The 8 key differences between Artist quality vs Student grade acrylic paints

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting

differences-artist-vs-student-grade-paintA brief overview of Artists’ vs Student quality paint

There are usually two grades of colour available, artist quality and student quality.

But what is the difference?

And, is it worth the cost?

When first starting painting lessons it is often overwhelming to try and decide which brush to buy, what canvas to paint on and the biggest choice of all. What paints to buy!

Your paints can help greatly in your progress as a painter, what usually happens is a hesitancy on investing in the ‘good quality’ paints until you yourself become a better painter.

This is a mistake.

One of the key things to understand is the labelling and differences between artist and student quality paint and how better quality paint, can make your life as a painter much easier…

Artist quality

  • Highest pigment levels
  • Varied price range
  • Widest choice of colour
  • Limited colour shift

Student Quality

  • Less paint coverage
  • More affordable price range
  • Greater colour shift
  • Good for large scale painting and under-painting

It should be simple, but sometimes all the information on a paint tube can be confusing.
With a few easy tips you will soon know your phthalo from your quinacridone.

1. Price

Paint pigments can be expensive and vary in cost. Manufacturers group colours into various price bands depending on the amount of the raw material and what the raw material is.

The binder (acrylic polymer) is relatively inexpensive in comparison. That is why artist quality paints are split into series.(e.g. Series A, Series B) and others numbers (e.g. Series 1, Series 2). The higher the letter or number, the more expensive the paint.

e.g. Cadmium red is an expensive raw material so is series 9 (highest price) whereas burnt umber is relatively inexpensive so is series 1 (cheapest price).

It is important to note that in Student quality paints you can only get series 1 and 2.

So, can you not get Cadmium red in student quality paint?“  I hear you ask, well you can get Cadmium red hue.

When you see “hue” written on a paint tube it means imitation, not a pure Cad red pigment but a combination of cheaper available reds to make a colour very close. So you can imagine it’s never going to have the colour saturation that an artist grade paint will have.

 2. Coverage

This is how easily a paint colour covers another paint colour, for example, a black paint will cover a yellow easier than the yellow will cover the black.

3. Opacity

Pigments vary in their transparency by nature, different paints have difference levels of opacity depending on the paint pigments chemical make up.

So a paint made from earth, such as an ochre will be made from crushed up rock, this, of course is hard to see through! So will make a paint that has pretty good coverage.
If you were using a paint that the pigments comes from a dye, or is man made, such as a quinacridone, (called synthetic organics) the thinner and more translucent a paint will be.

They are often labelled on a paint tube, for example Winsor & Newton use the following abbreviations:

  • T for transparent colours
  • ST for semi-transparent colours
  • SO semi-opaque colours
  • O opaque colours

Pro tip: It is very handy to understand the differences so if you want to make a super translucent glaze, the quinacidones are perfect for glazing (thin layer of paint)

A rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce the name it is usually a transparent paint. If it sounds more ‘earthy’ it will be more opaque.

Transparent colours are used for glazing and tinting.

Opaque colours cover other paints easily, and are great for making solid, flat areas of colour and covering up any mistakes you’ve made.

4. Paint sample

On most artist quality paints there will be a colour swatch of the actual paint on the exterior of the tube. This is really helpful when deciding which paints will suit your needs.

5. Colour range

Artist grade paints have a larger choice of colours available.

6. Paint consistency

In some ranges of artist quality paints, such as Golden Acrylics, the manufacturer offers a range of different paint consistencies, this is unique to acrylics.

Different binders are available in different consistencies so you can have a thick paint or thin paint but the thinnest paint will have as much pigment as the thicker paint.

This can be very useful.

If you want a solid colour to cover your canvas but still want to leave a ‘tooth’ on your canvas, use fluid acrylics. It will give you a deep, rich colour without the diluted, watery effect which you would have if you thinned a thicker paint with water.

Paint consistency range

  • Heavy body acrylic
  • Fluid acrylic
  • Airbrush acrylic

7. Colour shift

In acrylics the colour of the paint when wet changes when it dries, it goes slightly darker.

