those tubes of student-grade paint while I was learning. Not to mention, given the cost of some pigments, I would not have dared use certain colors! (Cobalts and Cadmiums, I’m looking at you!)

  2. Kevin

    Several months ago I emailed a question regarding the percentage of zinc white in the Pthalo Blue and White mix to both Williamsburg and Vasari.

    I received a quick reply from Williamsburg, but no response from Vasari.

    The question is relevant because of the research about the brittleness of zinc white in oil paint films, and the “Cerulean Blue Hue” or “Sevre Blue” probably is at least 40 – 50 percent white.

    I suppose Vasari could claim that they are a small company and don’t have the time to respond to customer inquiries because they are focused on making paint.

    Regardless, I think customer service does matter, and I would rather patronize a company like Williamsburg(now owned by Golden), whose product and customer service are exceptional.

    I have purchased several tubes of Vasari Mars earth colors, and the paint is high quality.

    P.S. On the Wetcanvas website, there is a contributer posting under “gunzorro” who makes really interesting and informative brand and individual color comparisons, complete with color “charts”.

  3. Bill

    Like Alia, I am a Golden acrylic user (my basement studio is not oil paint friendly), but I wanted to thank you for this infomative writing on the different grades of paints.
    Also, I have noticed you have been very active with your blog lately, and I for one of many, appreciate it very much.
    Hope your painting-a-day is going well.

    Thanks,

    Bill

  4. Charley Parker Post author

    Kevin,

    In my experience, Gail at Vasari is usually very good about responding to inquiries. I know they were experiencing some email issues at one point. One of the things I did in building the site was to set up a new email address, directly to their domain, replacing the old one that went through AOL.

  5. Daniel van Benthuysen

    Another high quality paint manufacturer is Blockx, headquartered in Belgium, a family run business making artists’ colors since the early days of impressionism. More recent artists like Dali and Magritte also favored Blockx.

    Ultimately, after extensive sampling, one tends to develop some favorites form each manufacturer. Williamsburg makes many of my own preferred colors but I still seek out the Indigo made by Winsor & Newton and I still appreciate the quick(er)drying white made by Gamblin, as well as that brand’s chromatic (transparent) black. Old Holland makes some high keyed yellows that are exquisite. A casual observer looking at the mix in my paintbox might think I bought this hodge-podge of brands at various clearance sales. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  6. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, Daniel.

    Yes, I’ve encountered mention of Blockx, and other premium brands as well. I don’t have enough information myself to make a comprehensive list or comparison, but I appreciate individual comments on the various makers.

    Your description of how you choose your colors is a good example of what I was trying to describe when I mentioned that many artists pick and choose individual colors from several makers, often a mixture of what I’m calling artist grade and premium grade.

  7. Bill Carman

    It’s people like Charley who will keep the blog universe alive. As the internet degrades into smaller and smaller bites of info hopefully pages like this won’t go way. Thanks as always Charley.

  8. BenS

    They sound like wonderful paints, but the one big caveat I’d have to throw in, after looking at their site: they don’t identify pigments used in mixed colours.There’s no good reason for a manufacturer not to do so, and I just can’t buy paints where the pigments aren’t listed (tho perhaps every tube has them on the label, hard to say fromt their site).

  9. Charley Parker Post author

    There are more details on the tubes than on the site at present, but the materials in some of the specialty color mixtures are deliberately not listed.

    These are color formulas that Vasari has gone to lengths to perfect. They consider them proprietary colors, unique to Vasari, and do not want to make it easy for competitors to copy them.

  10. James

    Vasari colour is as good as lovely intimate time with a partner whom you adore and would do anything for…who in turn delivers luscious colour that makes you feel that you have just learned to see again. I urge…strongly…anyone who may have faltering sight to purchase if you can at least three primaries…and explore and just paint dabs of beautiful colour….You know now you are going to have to work harder on your paintings to sell them in order to have the money to indulge…and OH WHAT AN INDULGENCE. I would even go so far as to forgo eating meat for a month just to have the money to buy….oh and go to New York and buy in person….you will be so pleased you did…AND…take in the Met and Moma while you are there….Wonderful…thanks.

