When I first started painting in art school, I went in on a bulk order with the class. I ordered 15-20 tubes of Rowney Georgian oil paint myself. Back then, this cost  about $8 per 225ml tube. It was enough to create a whole lot of paintings for my studio classes. Since I was not the one who made the order, I did not realize that this was considered a lower quality paint. Indeed, it is quite suitable for student work (especially for paintings not being sold), but professional grade paint is generally looked on as better for paintings displayed in art galleries.

But, I have discovered that this is too much of a generalization. What are the differences between student quality oil paint and professional quality? Can they be used in combination? Are there times when its ok to use student quality?

Empty Easel has a great article on the subject. They examined three separate oil paint colors in the Winsor Newton brand of oil paint, which comes in both professional and student quality. The colors are Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Blue Hue and Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue. There are some important things to note when these were examined:

Examining the differences between professional grade oil paint and student quality

Rembrandt Professional Grade Oil Paints
  1. Permanence - the rating for permanence (which means how long the paint will last under normal conditions) can be found on each tube of oil paint. All paint tubes except professional quality cobalt blue has an A rating. Cobalt blue has AA, which means extremely permanent. In fact, many student quality oil paints are rated AA in permanence.

  2. Lightfastness - This is how long paint intensity can last under light exposure. All paint tubes are equal in lightfastness, each having a "1" rating.

  3. Ingredients - Student quality oil paint use linseed oil as a binder. The professional grades use either safflower oil or linseed oil. According to gunzorro on Wetcanvas, "Safflower provides less yellowing and slightly brighter colors of all types, especially whites and blues, where linseed's yellowing acts as a darkening effect. Safflower also flows more easily, producing a slightly more slippery feel to the paint."

  4. Pigments - This is where the real differences between professional grade oil paints and student quality are seen, and is generally what you are paying for when you buy more expensive paint. Pigments are either cheap (for student quality) or expensive (for professional grade). But interestingly there are certain colors which use the same paint pigment in both the professional and student versions. (for example Anthraquinone PR177 or  synthetic Alizarin, used in Permanent Alizarin Crimson)

  5. Color tests - Under color tests, separate oil paints behave differently. This is where experimentation comes in play. By doing direct comparisons, an artist can find their personal preferences, be it of a professional or student grade. Generally, the professional oil colors stretches a lot further when mixed with solvents.

Is there really a difference between professional oil colors and student quality?

Rowney Georgian Student Oil Paint
I would say YES! From my own experience, finished paintings using professional oil paint colors are more saturated with color. The brighter colors have more of a "pop". Generally, there isn't  much of a noticeable difference in the darker and muted tones though.

Another issue is price. If affordability is an issue, definitely go with the student grade oil paint. What matters is that you are doing what you love to do, right? If it bothers you, consider them "sketches" for future pieces, and charge proportionately to the cost of the cheaper paint. Also, you can always purchase a more expensive professional quality paint tube when you can afford it.

All in all, the quality of oil paint you choose depends on your personal preference. Mixing and matching is acceptable, and there are many cases where the student quality can be just as good as the professional grade.

What do you think? Would you like to share your opinions below in the comments. Even if you disagree, your opinion is valuable to us.

Such a subject where personal preference comes into play is bound to have a wide range of opinions.

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  1. So for you, the difference in student and professional grade is a personal preference? I worry about getting cheaper paints and then trying to sell the paintings because I never know if I'm selling "worse quality" artwork.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I probably should have been clearer. When I mentioned personal preference, I was referring to choosing student or professional oil paint with equivalent ratings. Of course the artists quality is better, as it has more stringent standards in production, stronger (and sometimes better) pigments and lasts much longer. But, there are cases (such as the alizarin crimson) whereby choosing student quality paint tube might not make a noticeable difference to the outcome of the painting. This is where personal preference comes in. If you are selling based on using the highest quality quality oil paints and your buyers expect that, then artists quality oil paint will be the only option.

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