This is due to the binder (acrylic polymer) that is usually used, being white.

The acrylic emulsion is white when wet but becomes clear as it dries. As a result, it darkens.

Pro tip: If you like adding mediums to your acrylics to increase drying time be careful of the increased colour shift, because acrylic medium is just like adding more binder-more white so the colour shift will be more pronounced.

Winsor & Newton artist acrylic use a clear binder and claim no colour shift but I have found there is still a little colour shift, but not as noticeable.

In student quality paints a white binder will have been used and often the cheaper you go the greater the colour shift.

” it makes it harder for the beginner to accurately mix the colour they want, not from lack of trying but using the wrong materials.”

8. Tinting strength

This refers to how much or how little paint is needed to alter the colour of white paint.

So if you used phthalo blue (high tinting strength) you would only need a very little amount of paint to drastically change the white. In comparison to say Terre verte which has a very low tinting strength.

So for bright, colourful abstracts Terre verte would be the wrong choice, but for toning down a bright pink in your portrait painting palette, Terre verte would be perfect.

The Fundamental Information on a Paint Tube Label

artists-paint-acrylicThe amount of information that appears on the label of a paint tube (or jar) varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but good artists’ quality paints will typically list the following:

  • Manufacturer’s name – Golden, Liquitex, Winsor & Newton
  • Common name for the color – Cadmium Red
  • Manufacturer’s name of colour - e.g.Winsor blue,
  • Names of the pigment(s)
  • Color index name/number(s)
  • The vehicle the pigment is suspended in (e.g. acrylic polymer emulsion for acrylic paint, or gum arabic for watercolor and gouache).
  • Lightfastness or permanence rating -  AA and A rated and are recommended as permanent for artists’ use.
  • Quantity of paint in tube or jar – e.g. 60ml
  • Series -  Manufacturers group colours into various price bands depending on the cost of the raw material.
  • Paint swatch of actual paint- this is great to be able to see the consistency of the pigment.
  • Permanence – paints are rated on their permanence to light

For beginners that’s about enough information that you need to know for an informed choice to get started but for the paint geeks there’s more detailed information below:

1. Pigment colour - Often paint colours that are almost exactly the same are called different names depending on the manufacturer. One companies ‘yellow ochre’ is other companies ‘yellow ochre pale’ they also name the colour depending on their brand. Winsor & Newton ‘Winsor blue’ has the same chemical properties as golden ‘phaltho blue green’.

Although the pigment chemical names will be the same there will be subtle differences in shade.
You can be a paint detective though by understanding the colour index of pigments.

2. Colour Index Number- The label on a tube of paint should tell you what pigment(s) it contains. Many of the more exotic named paint colours are simple a mix of two or more existing colours.
Student quality paints don’t tell you this information.

3.Color Index Name -Every pigment has a unique colour index name, it consists of:

Two letters. These stand for the colour family, e.c PB – blue, PG- green
And some numbers. Which identifies the pigment. For example:

Golden Heavy Body Acrylic

Manufacturer name – C.P Cadmium Red Light
Chemical name – Cadmium sulphoselenide
Chemical index number – PR 108

PR108 is PR(red) 108  (Seleno-Sulfide) more commonly known as cadmium red

Golden Heavy Body Acrylic

Manufacturer name – Alizarin Crimson Hue
Chemical Name – Quinacridone, Chlorinated Copper Phthalocyanine
Chemical index number -PR122/PR206/PG7

4. Quality standard information -Paints made in the USA have information regarding conformance to various ASTM standards:

e.g. ASTM D4236 (Standard Practice for labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards)

D4302 (Standard Specification for Artist’s Oil, Resin-Oil, and Alykd Paints)

D5098 (Standard Specification for Artist’s Acrylic Dispersion paints), as well as the required health warnings

You might also like:

So now you know the differences what should you buy?
1. How to choose a basic acrylic palette
2. How to choose a basic oil portrait painting palette

Resources:

The Artist’s Handbook  by Pip Seymour. This book goes into great details on the various properties of each individual pigment
Empty Easel Professional Grade Oil paint vs Student Grade oil paint review

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael De Greef October 5, 2011

Very helpful in making that tough monetary decision, thanks :).

