Painting & drawing blog

ARTIST VS STUDENT GRADE: WHICH PAINT SHOULD YOU BUY?

Artist and student grade paint ranges

All art materials are expensive, so it’s welcome that manufacturers should produce some more affordable ranges of paint for anyone needing to economise. These cheaper ranges are usually labelled by the companies who make them as being of ‘student’ grade whilst the more expensive are designated as ‘artist’ grade, and more recently the label of ‘professional’ grade has become quite common. Sometimes a range gives no clue within its name or marketing material as to the quality of the product, and you are left to make an assumption based simply on the price.

In this post I’ll explore how a student grade paint may differ from an ‘artist’ or ‘professional’ paint range. I’ll consider how reliable these labels may be and whether buying a cheaper quality paint might compromise the quality of work that you can produce with it. There are no paid links within this article.

Firstly, it’s important to know that there is absolutely no industry standard or criteria for the quality level of a paint range, however the company making it has chosen to describe it! ‘Student grade’ and ‘artist grade’ are simply creative marketing terms that sound better than ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive’.  For example, people sometimes assume that something designated as ‘professional’ grade refers to the very best quality of paint and is perhaps a bit better than ‘artist’ grade. However when Winsor & Newton’s well-known ‘Artists’ Water Colour’ range was re-branded a short while back as ‘Professional Water Colour’ this was simply a marketing decision which didn’t reflect any change in the paints’ formulation.

Rather than use the word ‘student’ within the name of their paint range, manufacturers sometimes like to substitute a term like ‘Graduate’, just because they think it sounds better. They may also come up with other study-related words such as ‘Academy’ or ‘Collegiate Line’. Italianate names are also popular, such as ‘Accademia’ or ‘Scuola’.

Derwent Academy paints

In the absence of a descriptive name, look at the online information provided by retailers about a paint range to see if they use terms like ‘value for money’, ‘accessible’ or ‘good for hobbyists’ and ‘drawing enthusiasts’. This will tip you off that it’s a student grade paint.

THE QUALITY OF STUDENT GRADE PAINT

Is all artists’ grade paint good, and all student grade paint of low quality? In fact the division isn’t this clear cut. There is considerable variation throughout both of these categories, and one should also point out the wide degree of subjectivity with which artists themselves rate different paint ranges depending on how they like to use them. However across the mediums of oil, acrylic, watercolour and gouache, one can safely say that cheaper ‘student’ level paints are likely to feature most of the following:

– A lower concentration of pigment

A very top grade oil paint can contain up to 80% pure pigment (source: Michael Harding paints, quoted for their Vermilion oil paint). The rest of the paint will be made up with the oil that is added to bind the pigment, plus a tiny amount – just one or two percent – of an additive such as magnesium or aluminium stearate to prevent the pigment from clumping together. In contrast cheap oil paint can contain as little as 23% pigment (source: Jacksonsart.com) so that the pigment and the oil content will be about the same volume.

With acrylic and watercolour paints too, the ratio of pigment to binder (acrylic paints are bound with an acrylic polymer and watercolour paint usually uses a gum arabic binder) will be dramatically different between the student  and artist’s grades. If you see your paint separating a bit and some oil or gum arabic oozes from the top, this may actually be a good sign that suggests your paint is pigment-heavy. However when you’re buying paint, there is no way to tell from the packaging what percentage of pigment it contains.

Blue pigment

What difference will the proportion of pigment make to your work? A lower pigment load will undoubtedly give you a weaker, less intense colour. If you were to buy and compare paint colours from both a cheap range and from an expensive one then the difference would probably be clear to see, because the cheaper paint would be less vibrant and intense even if made with an identical pigment. Paint colours behave very differently depending on the type and volume of pigment they contain, which affects their tinting strength (tinting means mixing your colour with white paint in order to lighten it) and also their transparency and staining effect. If there’s little pigment in a tube and a lot of filler, you lose these very individual qualities and get a much more homogenous range of colours which are likely weaker when tinted and all of a similar opacity.

Because it’s so much less saturated some will argue that buying cheaper paint is a false economy because artist grade paint goes a lot further. Cheap oil paint, in which over a third of the tube is bulked out with fillers, will feel thin and oily and will lack the buttery rich feel of a pigment-heavy paint. These fillers (which are also added to watercolour and acrylic paint) may give a milky or ‘chalky’ effect and can cause a colour change to the paint as it dries.

