I have used a wide variety of oil paint, and I thought it might be useful to share my opinions about the different brands I’ve used comparatively.
Pigment suppliers are at the root level of the manufacture of oil paint for artistic use. Most raw pigments nowadays come from commercial suppliers who sell to many different industries. Most pigments in artists’ paint are therefore not particularly special unto themselves, but have been chosen for their properties and/or longevity in oil. Some still come from particular places, and there are a few which are very special indeed.
Perhaps most impactful to the consumer, in terms of the actual paint, is the artist oil paint manufacturer. These run the range from tiny companies of (sometime lone) colourmen to industrial scale automated complexes, and the quality and qualities of paint can vary widely. It can get confusing. The best artist paint manufacturers will source high quality pigments and mill them consistently and without a ton of additives to the highest pigment load possible. Certainly each brand and paint line has its own characteristics (such as oil used or paint consistency) based on the manufacturer’s philosophy, preferences, and price point target. Rarely, a paint manufacturer will also make their own raw pigments – Michael Harding makes Cremnitz White pigment in-house, for example.
I’m not brand loyal. I believe the quality/qualities of the paint an artist uses should depend on what it’s being use it for. For example, if you are toning a gessoed canvas with really thinned out mars red or earth green or something, it’s just a well to use basic paint. It’s also probably not necessary to buy any of the more economically produced pigments (Burnt Umber for example) in premium brands. With colours like these, pigment load is less important than the preferred consistency of paint – over-oiled might actually be preferable! Lastly, if you are doing any serious painting, it’s important to use good or even very expensive paint where required. The cost may be high, but the rewards are great. For a common example, Cadmium Red hue is worthless to most serious artists – you simply have to spend the money on the real thing. Further to this, a proper Cremnitz White truly acts differently than Lead White, and a real Naples Yellow (also with lead in it) is a different colour than most manufacturers Naples Yellow, which are either single pigment approximation (like one that Williamsburg offered until recently) or a hue (like everything else it seems). Consequent to this viewpoint, I use paints which sometime have a massive price point difference side by side.
Note: The term “hue” refers to a mixture approximating the listed colour, using cheaper/less toxic pigments. This is done to reach a lower price point, and the paint is just … never quite the real thing. Buyer beware.
Every paint manufacturer says their paint is amazing. I might throw up if I read “buttery” one more time. What I have to say about each paint is from my own experience and is not derived from the history/reputation of the manufacturer or copied off some sales brochure. I like highly pigmented, fairly thick paint milled (primarily) with linseed oil that shows personality from one colour to the next, and no bullshit. It has to have an acceptable balance between quality and price. At the end of each description, I give the paint line a totally subjective rank based on how I feel about it overall. What it comes down to, after everything is said, is taste.
This post will be updated periodically as I try new brands or find information.
In no particular order, I have or have used:
Royal Talens Rembrandt
Royal Talens Van Gogh
Royal Talens Amsterdam
Winsor and Newton Artists’ oil colours
Winsor and Newton London (this line no longer produced)
Winsor and Newton Winton
Grumbacher Pre-tested (both new and very old tubes)
Grumbacher Golden Palette (very old tubes)
Permanent Pigments (no longer produced – company dissolved in 1955)
Lefranc and Bourgeois (older tubes)
Pebeo Studio oil
Ferrario Van Dyck
DeSerres (house brand)
Blick Artists’ (house brand)
Blick Studio (house brand)
Reeves oil colour
Daler Rowney Georgian
Bocour Bellini (no longer produced – company dissolved)
Royal Talens Rembrandt is one of my “go to” paints. I have quite a bit of it. As an undergrad, I often bought upwards to this line, as it is much better paint than most student lines, but was still basically within budget. They are mixed with linseed oil, have a fairly thick consistency that appeals to me, and have a pretty high pigment load across the range. Royal Talens isn’t a boutique brand, and I’ve found them almost everywhere I’ve ever shopped. You have to be careful with every brand of paint of course, but they have a range of colours that is pretty solid without too many nonsense colours. Of their mixed pigment paints, I like their Sap Green (Pthalo Green and Isoindolinone Yellow). This line remains good quality and within my price range. Importantly, they have the easiest caps to open of any manufacturer. Everything considered, I rank them 4 out of 5.