Reply

Dave Carpenter October 6, 2011

Excellent Article Will. Everytime I visit your website or You Tube page I learn something new. Thank you

Reply

Will Kemp October 6, 2011

Your welcome Dave,
Will

Reply

Elaine Culbert January 3, 2012

Excellent clarification and explanation, Will. I learned some of this by trial and, unfortunately, error! Drats!

I wish I had discovered your site long before this!

Elaine

Reply

Will Kemp January 3, 2012

Thanks Elaine,
Glad it helped to explain the difference between the two.
Will

Reply

Christiane February 3, 2012

Hi Will,
I started this comment by writing a novella.. so I’m putting the question up front, and if you (or anyone else reading) cares to read on,.. you won’t fall asleep before I get to my question.. LOL…
Being a new painter, I’ve amassed a large collection of student-grade acrylic paints, mainly for the purpose of just allowing myself to be comfortable with using paints and experimenting with color mixing. Will the finished quality of my paintings be affected (in regards to the longevity) because they were done using student grade? Thanks!

Now, read on for the more detailed comment.. haha
Hi Will! I’ve read quite a few of your posts over the course of the afternoon. I started painting in acrylics over a month ago in December (I got the musical genes but was never the best visual artist, until finally I had to quench my curiousity because I had this constant urge to want to paint!!!). I’ve been setting a steady course of studying various articles on the internet, and then blocking out my painting time to practice a particular focus (like, one painting will more so be an experiment on color, another will focus on my technique, etc.). I’ve tried to do this so that I can quickly re-direct any frustration I run into by telling myself “It’s ok.. this was for trying out THIS one thing..”

Sorry for the long leader.. all that to say that I have acquired a collection of student grade paints mostly with the mindset that I just want to paint, and get comfortable first and foremost with the motion of putting paint on surface (mostly canvas for me). It’s helped knowing myself more as I begin this journey learning to paint. I completely understand your thoughts on how the quality of the tools and materials can actually be detrimental to the learning process, so my question is about the finished quality of my paintings done with student grades. What if I end up painting masterpieces.. will my novice works withstand the yellowing of time? ;o)

PS.. Thanks for all your efforts to share your wisdom and experience with us novices! You have quite a style and ease of communicating this craft you love so much!
~Christiane

Reply

Will Kemp February 3, 2012

Hi Christiane,
What an introduction! Welcome along and thank you for your kind words.

Will the finished quality of my paintings be affected (in regards to the longevity) because they were done using student grade?

No, is the simple answer. The fillers and binders used in Student grade acrylics are lightfast and won’t deteriorate over time. So if you paint that masterpiece, as I’m sure you will, you can be safe in the knowledge that future generations will not have a hefty conservation bill!

Will

Reply

Carl Arguelles August 8, 2012

Hi Will

What do you prefer for amateur painter in choosing paints? Thanks a lot!

Carl

Reply

Will Kemp August 8, 2012

Hi Carl,
If you’re first starting I would work with what you can afford, but always try and buy an artist quality titanium white. It has such a better opacity and handling quality and will instantly improve your paintings.

Thanks,
Will

Reply

Carl Arguelles August 8, 2012

Thanks a lot for the advice!

Carl

Reply

Rais Mandal January 9, 2013

hi.
will
I am a big fan of u . I am from India.professionally i am an engineer…..But I love painting very very much. Recently i am working in a realistic portrait, but i have few past experience in acrylic painting…..But i want to do the portrait with acrylic….. Can you give an idea about that?
and another think ..which No. of brush is suitable for this job…..

Reply

Will Kemp January 11, 2013

Hi Rais,

Blending with oils is alot easier than with acrylics, and I find if you’re first starting portraits having the extra time to blend is crucial to achieve a realistic portrait.

Often, the main issues beginners have with portraits are skin tones and edges – the skin tones are too intense in colour and the edges are too hard.