– Lesser quality pigments which are not as carefully milled

Student grade paint ranges will not only use a lower percentage of pigment in each tube, but will also create their colours from cheaper pigments. Artists’ paints are banded into price brackets known as ‘series’ numbers in a grading system that runs between 1 and 5. ‘Series 1’ paints are the cheapest and ‘series 5’ are the most expensive. Student ranges will very rarely contain any series 3, 4 or 5 paints. This isn’t to say that paint colours in the series 1 bracket are never as good as the more expensive shades: ‘earth’ colours for example are usually series 1 because the pigments used to make them are inexpensive to produce, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them.

However when you see a complete lack of any of the more expensive series numbers within a paint range this tells you that you will be missing out on the option to buy some of the most vibrant colours, and it suggests that in general the manufacturer is opting for cheaper pigment alternatives where better ones may be available. Moreover, whilst in a top grade paint those pigments will be carefully ground down in stages until they reach a particle size designed to give each one its optimum radiance, cheaper paint ranges usually mill their pigments to a similar size whatever the pigment type and are unlikely to mill them as finely. Along with a lower pigment content, more coarsely milled pigments lack the tinting power of finely ground ones.

– Lower quality binders

Cheaper paints won’t use the highest quality mediums to bind their pigment. With oil paints the oil will be less refined, and in the case of watercolour the gum arabic binder will not be of top quality. 

– Additives and bulking agents, in large quantities

These various substances are added to student grade paints for different reasons. Thickeners and driers are included to speed up the drying time so that all the colours dry at a uniform speed and have a similar consistency and degree of viscosity. In a student/beginner range it is thought desirable that all the colours should all behave as similarly and uniformly as possible. When people eventually make the switch to artists’ grade paint they are usually surprised how differently one paint colour will feel, handle and dry compared to another. This is because they have such a high pigment content that it’s the individual qualities of that pigment that govern the behavior of the paint, and not all the fillers and additives.

One main use of additives in cheap paint is as ‘extenders’. By adding an inert substance the manufacturer can bulk out the paint and reduce the amount of expensive pigment needed to fill the tube. These include a common filler known as ‘blanc fixe’, which is another name for a fairly colourless substance called barium sulfate. Blanc fixe is often added in large quantities to cheap oil, acrylic or gouache paint and may account for up to 40% of the contents of a tube. The more filler that is added, the more dull and sometimes chalky the colour may appear.

In the case of oil paints, these bulking agents may even downgrade the paint’s archival quality by interfering with the bonds that the oil content forms as it oxidises, meaning that it will never dry quite as hard as paint with no fillers. In watercolour paint a lot of dextrin filler may be used, the same substance that is often added to convenience foods.  A watercolour pan made with a paint that’s very high in fillers and low in pigment will appear much less saturated will take more effort to work up an intense colour when you re-wet your pan to load your brush with paint.

With fillers, as with pigment loads, there’s no way to find out how much your paint contains because manufacturers don’t publish this information unless they are making a specific boast that they use absolutely no extenders. Even amongst artist grade paints there is a lot of variation. Daniel Smith, M Graham and Michael Harding paints are particularly well known for using very high percentages of pigments and a minimum of fillers or none at all.

– A smaller range of colours

This isn’t a definitive way to tell a student range from a professional one, but in general and with just a few exceptions you’ll find that top quality paint ranges will have a large number of available colours, whilst student ranges will be much smaller. In this comparison of watercolour paint ranges I’ve contrasted the number of colours available in good and exceptional quality ranges against the numbers typically available for student ranges. You can see that there’s a really notable difference and that with a student grade paint you’ll usually be restricted to fewer colours.

– Fewer ‘single pigment’ paints

One thing that beginners sometimes don’t realize is that the ‘name’ of a colour on the front of the paint tube does not tell you which pigment, or pigments, have been used to make it. For this information you need to search the back of the tube for a tiny little code beginning with the letter ‘P’. These codes identify the pigment by the Colour Index name and number that is assigned to every pigment, which you can look at here. When it comes to the ‘marketing name’ which is assigned to the colour by the paint company, manufacturers can give their colours any names that they like. Therefore for example a ‘Vandyke Brown’ colour from one range may contain different pigments than a Vandyke Brown colour from another range.

Vandyke Brown was originally made using a single type of earth pigment called lignite which is now largely obsolete. Today, manufacturers produce a colour which they still call Vandyke Brown by mixing a couple of different pigments together to approximate it. This kind of colour made from a blend of pigments is known as a ‘convenience colour’.  Convenience colours may be mixed to approximate a historical pigment which is now considered toxic or environmentally unfriendly, or is simply very expensive. They are also produced to create a particular shade that the paint company wants to sell but which can’t be made produced with any one single pigment. In a student range you’ll see many convenience colours whilst in a better quality range you’ll see many more ‘single pigment’ colours.