  11. Bruce Gulick

    I’ve had fun with all grades of paint but the good stuff is worth it by a mile-my tendency is to buy a set of the cheap stuff first (Reeves is my favorite since it’s so universally crapped upon in forums despite being one of the oldest paint makers in the world), then as I run out of colors I replace them with a step higher grade. That way the colors I use all the time tend to be pretty high quality, and I can use the cheaper paints for base layers or parts I don’t want so rich and vibrant. My current favorite paint manufacturer is M. Graham in Oregon, they make outstanding watercolors, oils, and acrylics-not sure what grade they are considered but they are lovely~

  12. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Bruce (and nice to hear from you!). Yes, Reeves would be another example of student grade, and as such do have their uses, particularly if using lots of paint without spending lots of money is more of a concern than color quality.

    I believe M. Graham would be a middle level artist oil color, comparable with Winsor and Newton Artists colors or Gamblin in terms of price point, though they reportedly share some characteristics of the premium brands in their efforts as a small company to produce more highly pigmented colors with fewer additives.

    They are different than most, however, in that they use walnut oil instead of the more common linseed oil as the binder in their oil paints. I don’t have personal experience with them, but I’ve heard artists admire their flow and handling characteristics. My understanding is that walnut oil has both plusses and trade-offs, like anything else.

    You can find a conversation about walnut oil vs linseed oil on WetCanvas.

    Other readers can check out Bruce Gulick’s unique tattoo art, murals and animation experiments on The Magic Fun Store.

  13. Paul Corfield

    I used W&N Griffin Alkyd oils for years and switched to premium Michael Harding oils just to try them out. The difference was so great I couldn’t go back to W&N and subsequently have a lot of unused tubes of alkyds. I used alkyds because they were fast drying but with careful colour selection the Michael Harding oils can be almost as fast drying, maybe just half a day difference. The tubes all have written on them the drying characteristics which is a big help.

  14. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Paul.

    My understanding is that the Alkyd Oils are a specialty line, made as you mention, specifically to be fast drying – like having Liquin pre-mixed into all your paints.

    I don’t have direct experience with Michael Harding oils, but I know they are considered a premium line, perhaps at the lower end of the price range for premium paints.

    Most oil paints have drying characteristics that reflect their pigments; some, like umbers, dry very quickly, others, like alizarin crimson, take a long time. The use of mediums, either fast or slow drying, affect this as well.

    Other readers can see Paul Corfield’s work here (I particularly like the “rolling clouds”).

  15. Mark P

    I am sure Vasari paints are a very good paint line but they themselves use “hues”. When you see the word extra in a paint line, like Vasari or Old Holland, which is where they got that from :) it means substitute pigments or hue. Many staple paints in modern era are hues like PB29 Ultramarine. Cremnitz/Flemmish white, if not using Dutch Stack process, Emerald Green/Paris Green 19th century rat poison, yummy stuff. Sennelier actually has a true PY41 but it is named Amber Ocher not Naples Yellow, so go figure. I don’t think the use of hues can be used as yardstick for a paint line and there are some other smaller paint lines that are making some really good products. Blue Ridge, Natural Pigments Rublev, Micheal Harding and I am sure more, those are available in US market so my knowledge is limited. I would suggest that hue means one thing in student grade paints and another in artist lines, but than again, some artist don’t want to use known toxic pigments and hues are made and marketed for that consumer base as well.

    And who knows, the Pyrrole pigments may turn out to be “better” then the Cads in time, they make cleaner mixtures?!?

  16. Brandon M

    Thank you for such a detailed review. I really enjoy your site and have discovered some other great ones through it. I have been using a student grade liquitex acrylic but think I need to try an artist grade paint now. Maybe I’ll even try working with oils soon.

  17. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Mark.

    I believe you are correct that “hues” or substitute colors can be used for different purposes in premium paint ranges.

    I’m not suggesting that substitute colors are always bad, some of these colors are nice colors when well made (as you pointed out, some prefer pyrrole reds to cadmium reds, tough I’ve heard of no really good substitute for the cadmium yellows).

