Starting out with oil painting can be frustrating. You can watch tutorials and take classes, but the best way to learn is to get painting! So, how do you choose oil paints that will be a joy to work with? Are expensive paints really that much better? Are there any less-toxic options that still offer the same feel as traditional oils?
We tried our best to answer these important questions. We've searched online for the best oil paints for students, hobbyists, and professional artists, and also compiled a buying guide to help you get the most out of this enjoyable tradition. Check out all of our choices from our favorite Martin & F. Weber Permalba to other full sets!
Susan has a Master of Fine Arts in Oil Painting, has been a glassblower since 1998, and is a former drawing professor. So naturally, we thought to ask her to help us write and review this article about oil paints.
Her "painted drawings" are oil on paper and employ cartoon imagery to explore issues, ironies, and paradoxes in modern societies, often inspired by urban life in Tokyo. She has participated in juried exhibitions in the US and Japan. You can check out her work on Behance!
When picking our best oil paints, we chose by evaluating the following points:
Keep these features in mind when you look for oil paints and don't forget to check out our buying guide for more tips!
M. Graham & Co.
Winsor & Newton
Winsor & Newton
Natural Earth Paint
Titanium White 180
Artist's Oil Colors Introductory Set
Landscape Colors Set
Cobra Artists' Water Mixable Oil Color
Winton Oil Colour Basic Set
Griffin Alkyd Fast-Drying Oil Colors
3-Piece Liquid Basecoat Set
Original Oil Color Pearlescent Shimmer
The Earth Oil Paint Kit
Shiva Artist's Paintstik
Best Versatile White All Painters Should Have
Best for Those Starting From Scratch
Best Set to Take Painting Outdoors
Best to Get the Feel of Oils With the Ease and Safety of Acrylics
Best Student Set That Will Get You Through Painting 101
Best for Fast-Drying Results With the Properties of Traditional Oils
Best for Bob Ross's Wet-on-Wet Technique
Best to Add Some Shimmer and Sparkle to Any Color
Best Kit to Experience Making Your Own Paints
Best Oil Sticks to Expand Your Range of Techniques
|Amount||150ml||37ml tubes of 9 colors||11ml tubes of 8 colors, 37ml tube of titanium white||40ml||21ml tubes of 10 colors||37ml||8 oz. jars of 3 paints||37ml||2 oz. packets of 10 colors, 4 oz. bottles of refined walnut oil and eco-friendly solvent||12 full-size sticks|
|Suitable for||Any painter||Any painter||Plein-air/landscape painters||Painters looking for easier, less toxic clean-up||Students on a tight budget||Painters who like to work quickly, or have tight deadlines||Using as a ground for wet-on-wet||All painters||Hands-on or environmentally-conscious artists||Artists and crafters who like experimentation|
|Colors/pigments||Titanium, zinc||Cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, viridian, and more||Titanium white, permanent yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, and more||Sold individually||Cadmium yellow pale hue, cadmium red deep hue, French ultramarine, phthalo blue, and more||Sold individually||Liquid white, liquid black, liquid clear||Mica and reflective metal oxides||Venetian red, orange ochre, yellow ochre, terre verte, ultramarine blue, and more||Silver, gold, and other iridescent colors|
From sets to single tubes, professional to student-grade, traditional to modern technology - we've thought about it all and chosen the best products for a variety of needs based on customer reviews. Here are our favorite oil paints for beginners!
|Suitable for||Any painter|
|Amount||37ml tubes of 9 colors|
|Suitable for||Any painter|
|Colors/pigments||Cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, viridian, and more|
|Amount||11ml tubes of 8 colors, 37ml tube of titanium white|
|Suitable for||Plein-air/landscape painters|
|Colors/pigments||Titanium white, permanent yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, and more|
|Suitable for||Painters looking for easier, less toxic clean-up|
|Amount||21ml tubes of 10 colors|
|Suitable for||Students on a tight budget|
|Colors/pigments||Cadmium yellow pale hue, cadmium red deep hue, French ultramarine, phthalo blue, and more|
|Suitable for||Painters who like to work quickly, or have tight deadlines|
|Amount||8 oz. jars of 3 paints|
|Suitable for||Using as a ground for wet-on-wet|
|Colors/pigments||Liquid white, liquid black, liquid clear|
|Suitable for||All painters|
|Colors/pigments||Mica and reflective metal oxides|
|Amount||2 oz. packets of 10 colors, 4 oz. bottles of refined walnut oil and eco-friendly solvent|
|Suitable for||Hands-on or environmentally-conscious artists|
|Colors/pigments||Venetian red, orange ochre, yellow ochre, terre verte, ultramarine blue, and more|
|Amount||12 full-size sticks|
|Suitable for||Artists and crafters who like experimentation|
|Colors/pigments||Silver, gold, and other iridescent colors|
Choosing oil paints can be daunting, especially when you're first starting out. And artists' materials all tend to be expensive, so it's tempting to just go with the special sale products online. But we want to help you make a more informed choice so you don't waste your money.
