Starting with Oils

Updated: Jun 2

Don't you just hate it when people assume you know the basics? I do, so here's another of those useful primers from our article archive on getting to grips with oils. If you're moving to oils from another medium, then I hope and expect you'll find this useful.

Incidentally, even if oils are your thing, then you might well find - as I have - that stepping back from one's process and evaluating the basics - which palette - which ground - which medium - can make a huge difference to the outcome. These things are after all the building blocks, change the blocks you';ll change the build.

Student vs. Artist’s Oils

Welcome to my new series on practical oil painting advice. In this first article I’d like to help you make good oil colour choices by revealing the real differences between student and Artist grade oils. Many painters feel that Artist grade oils are self evidently better, so one should choose them if cost is no object, but it’s really not that clear cut. Most modern pigments for example are both cheaper and infinitely better than many rare, expensive and archaic ones, and it’s those pigments which student grades typically use. While there is little correlation between cost and quality for many colours, the additives which colourmen use can make a real difference, so for example a student grade Ultramarine Blue will be less useful than an Artist one, but both are ‘better‘ on most measures than traditional Lapis Lazuli, the rare blue they supplanted. Confused? This article will show you how to choose well.

The basics

Oil paints come in several qualities, the most common of which are Artist and Student grades. A tube of Artist grade paint should contain just coloured dust (pigment) and a binder (oil). In most cases an additional stabiliser or inert filler of some kind is desirable to either keep the two combined or improve the rheology or ‘feel’ of the paint. Student grade paints are usually made with less pigment and, because pigments themselves determine the maximum amount of oil in a tube, more filler. As most pigments are improved by a little filler or paint conditioner, this is not necessarily a bad thing, however if too much is used, or the pigment is replaced by a cheaper alternative ( a ‘Hue’), then the paint will begin to behave very differently to an Artist Grade version.

Pigments, Oils, Fillers

To choose between student and Artist grade simply need to understand what should be in a tube of well made oil paint.


There are hundreds of pigments to choose from, many of which look the same but behave in different ways and often vary dramatically in price, consistency or both. Knowing which pigment is in your tube, and what it does is the most important consideration when choosing oil paints. To find out which pigment a colourman has used simply read the label, where you’ll find a pigment code. Pigment codes are standard across the industry and comprise of two letters and a number for each pigment in the paint. Cobalt Blue for example is PB28 or Pigment Blue 28. This will never vary, although the name on the tube could be any one of dozens of names which colourmen use for this pigment: True Blue, King’s Blue, Leyden Blue and so forth.

Once you know which pigment has been used you can see if you are buying a genuine colour or a ‘Hue’ or mixture of various pigments. Genuine pigments are common in Artist grade paint. Pigment mixtures or Hue alternatives, in Student paints. If the information is not on the label (and this is true of some Far Eastern imports), then I suggest that you don’t purchase it or check the information available on the colourman’s website before you do so. Before we move on it’s important to appreciate that rare and expensive traditional pigments are not necessarily ‘better’ than inexpensive and widely available modern ones. In fact most modern pigments have been developed to replace unsatisfactory colours, it’s just important to realise that they behave differently in mixes.

Drying Oils

All oils are emulsified with a so called drying oil which gives them their lustre and determines how fast the paint will dry, as well as how pure its colour will be. Binding oils divide into two groups; yellowish linseed oil and ‘white’ oils, such as poppy, safflower or walnut. Although all of these oils act perfectly well as emulsifiers and dryers, they behave differently. As all of the common drying oils are perfectly good, there is no room to make a catastrophic error here, but you can and should make an informed choice. Paints bound with white oils give a purer colour and are less yellowing as they age. Walnut, Poppy and Safflower oils are much paler than traditional linseed. This is important for both whites and pale colours, and helps blues in particular to retain their correct colour temperature as they age. Linseed on the other hand, dries more rapidly and forms a stronger bond than white oil. For these reasons it is the oil of choice for most professionals across most pigments.

Fillers and Extenders

Additives are the cheapest and most ‘invisible’ ingredients in tube paints. Unfortunately they also have the greatest influence on how the paint behaves, and are not routinely listed on the label. Nevertheless you can make some safe assumptions. Student quality paints are likely to contain more of these, however even good artist grade paints are likely to have some additives if the pigment is prone to ‘throwing off’ oil, or the colourman wants his range to have a consistent rheology. Common fillers in oil paints are Tixogel (chemically modified Bentonite, a type of clay) and Blanc Fix (Barium Sulfate). The former is a swelling agent which allows colourmen to use more oil without it ‘throwing off’, the latter makes paint feel heavy, simulating a high pigment load. Extending paints isn’t a new idea, in fact Renaissance apprentices, used paints extended with chalk or marble dust. Both of these improve the drying qualities of paint but, being

colourless in oil don’t change its appearance, and of course make expensive pigments go much further.

Artist Grade Paint

Artist grade paints are kept as pure as possible, that is to say pigment, oil and, if necessary, the correct amount of an appropriate stabiliser. Within this basic recipe the cost lies in the pigment used as both oils and stabilisers are relatively inexpensive, and for this reason alone Artist grade paints are sold in ‘series’ or price bands containing pigments of a similar cost. Series 1 generally represents the least expensive pigments, with successive bands being costlier. The key advantage of Artist Grade is that you get as pure and unadulterated colour as possible. Specifically the paint behaves as it should in terms of 1) saturation, 2) colour temperature, 3) tinting strength, 4) drying rate, 5) lustre, 6) rheology 7) toxicity 8) masstone and undertone and 9) opacity. If these things seem peripheral to your work then go for student grade paint, on the other hand if you want your Cadmiums to be opaque but subtle in tints and mixes,want the pure colour they offer that can’t quite be mixed, but understand they can be toxic then you know enough to choose Artist Grade.

Student Grade Paint

On the face of it student grade paints are all about cost, however as many modern pigments are both good and inexpensive, they are popular choices for student ranges. In modern colours then, student grade paints generally offer exceptional value. The trick here is to buy well, and the key to buying well is knowing your pigments; I’ve included a list of inexpensive and reliable colours below to get you started. Again the quality of student paints matters not a bit if you intend to paint in one inch thick impasto, matters more if you need to control the temperature of tinting strength of your paints for glazes, and makes it impossible if you want to try authentic old master techniques.

Good Choices My general advice is:

  • Choose a linseed binder unless you habitually work with very pale colours

  • Consider buying from colourmen such as Michael Harding or Pip Seymour who preserve the character of each pigment; painting is a much richer experience if your ingredients are not homogenised

  • Modern colours are generally OK in student grade

  • Impressionist and old master colours are usually demonstrably better in Artist grade

  • Don’t dismiss a ‘Hue’ colour, just understand how it will be different to the real thing General Advice by colour family

Useful Glossary Hue - An equivalent pigment, usually cheaper, different in most respects except masstone Masstone - the colour of thick paint in impasto as opposed to undertone in glazes etc Rheology - The ‘feel’ of a paint, buttery, sticky or granular for instance Tinting Strength - the dominance of a paint in mixtures, modern colours are strongest. A ‘tint’ is a mix with white.

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