When a number of pigments are blended to offer an alternative to a traditional colour made from a single more expensive pigment, these mixtures are known as ‘hue’ colours. A hue colour can also be made from a single pigment but most commonly it will be formulated from two or three inexpensive pigments. Thus a colour sold as ‘Cobalt Red Hue’ is formulated to closely resemble the colour of true cobalt red, but is considerably cheaper. Hue colours will almost certainly will lack the intensity and vibrancy of the original colour they are supposed to replicate and can turn muddy when you use them in a mix with further colours, because so many pigments will end up being mixed together.

Cobalt blue and cobalt hue

Some hue colours turn out fairly close to the original, but others are somewhat off the mark. Above I’ve painted a comparison: on the right is the ‘Cobalt Blue’ from the Winsor & Newton’s ‘Professional Water Colour’ range which is made from true cobalt. It’s a beautiful but very expensive series 4 colour. On the left is the series 1 ‘Cobalt Blue Hue’ from their ‘Cotman’ student range. It is made from synthetic ultramarine blended with lithopone, a very cheap white pigment derived from the filler barium sulphate which has been added lighten the ultramarine to a shade that is closer to cobalt. To my eye the hue colour isn’t wildly dissimilar to the true cobalt, but it’s really not the same colour either and I’m not sure how helpful it is to describe it as a cobalt hue.

ARTIST VS STUDENT GRADE: a case study with two Winsor & Newton watercolour ranges

Here we can demonstrate some easily identifiable differences between a student range and an artists’ grade paint. Winsor & Newton make two well established ranges of watercolour paint that we’ve mentioned above: their very well regarded ‘Professional’ range and their extremely popular ‘Cotman’ range which they describe as a student or ‘beginner’ grade.

To begin with, the difference in the number of colours available for each range is very notable. The Professional paint is available in 108 colours, whilst the Cotman has only 40 shades. The names of the Cotman colours are also more simplified and generic, avoiding those complex sounding chemical names that we see amongst the Professional colours (Indanthrene Blue, for example).

Compare the range of greens available for the Professional and Cotman paints. None of the colours are identical between the two ranges. The Cotman range has six greens…..

Cotman watercolours green shades

Whilst the Professional range has double the number of greens, and all the names are different to the Cotman greens.

Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour green shades

Comparing all of the colours from the two ranges, we see only 16 names in common. Tellingly, many of the colour names that are consistent across the two ranges are those colours derived from ‘earth’ pigments which are easy to obtain and to process, and are therefore inexpensive. When it comes to non ‘earth’ colours, the shades are very different in the Cotman range than in the Professional range and this suggests that the Cotman range is using cheap pigments across the board.

Looking at the information provided by Winsor & Newton on their website we can discover that even amongst the sixteen colour names that appear in both the Cotman and Professional ranges, only five (Permanent Rose, Prussian Blue, Raw Sienna, Indian Red, and Ivory Black) actually contain identical pigments in both ranges. The other eleven contain slightly different pigments, so for example the colour called ‘Indigo’ in the Cotman range is made with a different set of pigments to the colour also labelled as Indigo within the Professional range.

In the Cotman range, thirteen of the shades are ‘hue’ colours compared to only one in the Professional range. This is a single ‘Manganese Blue Hue’ which has been included only because the original barium manganate pigment that was used to make Manganese has generally been phased out due to cost and environmental concerns.

CONCLUSIONS: SHOULD YOU BUY STUDENT GRADE PAINT?

Will painting with student grade paints really ruin your work? Overall I’d have to say no. Try to buy the best paints you can afford because you’ll enjoy using them much more, but if you need to economise then you should certainly not be put off from buying anything at all.

However keep in mind that more expensive paints with heavier pigment loads will go further, and you might get better results from buying a smaller number of colours from a more costly range and doing a bit more mixing, rather than purchasing a larger number of less intense and rather muddy colours from a cheaper range.

If you decide on a student grade paint range, visit the manufacturer’s website before you buy and see whether they even publish information about the pigments that their colours contain. If they don’t make this information readily available it tells you that they really have something to hide. Before buying a whole starter set or collection of colours I’d suggest experimenting by buying one or two small, individual tubes from a student range and an equivalent colour (if you can find it) from a more expensive range. Experience for yourself the differences in how they handle, and see how much these differences matter to you.

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