Deciding which brand of acrylics to buy is not always an easy choice. Most of us are shopping on a budget so value and volume always seems to play key roles in the decision-making process.  There's a lot of smoke-and-mirrors deception going on when it comes to acrylic paint labels.  It seems every paint manufacturer would have you believe that their product is high grade. When it comes to buying paint, the best value isn't always obvious, and volume isn't what it seems.

"What the heck does that mean?!"

It means, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for (irritating, but true).  You can however give yourself an advantage and save time, money, and frustration by better acquainting yourself with the options.

Get to Know Your Colours:

On most tubes of paint (student or professional or otherwise) the label will have lots of information to wade through;

  • pigment content: tells us what specific pigment(s) were used to make this colour. Generally appears as a pairing of letters and numbers (ie: PB29 is Ultramarine Blue)
  • lightfastness rating: how well it will handle direct exposure to sunlight in reference to fading
  • opacity/transparency rating: an indicator of whether a colour covers completely (opaque) or if it allows you to see though the film to previously painted lower layers (transparent).
  • vehicle: should say something like "acrylic polymer emulsion". This is just a confirmation that you are in fact holding a tube of genuine acrylic paint, not oil or watercolour.
Although informative, these ratings appear on nearly every tube of paint nowadays,
so they're not good indicators of quality.

Identifying Professional Paints:

  • Look at the Prices: Student grade paints are usually all the same price, whereas each tube in a professional grade of paint will have a different price because the price is determined by the cost of the pigment(s) used to create that colour. Some pigments are rare or in high demand and that drives the price up. In example, Golden Acrylics have 9 different price points ("series"), meaning that their 2oz tubes start at around $10 an go up to around $24 each.
  • Check Out the Label: Artist' paints will generally use words like "Professional", "Artist", or "Extra-Fine" directly on the label. Student paints are identified by the lack of those words (they usually don't proudly proclaim that they're student grade on the label).
  • Scientific Sounding Names: It seems silly, but it's actually good measure of paint quality. If the paint line you're looking at has colour names like Quinacridone, Azo, Anthraquinone, Hansa, Phthalocyanine, Pyrrole... then it's likely a high grade paint. If it has colour names like Bright Red, Scarlet, Medium Blue, Forest Green, then it's likely a low grade.
  • Look for Hues: In paint terms, a hue is an approximated colour.  Cadmium Red Hue actually contains zero Cadmium, instead is is composed of pigments that look and act much like a true Cadmium, only without the high cost and high toxicity.  Golden Acrylics have a vast colour selection including both genuine colours and their approximated hues, but student grade paints will use only hues of colours like Cadmium and Cobalt, never the genuine article.

    The Tests:

    To better illustrate what we're talking about, we ran 3 tests using 3 different brands of acrylic paint. To make sure we're comparing apples-to-apples, from each brand we chose the same 3 primary colours: Cadmium Red Medium Hue, Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue, and Ultramarine Blue.

    The Test Subjects:

    Golden Fluid Acrylics: Professional quality. We chose to use Golden Fluids instead of Golden Heavy Body just to prove a point; a very little Golden Acrylic paint goes a long way! (Made in the USA.)

    Grumbacher Academy Acrylics: Post-secondary student quality. This is an excellent line of student quality paints. These paints have a good pigment load so they perform quite well.  In this academic line of paint, Grumbacher has eliminated all the expensive/toxic pigments, using only hues and making this a very affordable and very reliable paint. (Made in the USA.)

    Art Advantage Acrylics: Very basic, school grade acrylic paint, also made in the USA.

     Test #1: Coverage and The Deception of Buying Volume

    In this test, we used a dime-sized drop of Ultramarine Blue paint mixed with a teaspoon of Golden Acrylic Glazing Liquid (Gloss).  This test was done in two stages; the first stage was to cover the 8" square with the paint & glazing mixture and let dry.  The second stage was to cover the 4" square in the middle with a second coat of the same mixture.

    The Results:

    Golden is on the left, Grumbacher in the middle, and Art Advantage on the right. The low pigment load and transparency in the cheaper brands is pretty plain to see.


    It would take several more coats of Art Advantage paint to achieve the same opacity as the first coat of Golden.

    Without exception you'll get far more paint volume for your money by buying inexpensive, student quality paint, however... there are reasons why the cheap paint is cheap.  In reality, most student grade paint is a very thin consistency with a low pigment load, requiring several coats to make it opaque.  It would take more time in the long run (applying multiple layers), and use far more "cheap" paint to achieve the same look as a single application of a professional grade paint.  Considering all that, going cheap may not be such a good deal anymore.

    Test #2: Pigment Load

    In this test we applied the 3 colours from each brand over a series of black chevron stripes to illustrate the pigment load.  The left hand column shows an application of each colour at full strength, straight out of the tube. The right hand column is a 50/50 mixture of Golden Acrylic Glazing Liquid (Gloss) and paint.

    An artist quality paint (such as Golden) has an extremely heavy pigment load.  This means that the ratio of dry pigment to binder is very high (essentially, its mostly pigment with just enough acrylic polymer emulsion to hold it all together).  For this reason Golden colours are often referred to as liquid pigments.  In contrast, most student paints contain a much higher ratio of acrylic emulsion and much lower ratio of pigment (it's mostly clear acrylic emulsion with just enough pigment to give it colour).

    Test #3: Colour Theory

    In this final test we wanted to see how the primary colours mixed with one another to create secondary colours, plus how they mix (using all 3 primaries) to create a brown/black. Again, transparency issues are immediately apparent in the lesser priced brands.  As you scroll down, each colour wheel becomes brighter and more saturated than the previous one, not surprisingly as the paint quality also increases.

    A Final Note on Transparency: Transparency is not a fail-safe indicator of low quality; some pigments are inherently transparent, no matter the concentration. The perfect examples for this are Quinacridone Red and Zinc White, these colours are extremely transparent; even in the highest quality paint available, it will take several layers to achieve opacity. That hard truth is yet another reminder to become more familiar with your favorite (or least favorite) colours and their inherent characteristics.

    July 05, 2016 — Karen Bullaro