Hi friends! Today we’re going to be talking about the different types of acrylic paint you can use in your art! If the differences between student grade, artist grade, or craft paint (which is also acrylic paint) confuse you, then this post will help you sort it out!
When you’re new to art, the amount of selection you have can be really overwhelming! Let’s go through the basics and give you a good grasp on acrylics, so you’ll have confidence when you face the art store!
If you’re interested in any of the paints I’m about to show you, you can shop for them on Amazon using my included affiliate links in this post, and help keep this free content coming at the same time, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!
Craft paint is sold in many places…art stores, departments stores, Wal-Mart…so it’s easy to find. It’s also the cheapest acrylic paint you’ll find…most store have sales where you can buy bottles of the stuff for a dollar! It’s what I started with when I got into painting because it was super cheap and the rainbow of colours sitting on the shelves was very alluring!
Craft paint is great for, well, crafting! It has a cream-like consistency (similar to artist quality soft body paint). It can be painted on pretty much any surface, and I use it from time to time when I make clay sculptures. As for using in an actual art practice, however, craft paints just don’t cut it. They’re cheaply made from cheap materials, and as a result are cheaply priced and will give you cheap-looking results. Craft paint doesn’t contain much pigment, and thus the tiny bottle consists of mainly fillers…which makes mixing incredibly difficult. This is why craft paint comes in a multitiude of colours and shades…because you’re not getting those colours on your own by mixing! Too many fillers and not enough pigment means colours will become muddy-looking very fast, so you won’t be able to mix a truly vibrant colour on your own.
If you’re using craft paint for crafting purposes, that’s what it’s for and it’s great for that, but from my experience I would recommend you avoid craft paint when trying to learn fine art, because mixing colours without getting mud is hard enough when you’re new, you don’t want your paint to be holding you back!
Student Grade Paint
Student grade paint is the step up from craft paint (a big step up! More like a giant leap). Unlike craft paint, student grade paint is manufactured from the same brands that make artist-quality paint! Student grade paint is made with the intention of fine art in mind, not craft projects, so the pigment load in student grade paint is much higher than craft paints, allowing you to play and mix with colours with better results. It has a thicker consistency, very close to artist quality heavy body paint, but just a bit softer.
Student paint is more expensive than craft paint, but still quite affordable. A medium-sized tube of paint (like the ones in the picture) will cost you around $5. You can also buy them in beginner paint sets, like this one. These paints are designed to give as high of quality as possible while staying within a resonable price range, so you’re still going to run into fillers with student paint, which can have an effect on the vibrancy of your mixed colours. The extent of the filler in the paint depends on the colour itself. They’re all made to be the same price, so a natural-sourced pigment like cobalt blue will end up having much more filler in the tube of paint than a synthetic colour, like dioxazine purple.
But for a beginner, student paints are a great way to get into painting, as you’ll be less intimidated using cheaper paints (the vast majority of them also have the same names as the professional paint, so as you play with them and develop a preference for certain colours, you can simply upgrade to the artist version of that exact colour, and not have to re-find something similar in professional quality).
You have to be comfortable enough to experiment and learn from your mistakes, so student paint is an excellent starting point for beginners because the quality of pigment is enough to learn about colour mixing, but the paint is cheap enough that you won’t feel intimidated or too worried about wasting it to actually try things out. I still use student quality paint in certain colours myself, like Mars Black, which is a synthetic colour, so the pigment load will be closer to artist quality than it would other naturally-derived colours. This saves me money to spend on the more expensive colours that I love 🙂
Artist Quality (Professional) Paint
Artist quality acrylic paint is the absolute best quality paint you can buy. Unlike craft and student grade paint, the price of artist quality paint is not determined by a price budget, but by the pigments themselves. This means that the manufacturers of artist quality paint make no sacrifices in pigment load in their paints, and thus some colours will cost more than others, depending on the difficulty to obtain the pigment (Cadmium-derived colours are some of the most expensive pigments, as Cadmium can be difficult to get).
Artist quality pigments produce incredibly vibrant colours, and a very smooth consistency, making them easy to mix and to apply onto your canvas. If you’re using student grade paint and you reach a point where your colour mixing is just not working out properly, you might want to make the switch to artist quality paints, at least in the colours you’re struggling with.