Even professional artists throw the word color around, but it's actually too general a term. What oils paint really is is a pigment, binder, and in cheap paints, fillers.
Pigment is what provides the color of the paint. There are countless sources - some natural and some manmade. Some are toxic and some not. And most importantly, some are more fugitive than others, meaning they lose or change their color more quickly.
Traditional pigments have stood the test of time and are archival. There's a huge difference in the way pigments are prepared and mixed. In general, good oils will have only one pigment per color; having more leads to unpredictable blending.
Binders are the oils that suspend the pigment. The most common are walnut, linseed, and safflower. Cheaper ones may yellow over time, but other than that, it's really personal preference. Fillers are used in cheap paints to extend the paint or intensify the color, so we recommend avoiding them if you're a serious artist.
Colors can change when exposed to light and air, and over time some colors can fade badly. Those colors are called fugitive, and colors that change less are lightfast.
You can look for an ASTM rating on the paint, with I being the most lightfast and III being fugitive. Some manufacturers use a different ranking system, but it's important to look into lightfastness if you want your work to look the same in a decade as it does when it leaves your studio.
A full set of oil paints can seem like a great deal, but it's really only good if you're starting from zero. Once you have some experience, you'll quickly learn which colors you use a lot and which you never need to buy again. Don't be tempted to buy a lower-priced set with dozens of colors.
Why not? Well, they're not good quality, for starters. Chances are many will dry and harden before you use them up. And mixing your own hues, tints and shades is better for two reasons: you'll get more luminous results, and your painting will look more unified.
All you really need to start out is red, yellow, and blue (one cool and one warm of each) and a tube of white.
Remember, if you have the right primary colors and white, you can pretty much make any secondary and tertiary color you need, so don't go nuts on a set. It's better to get some basic colors and add to your palette one at a time as you decide what you want.
Some artists never use black, landscape artists may want more greens and browns, and abstract styles may call for brighter, more vibrant colors than most sets have.
You may have wondered why some paints seem to be great deals and others are really expensive. Well, the expression "You get what you pay for" is 100 percent true when it comes to oil paint. While it's ideal to get the best you can afford, there may be reasons you can get away with the cheap stuff.
There are usually three grades of paint. Manufacturers use different terms, but the idea is always the same. It's fine to mix them, but the quality of the worst one is what you'll end up with.
Student or study paints are the cheapest. They contain a high percentage of fillers and often use less expensive modern alternatives to traditional pigments. The colors may be more fugitive and not as intense. They're also difficult to mix because they're unpredictable.
Some think that they're fine to use until you learn to handle oils, but there's an argument to be made that there's little point in learning with something that's so different than the real thing. If you're only taking one painting class, or you use a ton of paint and don't care about the quality, they can work. But honestly, it might be better to consider high-quality acrylics instead!
Fillers can make results vary, so you may have some colors that dry to a flat, dull finish or others that have very little pigment load and look washed out. You'll also experience unpredictable mixing results because most student-grade paints don't use pure, reliable pigments.
That means you may end up wasting paint as you try to tweak it to get the color you want! Some student-grade paints are fine for beginners, and others can be incredibly frustrating to work with. Read reviews and stick with reputable brands. But if your syllabus says to get a certain set, well, just do what the professor says!
Paints labeled professional or fine quality are a big step up from student grade, even though they still can contain some fillers. Many experienced artists use these for their underpainting and then finish with high-quality oils on top. Everyone but the most casual painters should buy at least this level, including beginners and new students.
One thing to be aware of when choosing colors: if the name has the word hue in it, then it's not made with the traditional pigment, even though it may borrow that ingredient's name. For example, cadmium yellow hue is meant to imitate cadmium yellow but comes from a pigment other than cadmium.
Mid-grade paints are perfect for studies, the paintings you do as sketches before a final work. Why? Because your study could end up being incredible in its own right, and if you've done it in decent paints, you'll be able to sell it with no worry as to its quality!
Buying this grade is also great if you want to try out some new colors but aren't sure you'll like them. Look for small tubes; some even come in as little as five milliliters.
The best oil paints will bear a name like artist-quality, finest, or extra-fine, and some manufacturers only produce this grade. They contain no fillers, use high-quality ingredients, and usually use time-tested pigments that are more lightfast.
