Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's not in the paint.

There is a heat wave in New England and painting outside today was like standing in a sauna. Now that night has fallen it is cooling off a little. Lets see......what am I going to write about? How about this?

When I teach or when I meet readers of the blog, they often ask me paint questions. They ask whether their brand of paint is OK and which brand is good and what do I think of water mucilage oils? They will point to a passage in a painting and say, what did you mix to get that? I tell them,


Here's what I mean by that, with bullets.

  • Painting is an intellectual and expressive art, although it has a handcraft component. The real thing that makes good painters is how they think about what they are doing. I have seen wonderful paintings made from ordinary paints.While it is difficult to make a good painting with the best of materials the secret is not in the paint. You can't buy a tube of better art.
  • There are lots of brands of paint and as long as you buy a professional grade Most brands produce a student grade oil too, you have to stay out of that., You have to have the pro grade. I don't think it matters which you use. Rembrandt and Winsor Newton, Gamblin, etc. They all seem to work just fine. Dollar for dollar I think the Lefranc Bourgeois is an excellent buy. But I like oily paint. I tube my own paint, but if I bought my paint from a major online distributor that is what I would buy.
  • Unless you are married to a thoracic surgeon the super premium paints like Old Holland seem ridiculously expensive, They have incredible pigment loads, but I don't like their handling as well as the Lefranc. Too thick. I do like Blockxx, but not enough to pay their prices. I don't really need that level of paint. Its not about the paint.
  • There is no magic bullet, you can add that cool new color you saw one of those cowboy artists riding, or change to sun thickened lilac oil and amber mediums (with fossils) and it won't make a big difference in your painting. But learning a new concept or developing you ability to manage values, or color temperatures will.
  • The paint is just a tool, its a means to an send. Some books and teachers in my opinion overemphasize the mechanical aspect of painting. If it were as simple as some medium or brand of paint you could buy, all the rich old amateurs would simply buy the ability to paint. The art students would get Mom and Dad to spring for the magic paint and they would be masters.
  • I suggest you buy the brand you get the best price on and spend the rest of your money educating yourself. Go to the museum, take a workshop or buy great art books and study them till they are dogeared. How you think about, and what you know about the art of painting, will matter far more than what paint you use and more than the choice of pigments you array on your palette.


Mary Byrom said...

Not to mention how the oil paint behaves in hot weather (as compared to sub zero). Yesterday I was sketching and painting on the fly so I used watercolors- I never had them dry so fast- by the last brush stroke I could turn the page and start a new one....

Philip Koch said...

Good commentary by Stapleton once again. I think the difficulty of seeing form, composition, color relationships is more than daunting. No wonder beginning artists grab hold of seemingly more immediate issues like pigments and put their anxiety there.

The skills we painters master- being able to see complex relationships and hold them in our mind's eye- are incredibly elusive. (Heck, some mornings I get up and seem to have forgotten everything). I remember when I was first starting to paint spending lots of mental energy worrying about using my staple gun correctly when stretching canvases. It was easier than worrying about what I was going to do once I started the paintings.

Pat Jeffers, Artist said...

I agree completely with your post, but I have a question for you: why can't you use a student grade? I've heard that time and time again, but no one says "why not". I can see that the pigment load would be less; that's just common sense. But if you adapt your work to that, then what else is wrong? said...

Of course Stapleton, you don't need to be concerned about where your art will go ( everyone wants it)...but there are many artists with much art in the closet....

The quality of paint can be an important element in a painting; it's importance comes through experience. Student paints have fillers, less pigments and lesser quality pigments. They can give really dull color mixes and mixes that are not predictable. Because they have fillers and less expensive pigments, they do not always have the longevity to stand up to the work. If one is doing student work, well a student grade may be OK. But moving up to a professional grade is moving your work forward.

Using a pallet knife on panel I have found that I need the highly pigmented paint with very little oil(Old Holland) because I need stiffness and strong pigments to spread and cover the panel in the manner to which I have developed.

Since I'm not as productive as our masterful host, Stapleton, I don't go through that much paint, comparatively. When I do an occasional brush painting, I am always shocked at how much paint gets used up and does not end up on the canvas (wiped off, on the brush, in the solvent etc.). I could NEVER afford the Old Holland which I use now if I painted with brush!But as it stands I work the cost into the painting price.

billspaintingmn said...