Artist quality paints vary in terms of viscosity (thickness). The two main ones are:
Heavy Body Paint
This is the most popular viscosity. Heavy body paints have a thick butter-like consistency that spreads smoothly with a pallet knife or brush. It holds brush marks and peaks, but can also be thinned down with fluid medium (or water, but be careful not to add too much!). This is the paint you will be using if you want to get into painting on canvas using a variety of brush strokes with different textures and thicknesses.
Soft Body (or Fluid) Paint
Soft body paints (also called fluid paints) have the consistency of heavy cream (similar to craft paint). It doesn’t hold brush marks, and is somewhere in between heavy body and ink viscosity. The main difference, however, is that the opacity of the acrylics remains intact. If a colour is very opaque in heavy body acrylics (like Titanium white) then it’ll be opaque in fluid acrylics as well. This means that unlike acrylic inks or watercolours, fluid acrylics can completely cover its own previous layers. This can be very forgiving if you make a mistake during a watercolour-style painting session!
These paints are fun to play with, and are perfect if you want to get some nice drippy painting effects to balance out the thick, buttery texture of heavy body. I would recommend having at least a few in your collection of paints. As I’ve been painting more abstracts lately, I’ve been greatly expanding my own personal collection of these fluid acrylics, buying them in my favorite heavy body colors so I can really play and get various drips and glazing effects with them!
A Word on Permanence
Artist quality paints (and most student grade paints) are rated in terms of their lightfastness, or permanence. This is the resistance of the pigment to fade when exposed to sunlight. When painting with artist quality paints (which are archival and non-yellowing) you want to make sure that the colours you use are lightfast, so they’ll last for hundreds of years. The American Society for Testing and Materials rates paints based on a scale of 1-3 (In Roman Numerals) Looking at your tube of paint, you should see a lightfastness rating that will look something like this:
ASTM I — Excellent Lightfastness
ASTM II — Very Good Lightfastness
ASTM III — Not Sufficiently Lightfast to be used in artists’ paints
This scale was made by Henry Levison, the creator of the Liquitex brand, and sadly after he passed away it hasn’t really been updated. It is still used today for many colours, but those that do not have an ASTM rating for lightfastness will have a rating by the British Standard system (BS). It rates colours on a scale from 1-8, with 8 being the highest grade of lightfastness (comparable to an ASTM rating of I).
So keep this in mind when buying new colours, it’ll say right on the bottle the lightfasness rating by one of these two scales. They’ll give you confidence knowing that the colours you’ve chosen will last for years and years to come.
For the record, the only colours that would really rate as ASTM III are fluorescent paint colours (or other similarity wacky paint mixes). If you stick to your basic palette colours (for example Titanium white, Cadmium yellow, Ultramarine blue, etc) and mix new colours with them, then your resulting colours will be lightfast as well.
Also keep in mind that how you finish your painting has an effect on the overall lightfastness too. Varnishing with a permanent, lightfast, arcival, UV protectitive finish will add protection to your paints, even if you do choose to use some rogue colors (I have my own personal attraction to fluorescent pink and orange, haha! I blame Lisa Frank from giving me a childhood full of fluorescent stationery.)
I hope this gives you some help and confidence when choosing which paints to start out with! I started with craft paint, then started mixing in student paint, still wondering why the hell I couldn’t mix a decent purple!! Then I bought some Quinocridone Red and Ultramarine Blue from Golden paints, and when I mixed them I was in total awe of the vibrancy of each colour right out of the tube, let alone the gorgeous purple they made! After that I never turned back, and started learning colour theory with my artist quality paints!
Your paint quality really makes a difference in the final impression of your painting. There are things you can cheap out on when learning art, but your paint shouldn’t be one of them. If you can afford to buy artist quality paints, I strongly urge you to try them! You can even do it gradually…stick with your cheaper paints for now, and as you run out of a certain colour, re-buy that colour in professional quality! Soon you’ll have your own little collection and you’ll be on your way to making some sweet, vibrant, striking art!
And as always, till next time, keep creating!