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How to Assess a New Brand of Acrylic or Oil Paint

Tips on what to look for when trying out a new paint brand.


How do you decide if a new paint brand is going to be decent and likely to be money well spent? The ultimate test is, obviously, to try it, but there are various things I use to judge an unknown paint brand and decide whether or not I'll buy a tube. Then I select a color I use a lot so I can compare it to what I'm used to using.

1. Student's or Artist's Quality

Student or artist's quality paint
Image ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans
Is the paint brand you're considering student's or artist's quality? There can be quite a considerable difference in the paint, not just the price. If the tube label doesn't tell you, see if you can find a brochure on the various brands a paint manufacturer produces or compare them in the shop in terms of price and range.

Student's quality paint is cheaper because manufacturers use the less expensive pigments in them, so the range of colors is limited. The nasty ones use a lot of filler too, so the colors are unsaturated (weak) and don't make vibrant colors when mixed. Personally, I'd rather use a top artist's quality paint brand and paint smaller canvases.

See: Should You Use Student or Artist's Paints? and Is House Paint Okay For Art?

2. The Construction of the Tube

Image ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans
What are you first impressions when you pick up the tube? Does it feel solid, or flimsy? Is the cap on firmly, or does it seem to be loose? Is it made from metal or plastic? I believe that if a manufacturer skimps on their containers, they're likely to skimp on their paint quality too.

See: Are Metal or Plastic Paint Tubes Better?

3. The Tube Label

Assessing paint brands by judging the label
Image ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans
What information is on the paint tube label? Does it say what the actual pigments (not just the color's name), and a lightfastness rating? Is the label well designed and printed, or cheap and nasty?

Does it have a printed or painted swatch of the color that's inside? Only a few companies hand-paint swatches, but it's something I find really useful as it enables you to judge the true color without opening the tube (which tends to upset store assistants) and its opacity.

Paint sold in the USA will also have information about it conforming to ASTM standards and other health warnings as required by particular states. Sometimes you'll see stickers put onto imported paints to meet these requirements.

See: How to Read the Label on a Tube of Paint

4. Heavy Body or Fluid Paint

Acrylic paints
Image ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans
There's less choice with oil paints when it comes to consistency (viscosity), but with acrylics there is quite a bit, ranging from fluid to ultra-thick. Know what the paint is intended to be, so you don't get upset by having a thin paint when you wanted a buttery one. The paint label ought to tell you, as may the type of container it's in. Very fluid paint will typically come in a bottle, but paint in tubes can vary from quite soft to stiff. Ultra-thick paint will typically come in a jar, so you can scoop it out with a palette knife.

5. How Does it Compare to Your Usual Brand?

Prussian blue in various paint brands
Image ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans
If you decide it's a likely looking paint and to give it a try, buy a color you use a lot so you can compare it. Paint sample swatches of the paint straight from the tube, thinned for glazing, with whatever mediums you use, and mixed with a few colors. Then compare it to the swatches you painted for the brands you usually use.

I try to buy a tube of Prussian blue, one of my favorite colors. Use thickly, it's a very dark blue but thinned it becomes a very transparent blue that's fabulous for glazing. The darkest version I've used comes from Daler-Rowney; applied thickly it's almost black. If Prussian blue isn't available, I generally buy a cadmium red, another favorite but unfortunately also an expensive pigment.

See: Color Index Names

6. Judging by Price

Image ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans
When it comes to paint, you do tend to get what you pay for. A tube of top-quality oil or acrylic paint (such as Michael Harding or Golden) may seem ludicrously more expensive than another brand, but when you use it, the high saturation of the color means a little goes a long way so you don't use the tube up as fast. When it comes to mid-price paint brands, there are several to select from and they're pretty similar. The greatest variation I've found is in the viscosity.

The best paint in the world is no good though if you're too worried about wasting it to use it. Only you can know what this price point is for you. Buy the best you can afford that you still feel you can experiment with it, or a separate set of cheap paints for playing.
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