    I was simply trying in the context of the article to describe their use in student grade paints to keep the cost of paints in the line as consistent between colors as possible.

    Vasari makes both a “Naples Yellow Extra“, which they list as: “Lead-free imitation Naples, containing Titanium Yellow” and a “Genuine Naples Yellow Light” that is made with lead.

    The term “Naples Yellow”, however, is the name of a color, not a pigment like cadmium, even though there is a traditional formulation as a lead-based color. There are ASTM suggested standards for paint naming, but compliance is voluntary — and many manufacturers take leeway with the naming of paints, so there is unfortunately not as much consistency in naming between lines of paint as we might like.

    My understanding is that modern (mid-19th century on) ultramarine blue, more correctly termed “French Ultramarine”, isn’t so much a “hue” or substitution of a different pigment, as it is a synthetic version of the same material. (I believe there are one or two makers who actually make a traditional, and wildly expensive, version out of lapis lazuli.)

  18. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, Brandon. I think you will find a similar difference between student level and artist level paints in acrylics.

    You may find a transition to oils from acrylics easier by investigating water-miscible oil colors. These are made with linseed oil that has been chemically altered to bind with water while wet, but according the manufacturers are chemically identical to traditional oils when dry. They are generally artist grade and can be thinned and cleaned up with water instead of solvents.

    Though perhaps not quite as nice in the way they handle as regular artist grade oil paints, many artists find them fine to work with. In my personal experience the line from Holbein (“Aqua Duo”) is much nicer and closer to regular artist grade oils than some of the other brands.

    I don’t know of a line of “Premium” water-miscible oils. I think most premium paintmakers consider the practice of altering the linseed oil in this way too new and unproven in the long term to be acceptable for the highest level of paint making.

  19. Mark P

    Be sure to show us a painting done with your fancy paints Charley. :) Just kidding, I would like to check out some Vasari when I have the chance…I think I will do it in person next time I visit N.Y.
    This is always a fun topic as folks discuss their favorite paints etc. I just wanted to add a link to a great site for learning about the various pigments. The Color of Art Pigment database http://www.artiscreation.com/index.html This site comes with a “time dump” warning though!

    P.S. You are correct about Cadmium yellow but having said that I was able to pick up a very well priced set of vintage Boucor oils on Ebay which included real lead chromate Chrome Yellow…it has transparency but it’s hue for a lemon yellow is spot on, to me, and Cad Lemon Yellow kind of overshoots the mark with it’s strength. If you were to find some real Chrome Yellow it would be worth checking out in my opinion, Thx again for the post.

  20. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, Mark.

    The Color of Art Pigment Database is indeed fascinating. (It’s unfortunate that the site design is so eye-stabbingly horrendous and difficult to read.)

    Actually, I have begun to post my own paintings, as I described here, but I’m afraid my skills are not yet up to the level of showing the capabilities of my “fancy paints” (grin).

    For better examples of Vasari’s colors in the hands of truly excellent painters, I’ll refer you to the work of artists like David Leffel, Sherrie McGraw and Scott L. Christensen.

    Yes, Vasari’s retail store in NY (in Chelsea) is well worth a visit. Gail (or Stephen if he is there and not making paint) will not only knowledgeably discuss paints with you, but will also happily demonstrate and mix colors for you. (Though you will find them unsurprisingly reluctant to discuss the pigments in their closely guarded proprietary color blends.) You can also buy the paints individually without the minimum order required for website purchase.

    The chrome yellow sounds interesting, thanks. One of the side benefits of moving into the realm of premium colors is that it opens the door to pigments and paint formulations I might not have encountered otherwise.

    (On an odd side note, some of Van Gogh’s chrome yellows are turning brown due to an unfortunate interaction with the kind of white he was using.)

    Another place where you can find a lot of discussion of artists’ favorite paints and related topics is WetCanvas.

  21. Charley Parker Post author

    Here is an extensive discussion of Vasari’s oil colors, along with some other premium paint makers, on WetCanvas, Note that the discussion thread goes (currently) to three pages, accessed in numbered links at the bottom.