Royal Talens Van Gogh is a pretty big step below the Rembrandt line in both cost and quality. It’s quite “student grade” across the series and the paint is pretty oily and loose out of the tube in my experience. There are many hues in the line which should probably be avoided unless you are banging out practice paintings like a first year. There is just too much filler/oil in the paint for me to buy it any more. Still, there are some decent one or two pigment colours in the line, and there is good purpose to having some of this paint, especially if you are a novice painter. 3 out of 5.
Royal Talens Amsterdam are economical 200ml tubes. There isn’t any difference between these and Van Gogh except how much paint you are buying. Obviously Talens didn’t see any difference either, and they folded the range into the Van Gogh line as far as I can tell. You can cover a lot of real estate with this paint. That’s all I have to say about them besides what I’ve said about Van Gogh above. 3 out of 5.
Weber Permalba is made in Philadelphia PA. The white is a little bit famous for being a wonderful soft consistency and clear over time (non-yellowing). They do this by mixing Titanium White with around 12% Zinc White and around 5% blanc-fixe into safflower oil, so no great mystery here. Some shops only stock the white and black colours. The rest of the line seems far less popular. I worked in a humongous art store in Philly for a few years, and even we didn’t stock it. The one colour I still have is in a plastic tube (please just don’t) and is underwhelming in every respect. They make Bob Ross paint, so maybe that’s saying something. In the colours I’ve tried – MEH. 1.5 out of 5.
Gamblin is a west coast American company that makes excellent mediums packaged in nice glass jars – until recently anyway. I still buy their cold wax and linseed oil regularly. The company has a properly working website, seems open with their customers, and does a lot of research and education, all which is great. The texture of their paint is especially uniform across the colour range, and overall it’s just a little too smooth and soft out of tube for my taste. Overmilled in my opinion. They have a good pigment load, and are consistently well ground (in linseed), but I like a bit more muscle and individual personality from my colours. Definitely worth a try, but 3.5 out of 5 for me.
Gamblin Fastmatte (as the name suggests) has additives which make it dry totally matte and pretty much over night. I don’t use it with other paints much, but find it really useful for underpainting. It’s kind of a limited palette “system” which you either use or don’t. I can see how a basic colour set for sketching might be worthwhile. A bit thicker out of the tube than regular Gamblin. Quite good paint. 4 out of 5 (for specific purpose).
Winsor and Newton Artists’ Oil Colours are a mainstay for many painters. They are good quality at a not extreme price point, so consequently I have quite a few tubes of it. The company is quite old (among the first to put paint into tubes) and rests on an excellent reputation – therefore expectations are, and should be, quite high for this paint. There are a few things to watch for however. Always check the pigments listed on the tube with this brand – they are not particularly open as to what is a hue, have a number of total dud mixed colours, and use proprietary names that are not meaningful. Winsor blue? Just call it pthalo for fucks sake. Interestingly, they are the only manufacturer of genuine rose madder. That’s a neat colour. I once took a tour of the (former) manufacturing facility in Harrow UK, which was a warehouse filled with vats in which absolutely everything was dyed a rosey pink. Very cool. They were bought by a very large company called Colart, and are these paints are now made in France at an industrial scale (information on that here). Apparently they make five million litres of paint each year. Big changes. The quality of these paints should be monitored very closely, now and in the future. 4 out of 5.
Winsor and Newton London is a long discontinued line which encompassed regular oil paints, alkyds, and watercolours. The company restructured the line into Winton (student grade oil paints), Griffin (alkyds), and Cotman (watercolours). Much more organized? The paint I have is obviously quite old. Though it was the company’s more economical offering, the paint I have used in this line is quite a bit better than today’s Winton. Isn’t that the way of things. 4 out of 5.
