Lately when I head to the art supply store, I am overwhelmed by all of the choices. There are literally thousands of different paints and they all have different descriptions. I figured if I am overwhelmed, you must be, too! So…I decided to do a deep dive and figure out all the ins and outs of which paint is best and what the differences are. I use paint a lot in my classes and in my art boxes and I am always wondering if I am purchasing the right brand or the right thickness of paint (also known as body). Before we dive deep into brands, let me explain a little bit of terminology as it relates to the different kinds of acrylic paint.
WHAT IS ACRYLIC PAINT?
Acrylic paint is a water soluble paint that is made from acrylic polymers, pigment and water. People love acrylic paint because you can water it down, it dries fast, and you can add lots of additives to the paint (gloss, metallics, pastes) to change the way it looks and feels.
COLOR, HUE, TINT, SHADE, PIGMENT: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
First, let me explain the difference between a color and a hue.
Color – color is the umbrella term. It describes every tint, hue, shade, tone that you see.
Hue – Hue refers to the original or the main color. For example, red, yellow and blue are all hues – if you opened a tube of paint and it said cadmium red, the hue would be red. Primary, secondary and tertiary colors are all known as hues. Examples of hues are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.
Tint – Tint is what you get if you add white to any color. Pastels are the most common tints, but sometimes even just a subtle amount of white is considered a tint. All this means is that a tint is a paler version of a hue. Always start with the white and gradually add the hue when mixing colors.
Shade – On the other hand, you’ve got shades. Shades are just like tints except instead of adding white, you’ll be adding black. When mixing shades, you want to start with the color first, then add the black. It is nearly impossible to see any color in a shade if you start with the black when mixing.
Pigment – the natural color used to make paint. Typically pigment comes in a powder. It is then mixed with an acrylic polymer and water to fuse together to make paint.
Ok, so now that we’ve got some of those items out of the way, let’s discuss acrylic paint: how to buy it, what to look for and are expensive paints better?
PAINTS ARE CATEGORIZED IN MANY WAYS. HERE ARE THE DIFFERENCES:
When you are purchasing paint, you can actually look to see which pigments are in the bottle. For example, I did a full study of Cerulean blue. I bought it in several brands to see what the differences are. The ones that said PB36 are pure blue.
That means that there is only one pigment in the bottle. Some of the bottles said Cerulean Blue, but actually had other pigments and sometimes white.
This bottle shows that the blue is made from a variety of pigments, so it is not pure cerulean.
If you’re curious about how paints are made, the Golden website has a ton of information about the chemical composition, permanency and level of gloss.
STUDENT QUALITY VS ARTIST GRADE
Fewer additives, no extenders and have a high ratio of pigment. Artist grade paints are rated by series number.
A series 4 paint is more expensive than a series 2 paint but the quality is the same. So why is Cerulean blue more expensive than another color with the same amount of ounces and by the same brand? It is because the pigment is more expensive or challenging to manufacture. Again, this doesn’t mean that it is better quality – it is just that all colors do not cost the same amount of money – crazy, right??
Student grade acrylic paints aren’t nearly as expensive as the artist grade. How do they do that?! They use less pigment and add lots of stuff to make the colors – these are called additives. It’s similar to food, there’s a difference between eating naturally wild caught salmon vs salmon with added color. Typically, student grade paints aren’t made with pigment, but with hues that have been blended to make a color as close to the original without paying the price. This is why you can pick up a bottle of blue acrylic paint at the dollar store. Notice that it doesn’t say “cerulean blue,” it just says blue. It’s a blue that’s got hues and additives to make it work. Does quality really matter? I had the same question and unfortunately it really does…I will get into that a little more later…
Dollar Tree Paint Brand
HEAVY BODY ACRYLICS:
This means that the paint has a higher viscosity – it is thicker, and more sticky. The color doesn’t change because it is made with the same pigment as your standard acrylic paint, but the glossiness might look different. Heavy body acrylics are great for artists who want their brush strokes to show and like having texture in their work.
SOFT BODY ACRYLICS:
These have a lower viscosity which means that the paint is smooth when applied. They have the same amount of pigment as the heavy body, but with a much different consistency. The color should be the same, though, because it uses the same amount of pigment. Soft paints don’t show texture as well, although you will still see some slight brush strokes when dry.They’re easy to blend but also easy to use for details like facial features.
ACRYLIC FLUIDS (inks, & high flow paints)
These paints have the same ratio of pigment, but they are thinner and so you use more. They move on the canvas very easily and mix well with both heavy body and other acrylics. They can be used in an airbrush or fabric. You can also use these like a watercolor paint. Fluids are also great for dripping and splatter painting.
There are also things you can add to your paint to change the chemistry (glosses, gels, pastes) but we can get to that another time.
ACRYLIC PAINT PENS:
These are pens that are filled with acrylic paint. They dry out relatively quickly and come in a range of quality and variety, but if you’re looking for the control that you get from using a pen – these are the way to go! They do leak often and they can be frustrating to work with. They work on glass, metal and other non-porous materials.
Ok, so now that I’ve got the technical stuff out of the way, let’s get into my deep dive. I’ve been painting with my classes for a long time, but I typically buy whatever is the least expensive (folk art, craft smart, dollar tree, etc). Since I am a self-proclaimed art supply junkie, I decided to do a deep dive to see if my instincts were right. Here’s how I did my (not so) scientific study.
I took a trip to Blick, Michaels and Hobby Lobby and purchased several bottles of Cerulean Blue. I focused on just purchasing items that said Cerulean. The only exception was the craft smart and the dollar tree- they make their own names. I tried to make my study as fair and scientific as possible. I made a chart with each paint title. Then I made columns to see both how well the paint covered, how fast and smooth it dried, how it reacted when blended with white and how it retained texture.
My findings were interesting. I recorded them both on paper and on this chart:
Ok, so what should you buy?
I guess it really depends on what your goals are. If you’re looking for a high quality paint, my absolute favorite was the Utrecht which is owned by Blick. It is not the most expensive paint, but had excellent coverage, was a dream to paint with and mixed well with others. Everything about the paint made me happy. Plus I love the way it dries. It only took two coats to cover the black – which was way less than all of the other brands.
If you’re looking for a close second, I would recommend the Golden Chromium. For the best bang for the buck, I would recommend Liquitex Heavy Body. On another test, I also tested the Hobby Lobby paint – Master’s Touch Thick Body Acrylic – this was a great paint and was right up there with the more well known brands.
How was the Dollar Tree Brand Paint?
Honestly, it was a pleasure to use while painting, but the way it dried was not great. It went from a Cerulean shade of blue to a dark navy in the dry stage. It also dried really chalky and didn’t have great coverage – I was disappointed. That being said, when I mixed it with the Utrect white, it definitely helped the quality. But the texture is the real issue because it doesn’t hold any texture (totally flattened) and has no shine – it doesn’t feel great on the hands.
What paint should I use with kids?
For beginner acrylic paint projects, I would start with the Craft Smart brands or the Folk Art brands. I also really like the Walmart Apple Barrel and the Hobby Lobby Anita brands – they all work great! The dry a bit chalkier, but kids don’t seem to mind and then they can always add an additional layer of Mod Podge after. Easy peasy!