  22. Linda

    Thanks for the comments on Vasari – I have been toying with the idea of ordering a few tubes – the price always has a way of stopping me. But I have heard that their consistency is like whipped cream.

    Anyway, more importantly, what easel are you using in the Vasari picture on the top? I love the side drawer and holes for brushes…:D.

  23. Ricky

    Definitely true regarding the student grade colors. They usually suck.

    I think you are mistaken regarding “hue” replacement colors. “Hue doesn’t always mean inferior quality. In certain case it’s superior quality. For instance, take Alizaran Crimson (PR83) is very fugitive. Meanwhile, Alizaran Crimson Hue is made with Quinacrodone Violet (PV19), Anthraquinoid Red (PR177), and sometimes Perylene Scarlet (PR149). This mixture makes nearly the same color, is just as transparent, and has a lightfastness of I instead of real Alizaran which has a lightfastness of III. (Some manufacturers are calling it Alizaran Permanent, but that’s for marketing purposes. )
    Real Naples Yellow is toxic (contains lead), Naples Yellow Hue is made without lead and is made with PBr24 which is a great color that is safer and more lightfast.
    Cadmium Yellow Hue contains Arylide (PY3) and is better suited for working with lead white than real Cadmium Yellow and is slightly more permanent than Cadmium Yellow.

    Regarding the Designer colors vs artist grade colors. I think your mileage may vary depending on what type of painter you are. The designer colors with their higher chroma, are better suited for people who work indirectly, or who work thin. I’ve been using artist grade oil colors (WN, Rembrandt, Sennelier) for about 40 years. I was given some Michael Harding colors at the Portrait Convention in Washington and I liked them. Then I went down to the Vasari Showroom in Chelsea and replaced all my colors with Vasari colors. I learned a valuable lesson. People who work thinly or indirectly, only squeeze out a little bit of paint before each session. If they are working with lots of medium, they can appreciate having purer color before diluting with medium. Makes a lot of sense. People who like to work thick, or who work Alla Prima, like to squeeze out a lot of paint on their palette and they like to load up their brushes. The designer colors are a waste to them.
    I’m in the second camp even though I do a considerable amount of glazing as I go. I learned that if you are paying $100 + dollars for each tube, you tend to starve your palette. The designer colors don’t make sense in that case unless you are very wealthy. I went through my Vasari colors in about a month and a half! Considering I paid about $800 dollars to furnish my palette, that’s a lot. I can furnish my whole palette using Windsor Newton for the price of two Vasari colors. Makes a difference.
    No more Vasari for me except for colors that I might use for glazing (ie.. Viridian, Alizaran Hue, Ultramarine, etc)
    In the real world, I can give you two examples. I’m very close friends with David Kassan. He paints thinly in many layers over months. If he needs thicker impasto areas, he uses an extender/filler type of resin. He starves his palette. I always kid him because he puts these tiny little globs of paint on his palette. But that’s all he needs.
    I’m also very close friends with Steven Assael. Steve on the other hand uses gobs of paint and when he sits down for each session, he usually squeezes out nearly a quarter of a tube of each color! He uses Windsor Newton and Rembrandt and it makes sense in his case.
    Personally, I’m going back to Artist grade colors because I don’t want to starve my palette or my paintings. Lol!

  24. Charley Parker Post author

    Ricky, Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear, but I didn’t mean to imply that colors labeled “hue” are always inferior, simply that they often are in student grades of paint when they are substituted for reasons of cost.

    Even in artist-grade lines, however, they may be of good quality, but “hue” colors are never the same color as the true color they are replacing. They are formulated to match the hus as closely as possible, but are often very different in other characteristics. Arylide Yellow can be a nice yellow, but I don’t think it makes a true replacement for Cadmium Yellow in terms of brilliance, mixing strength or opacity. On the other hand, many painters, myself included, prefer a “Permanent Red” (Pyrrole Red) to Cadmium Red Light.

    Premium colors are always a matter of “your milage may vary”, depending on the preferences of the painter. I was reporting on my own personal experience and preference. I can certainly understand how they might be a budget concern when working large in particular.

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