When I look at a Winslow Homer, I don't ask myself,"I wonder what brand of paint he used?"(should I?)
I instead enjoy the 'poetry' of the piece. The story he is telling.
Sure, ingredience is important, I wouldn't eat fish caught from certain waters, so..
Stape! Your posts are as good as it gets! If there's any filler, it's killer!
I do know that Lefranc makes an excellent oil size for gilding, I will try some of there paint!

jeff said...

Good post on paint and I agree.
I use Williamsburg and W&N mostly.

I have found some great deals on EBay for professional grade paint for very cheap. I found 6 tubes of W&N Cad Yellow light for $20. I was the only one who bid and I think because the paint was old. It was from the 70's and I took a chance and the paint was in perfect condition still in the original boxes. I noticed that the same person was selling some more of this vintage W&N and won tubes of Cad Yellow Lemon and Ocher and Burnt Sienna all for under $30.

If you like Gamblin and W&N there are a lot of job lots up for auction and if you have the time to sift through them you can find some excellent deals.

I also buy from RGH which has great deals on very good paint.

barbara b. land of boz said...

Well said Stapleton...

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Stapleton, What kind of paper towels do you use?
This reminds me of what I think was a Gammell story. A student asked Gammell a question that essentially went "How should I paint that?"
Gammell's response was, "I don't care if you use your elbow, just get it in there!"

Stapleton Kearns said...


Then all kinds are equally good?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Why were you sketching on your fly?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think thats it. Its easier to imagine the perfect paint as holding the answer to what are generally complex intellectual problems.

Stapleton Kearns said...

YOU can use student grade paints. It IS cheaper. But I think the middle ground is to use quality paint without moving to the boutique brands.
The cheap paints will handicap you. You won't know if you can't do it, or the paint can't do it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There is Pats answer.Thanx

Stapleton Kearns said...


I don't know who made Homers paint. I wouldn't be surprised if he used Winsor-Newton, particularly for watercolor. But thats a guess, Schminke was big then too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have used and liked Williamsburg too, but it is expensive. Did you ever think it had a waxy sort of feel.Are there stearates in it?

jeff said...

I have been told by someone who said they worked for Williamsburg that they put a little wax in some of the paint. I agree it's expensive.

I think RGH is the best value for the money and quality.

I also like a company called Blue Ridge which makes the paint by hand as is very reasonable. $18 for 40ml of Cad Yellow Lt.

Anonymous said...

It is to in the paint! Sorry Stape, must disagree with you. I have been working with some students nearby who have Winton. Awful stuff, simply torturous to paint with. I have expelled it from my class. You dip your brush in it and nothing, put in on the canvas and you get a smear. It doesn't load, lay on, etc. Way too much filler, wax, etc. I like the adage, cheapen up on the brushes, canvas, anything else but buy and load up oils like a millionaire. Pebeo not good either, the other brands you mention are good, Gamblin, Rembrandt, etc. To dub a paint student grade is a sham--I highly value "students" and to create this unworkable stuff for them is terrible.

jeff said...

silivo, Stap said to stay away from student grade paint. Winton is student grade.

I also think there are a lot of so called professional grade that is lacking. Grumbacher is not very good, it was 20, 30 years ago but it's not now.

Stephanie Berry said...

I've read never use anything with hue in the name. I'm looking for a good basic yellow. The last ones I've bought (cadmium mediums) are very gold. Suggestions?

Silvio Silvestri said...

Jeff, Bullet number 6 states," buy the best deal on oil paint you can and spend money on classes." A store near my students have winton on sale and it is junk. I again disagree. Stape accurately does state we must turn to better technique and application of tools at our disposal. I am way to guilty of looking for the magic in new paint so he in general is offering excellent advice. It is a small caveat I am arguing against.

Jana Van Wyk said...

yup, you are right. painting is like golfing. you can keep buying the latest expensive golf clubs or you can spend money on lessons. actually now that I think about it golfing is a LOT like painting. one good golf shot out of 50 keeps you coming back for more, the next one. so with painting, you hit one out of the park and can't wait to come back and do it again

Artifacts said...


What Staphe actually says in bullet #6 is "I suggest you buy the brand you get the best price on and spend the rest of your money educating yourself." And that's while keeping in mind what he said in bullet #2, "Most brands produce a student grade oil too, you have to stay out of that., You have to have the pro grade." Buy the brand you want, but only the pro grade.