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Choosing and Using `
Artists Oil Paints

Oil paints are a hugely popular medium amongst all levels of artists... 

Whether they're used by a professional artist to earn her crust, or as a wonderfully therapeutic hobby by the enthusiastic amateur...

But what exactly should you look for when choosing oils? Where do you begin if you're new to the medium?

What options are available to the more experienced artist?

Perhaps you need some advice buying a gift for a friend who fancies a dabble in oils?

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In this article, we'll breakdown the multitude of paints and supplies. You'll get to know the jargon (should you need to) so you can buy oils with confidence... be it in your local art shop or at a good online art supplies store.

You can decide what you need – not what the manufacturers say you must have.

And when you understand what you want to buy, you’ll find some great articles on oil painting techniques so you (or your friend) can get the most from your new paint set!

Right! Let’s get to it!

The major brands of artist oils are all of a high quality. There’s not much to choose between them.

Most produce two qualities - Student Grade (or Student Quality) and Artists Grade (or Artists Quality).


Student Quality Oils

Often the Student Grade is denoted by a trade name, for example Winsor & Newton’s "Winton Oils". As you might guess, the Student Grade is somewhat cheaper.

The quality of paint is fine, but frequently the pigments used are synthetic substitutes to keep costs down.

These are not quite as vibrant as Artists Grade oils but still very good. You’ll also often see Student colors described as a Hue. So for example, Cadmium Red Hue is the student equivalent of artist grade Cadmium Red.

Prices tend to be the same per tube regardless of color.

Often there’s a more limited range of colors than with Artist Grade oils (though enough for most tastes). Many artists I know have quite happily used Student Quality paints for years!

If you want an economical intro to oils to see if you like the medium, then Student Grade artist oils are a good choice. And there are plenty of starter sets available to suit most pockets.


Artist Quality Oil Paints

Artist Grade oils are more expensive – often more than twice the cost. However, no compromise is made when searching out and using only the best, most pure pigments. Colors will last for hundreds of years - long enough to see us painters out!

Artist Grade colors are split into series – 1,2,3 and 4 or A,B,C etc. The higher number or letter usually signifies a higher cost.

However, colors are generally more intense than Student Grade so they tend to go further, being more pigment-rich.

So although usually at least twice the cost of student paints, in that sense they are just as economical as the Student Grade colors. It's the initial investment you have to consider...

There’s also a wider range of Artist Grade colors available.

If you are serious about oil painting and want to achieve the highest standards, see Artist Quality as an investment, not a cost.


Alkyd Oils

Although less well known than traditional oils, Alkyds have been around for quite some time. Possessing the properties of conventional oils, their biggest advantage is their speed of drying.

Whilst not as quick drying as acrylics, they're surface dry at least twice as fast as ordinary oils.

In fact I use two or three alkyd colors in many of my oil paintings (white, a light and a dark color) to mix and speed up the drying process.

Alternatively, I use alkyd gel medium to achieve the same thing. See the article on oil painting mediums.


Water-Mixable Oils

For those who have difficulty using traditional oils, consider using Water-Mixable artist oils. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but they really do work well.

They are thinned with a variety of specially prepared water-based solutions.

There is no smell and brushes are cleaned with soap and water. The Paint quality is at least as good as Student Grade and they can be freely mixed with traditional oils if desired, although the thinning media cannot. Prices are roughly midway between Student Grade and Artist Grade paints. You use normal oil brushes and palette knives and whenever I have used these paints, they have acted in the same way as traditional oil paint.


Bob Ross Oil Painting System

There’s one other slightly different set of paints worthy of mention here...

And it's the ever-popular Bob Ross range.

Although I am not into promoting specific brands, in this case the brand is a unique and very popular oil painting method, so I've included it on that basis.

Sadly, Bob died in 1995 (was it really that long ago?) but his warm, easy-going style is still an inspiration to thousands of artists around the world.

I never fail to watch his 'Joy of Painting' TV shows which are still broadcast regularly on Sky TV here in the UK.

There is a complete paint system including paints, artist brushes and knives, a clever brush cleaning kit and a host of entertaining Bob Ross videos.

Inspirational half hour landscapes were his trademark, using his unique style of wet in wet oil painting. To achieve this effect, the Bob Ross oil paints are very pigment-rich and vibrant.

Pick up a tube and compare the extra weight to conventional artist oils!

If you want to paint in the Bob Ross style, you’ll need to use these specially formulated paints. Here’s why...

The dark colors are very, very thick and get progressively thinner (but still rich) as they get lighter.

The reason for this is that as the painting develops and you get to the lighter colours and highlights, they will readily adhere to the thicker, darker colours, permitting you to complete a painting in one session.

Bob Ross oils and other Bob Ross art supplies are roughly the same price as Artists Quality paints.

I’ve imported them successfully into a conventional oil painting when I’ve run out of a particular artist quality colour so there’s no problem with mixing them.

Just don’t expect quite the same results if you import normal oils into a Bob Ross style picture, expecting it to be finished in one session! They weren't designed for that style of oil painting.


Oil Painting Sets

These make superb gifts! If you shop around, you can often find great offers on oil painting sets

However, a couple of things to consider...

Firstly, you usually get more for your money than if you buy the items separately.

Depending on the set, it might also include a sturdy wood or plastic storage case, maybe an artists palettes, some canvas panels, as well as some basic art materials.

Certainly enough to get you started!

However, it will likely contain some colors that you won't want or may have enough of already.

Black is a case in point. Many artists, including me, never use black.

It can kill colors and pictures stone dead. Read more about this in the oil painting techniques articles...

A set with a small number of basic colors is much better than one with lots of tiny tubes glowing with every color under the sun!

If you know what you want, ask the art store if they'll replace some of the unwanted colors with others of your choice.

I've found many art stores very obliging in this respect so please do ask. This way you get a quality art set, custom made for your own needs.


A Quick Word About Oil Painting Mediums and Thinners

There is a wide range of oil painting mediums to alter the consistency or drying properties of your paint and to make it more workable. Linseed oil and turpentine are the most common.

Many people find the smell of turpentine is an unwelcome companion which permeates the home. In fact it’s probably one of the top reasons people are put off oil painting.

Not to worry! Manufacturers have developed low odor thinners. I find this works just as well, without all the smell.

But there's also additives that can slow the drying time of oils or speed it up, make paint thicker or more transparent and create a whole host of other effects.

For more details on this important topic, please read the paint mediums article on the link above.

Remember if you have any questions about oil painting techniques or just general art supplies then drop me a line.

For now, Just keep on enjoying your painting!


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