Working with acrylics can be a bit of adjustment because they dry so quickly.

You can get acrylics called ‘open acrylics’ that stay workable for longer ( there is an article about the pros and cons here) but oils aren’t as scary as they seem!

Cheers,

Will

Reply

Miguel August 14, 2013

Hello Will Im from Brazil and having painting lessons a few months ago, and your site is very helpful, Im doing your exercise (that with cherry). My English is bad but your site is Great!! thank you

Reply

Will Kemp August 14, 2013

Hi Miguel,

Nice to hear from you, really pleased you’re finding the site helpful and are enjoying the cherry painting tutorial.
Cheers,
Will

Reply

Rose December 26, 2013

Hello Will!

May I first say that you are an amazing artist, and a great help to many of us that are beginners or even professionals! I have a question. I’m having trouble deciding which brand of paint to get. You say that Golden is a good brand. Are there any other brands of paint that are just as high quality as Golden? Wow, I have so many questions about painting. I’m afraid if I ask I will be typing all day!

Thank you again!

Reply

Will Kemp December 26, 2013

Hi Rose, pleased you’ve been enjoying the website. Most artist quality brands have a similar opacity to the paint, M Graham, Winsor & Newton, Old Holland, Liquitex are all really nice brands. It’s on my list in the new year to write a ‘best artist acrylic’ article, but hope this helps for now.

Enjoy the lessons.

Cheers,

Will

Reply

Nick January 11, 2014

Will,

I purchased your acrylic color lessons and took to the easel to try the lemons painting. I noticed right away that when you mixed your cad yellow and titanium white you got a much more opaque color than I got. Both of my colors are series 1. Do you think that is the problem? What series were the two colors you used for the vid? Thats if you can remember…LoL!

thanks for the lessons! Great info!

Reply

Will Kemp January 12, 2014

Hi Nick,

The difference between Cadmium yellow in artist quality and student quality can be a big jump, this will be the reason why the yellow you are using isn’t as opaque as the one I demonstrate with in the course.

The yellow I demonstrate with is a series 7

Hope this helps,

Will

Reply

Dinah Anaya February 16, 2014

Will, when my masterpieces come alive and tangible, I want you to know God used you to help me! Thank you for what you share here on your website.

Reply

Will Kemp February 16, 2014

Good one Dinah, pleased you’re finding the site helpful,

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Ben February 19, 2014

Thank you Will for your expertise and your down to earth tuition.
Forgive my stupid question but I am a complete neophyte I really don’t know what I am talking about!
Here you go: is there any place for the use of home decorating acrylics (maybe for practicing??). Is it just a question of light / colour fastness or longevity?
Don’t scream!!

Reply

Will Kemp February 19, 2014

Hi Ben, I’d say it’s a mix of all 3, The lightness (or opacity of the paint) the colour shift (how much the colour changes when it is wet and then dry) and the longevity of the paint. Household paint doesn’t have the opacity, limited colour shift or archival quality of artist acrylic paint and will be harder to work with than standard paints. You can still of course mix colours and create a painting, but if you intend on working quite small for the difference in initial cost for a few tester pots compared to a paint starter set I’d always advise the artist paints.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Hardy Jones March 30, 2014

What is the difference between Artist’s Loft (Michael’s) academic canvas vs the professional, please? Would you recommend I seek other brands of canvas vs Artist’s Loft?
Thanks, Hardy

Reply

Will Kemp March 30, 2014

Hi Hardy, it is usually depended on canvas weight and feel. The way that different canvases are prepared changes the way that the paint behaves onto them, also the type of painting you want to create.

If it’s for a canvas that you might stick to a board, you might go for a thinner one. If you want to stretch it up and put it under tension onto a stretcher bar, you’ll want a thicker one.

I haven’t personally used the Michael’s academic canvas so couldn’t say for sure.

Fredrix make some nice canvases as do Claessens. These canvases are often in rolls that you can stretch onto stretcher bars. You might find this article of interest.

Cheers,

Will

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: