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.
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.
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.