One of the things I hear still on the internet, and often heard while working at the art store was that ‘it isn’t the material it is the artist’. I won’t even argue that you can do some absolutely stunning artwork with a 2B pencil from Walmart and some printer paper because you absolutely can. Great artists can work with almost anything, though frankly, this doesn’t always mean you should (that printer paper isn’t acid free).What frustrated me though was the idea that artist grade and student grade supplies were somehow ‘the same’ or were ‘unnecessary’ because it is all about the artist.
The Truth About Artist Grade Paints
The main difference between artist grade and student grade paints is pigment load. That extra money you are paying is for more pigment. There is more paint, often of a finer ground in artist grade paint. This means that when mixed with mediums (acrylic/oil) it goes farther and in watercolor they are more saturated. It also comes in more colors than student grade.
This does not mean don’t by student grade. There are people who also have the impression that student grades and artist grades are incompatible. This isn’t true. You can use them together, and if there is a color you need a lot of and don’t want to pay a lot of money for it? By all means, buy the student grade. You have to be careful though, some student grades and some artist grades are vastly different, they have a different finish (though mediums and varnish can deal with this problem in the long run), and a different texture/thickness to the paint and this will be something you want to keep in mind when you are purchasing paint if you are going to be using it all together.
What you do want to watch out for is really cheap paint. These are the ones that often come in those big packages where you get like 20 colors for 20 dollars and have never seen these colors on a rack of paint ever. Now, I would be pretty wary of ever buying this. Why? I mean it sounds like a great deal right? For one thing, you can never replace your colors. Also when paint is that cheap that means quite a few of those pigments are mixed pigments. I’ve tested some of these and actually had them split on me which is not something you want to experience. Mixed pigments are perfectly fine if done well, but if you’re paying 1.00 a tube they probably weren’t done well. Variable texture is just nasty. I can’t imagine painting with these, as they aren’t saturated enough, or don’t cover right, don’t mix well etc., how is it about the artist then?
So what do you buy?
I will be the first to admit that most of my paints are artist grade. I’m pretty picky about the paint I buy. However, this does not mean I buy the most expensive paint there is. There are dozens of brands and they all have different price points (and I still have some student grade paint left that I still use). There is no reason you have to buy what is ‘the best’ by any arbitrary standard because once you get into artist grade they are all good paints.
Oil is the paint I see the most of combining student/artist grade and it is a great idea. Do an under-painting in student, details with artist grade, and you don’t have to spend all that money on paint you won’t see very much of.
Note: I know there are some of you out there doing your under-painting in acrylic and then painting over in oil because the rule is ‘oil over acrylic but never acrylic over oil’. Frankly this is the stupidest thing I have ever heard, if it doesn’t work one way why would it work the other? Just so you know it does not work either way, it will work temporarily but in the long run acrylic paint remains flexible even after it dries where as oil paint becomes increasingly brittle as the oil dries out of it which is why it needs a coarse ground to hold on to. That is why you use gesso, so oil paint has something to grip (ever wonder why those old paintings in galleries are all cracked looking?), painting on plastic isn’t going to turn out well in the long run.
Acrylic paints you should buy mediums. Always. There are fantastic mediums in acrylic you can’t get in any other paint. They extend the paint, you can make texture with them. Yes they can be expensive but they are still cheaper than pigment. Also, something to keep in mind for those of you who glaze with acrylic, the more water you add the more the bonds in the polymer break down—use some medium.
Watercolor is the one where you want to look at the color charts as across the brands there are huge variations in what even the same color looks like and when you want something super saturated/dark this can be of vital importance. Pick the one you like. Or alternately, pick the one you can afford, really the price difference in artist grade watercolor is astounding and the cheaper brands are still fantastic. Also keep in mind that watercolor (and gouache) is one of the paints that still uses fugitive pigments, this means they are not light fast. This is because of artist demand, they did not want to give up certain colors. So keep an eye out for the lightfastness rating on your pigments, because they will fade/change.
In the end, for me, my art supplies are about not being frustrated when I want them to do something. I am not going to get into substrates today (a whole other deal). I always feel like there is a point for most artists when they recognize that ‘this isn’t good enough’ and it is helpful to know when you should buy the good stuff and when you really don’t have to. A lot is about the artist, but you shouldn’t have to deal with supplies that just aren’t working.