The tubes are usually single pigments, which make for consistent, predictable blending. They're also more concentrated, so they will go farther when making tints and shades or thinning them with solvents or medium. These are suitable for beginners and experts alike as long as you know what colors you want!
If you buy artist-grade paints, you'll get to know which paints- not which colors- predictably give you the results you want, and you'll save money in the long run since you won't waste paint mixing up mistakes. I recommend getting artist quality for everything, but especially at least for colors you use the most.
For the most part, the kind or brand of paint you choose doesn't affect what techniques you can employ. If you plan to do glazing, which is applying thin washes of pigment and medium over semi-dry paint, you need to use colors that are concentrated. Use artist-quality paints for this technique or you'll be disappointed with the results.
Impasto techniques (using very thick layers) require thick paint, but you can always add medium to get the right consistency. Or, if you've bought some paint you don't like, this could also be a good way to use it up fast!
Unique modern colors, like metallics, fluorescents, or interference colors that change depending on the underpainting, are a lot of fun. However, since most haven't been around too long, there's no way to guarantee their archival quality.
Oils paints used to be seen as having a more limited range than acrylics, which come in neons and more. But recently oils are catching up, and you can find all kinds of fun effects.
It's always a good idea to limit crazy colors if you want a realistic look, though. For example, using a metallic color to replicate a silver cup in a still life won't look natural.
Oil paints by themselves aren't harmful to your health if used as intended. Don't eat while painting, and wash your hands before your snack break. If you sand down dried paint layers, be careful not to breathe in any dust.
Solvents used with paints are a bigger problem. If you have allergies to solvents, you'll be able to find products that will help. If your concern is the environment, you will likely have to make some compromises.
These paints are a modern invention based on old ideas. Some alter the molecular structure of the oil and others use emulsifiers, but the result is that you'll be able to achieve results close to using regular oils with the easy cleanup of acrylics.
They can be combined with regular oil paints up to about a 20 percent ratio before you'd need to use solvents to clean your brushes. People can develop reactions to solvents at any time, and they're just nasty anyway, so if you want to avoid them, give these paints a try.
Oil paints themselves are far less dangerous to your health than the solvents used to work with them. So, water-soluble paints take away the most hazardous part of oil painting. They have the same feel and quality as regular oils, but some may be more transparent and they will dry faster. They're not to be confused (or mixed with) acrylics.
Many of the most-loved paint pigments come from toxic materials, such as cadmium, lead, or cobalt. These aren't dangerous to use unless you eat them, but when you wash brushes, tiny amounts of these heavy metals get into the environment.
You can avoid these colors, but finding substitutes is hard, as they just don't reproduce the originals. Synthetic substitutes also often still contain petrochemicals. You can choose to buy only earth colors, but you'll be missing the brightest hues from your palette.
If you're going to go the earth-friendly route, why not try making your own paints? It's a fun way to really get in touch with your art.
If you plan to use it up right away, you just need pigment, linseed oil, and a palette knife, but to make paint to store you'll need a muller and some time to grind everything together. This process will fully incorporate your mixture so the particles don't separate.
It's almost too easy to waste your money when it comes to oil painting, but this tool will help you save in the long run!
Even though you might know what brands of oil paints to get now, you still might not know where to start. Luckily, Susan has answered some commonly asked questions for us!
Susan says, "In theory, you need fewer than a dozen colors to get started. Get two reds, yellows, and blues, one warm and one cool of each. It should be noted that whether a color is cool or warm is hotly debated (pun intended) and depends on which brand and grade you buy as well.
For warm colors, I recommend cadmium red, yellow ochre, and cerulean blue; and for cool colors, try alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow light, and ultramarine blue. You'll also need a white, and titanium white is the most versatile. I would add Prussian blue, as I find it indispensable for creating rich blacks."
This might seem obvious, but water won't be enough to clean off your oil-soaked brushes! Instead, you should use a solvent like turpentine, turpenoid or odorless paint thinner to get rid of excess paint. Dip your paint-soaked brushes until most of the excess paint is gone, then use soap and hot water to condition the bristles and wash off the solvent.
However, you shouldn't do a deep-clean after every use unless you only paint once every few days. Too much cleaning will wear down the brushes. If you paint often, just wipe off excess paint with a towel and only do a deep cleanse when necessary.
If you want to avoid using solvents, some artists only clean their brushes using an oil like safflower oil from the grocery store. Wipe off as much paint as you can, then dip the brush in oil to get it all off. Finally, wash your brush in hot water and soap.
If your heart isn't solely set on oil paints, consider adding acrylics or watercolors to your art supplies as well!
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