Winton paints are Winsor and Newton’s present economical/student level offering. I have some, but the paint, across the range, has never been attractive to me. The tubes seem a little plastic like, the tops are kind of annoying, and there are better and more interesting paints at near the same price point. Even as a novice I gravitated elsewhere – slightly upward to Royal Talens Rembrandt if I could afford to. I have a Titanium White (ground in safflower) that I like, but the rest of the colours I own have languished for years, and really only get used when I run out of better paint. 2 out of 5.
Grumbacher Pre-tested almost deserve two different entries, because I literally have two different paints in my box. The contemporary paints are decent, well priced paints which are good but not overflowing with attributes. I rank them near-ish Rembrandt. I have however some very old colours in lead tubes which are the best paints I’ve ever used. I’m not exactly sure of the reason why. The lead tube? The age? Quality differences in the pigments used? Changed processes or priorities at the company? For whatever reason, these old paints are fantastic. I’ve read other people say the same. If only it was possible to get more. Cherished. 5 out of 5 (for the old ones).
As a final note, these lead tubes came to me in a pretty thrashed state. The lead, being so soft, has torn on a number of tubes, and are creating a mess. Chalk one up to aluminum tubes… Also, there are a couple of colours that have gone “mealy”. The oil and the pigment and the fillers have separated from each other somewhat. I’ve experienced this with old tubes in other brands also.
Grumbacher Golden Palette. I also have some old tubes (1980’s) of this economical paint line from Grumbacher, which they no longer offer. These old paints I have are much better than their insanely low price suggests, but I have a “Cadmium Red” which doesn’t have the pigments listed on the tube but is a pasty, notably disappointing hue. It’s so bad it’s funny. The price tags are still stuck to some of the tubes and none of them were over two dollars. Amazing. 4 out of 5 (for the price).
Grumbacher Academy. I have used a few older tubes in this line. Like Winsor and Newton London, they are better than their contemporary counterparts. Academy is Grumbacher’s student quality line, which has the same colour range as the Pre-tested paints, but uses more filler, more oil, and hues to reach a lower price point. The same as with all brands, you reward yourself when you step up in quality to professional grade paints. For the old tubes, 3 out of 5.
Grumbacher Gainsborough are an old line of particularly small tubes which seemed to be only sold in sets. Aimed at beginners, they used to come in rather charming wood boxes with paint medium included. The little lead tubes I have are terribly smashed, but the paint inside remains fresh and half-decent. One would be so lucky to find a student line with paint this good nowadays. Chartpak (Grumbacher’s parent company) does not seem to sell this line any more. Any tubes you come across are surely vintage. 3 out of 5.
Permanent Pigments changed into Liquitex in 1955, so the paint I have is obviously quite old. They look so much like old Grumbacher I thought they might be the same company. The paint I have is very good and the tube lists both pigment and amount of filler. Very honest. These paints are the last individuals of a very good species of dinosaur. If you find some in your grandmother’s attic you should definitely take them. 4 out of 5.
Holbein is made in Japan and feels very technically produced. There are advantages and disadvantages to that I suppose. The paint attributes are extremely consistent across a wide spectrum of colours (167 colours apparently) but also they produce a lot of mixes that an artist should be wary of. Verditer blue? I rank these along the lines of Gamblin, and as such don’t use them a lot. The two paints have pretty similar personalities overall, but Holbein is just a bit stiffer out of the tube. It’s good paint, but 3.5 out of 5 for me.
One thing to note is that Holbein paint seems to stand the test of time. I have some tubes which have been around for quite a while (10 years?) and the paint is still coming out of the tubes smoothly. I’m warming up to them…
Holbein Vernét is Holbein’s (very) high-end paint. It’s interesting stuff. They are milled ten times longer than regular paint, which results in intense colour, extremely smooth paint, and a sky-high price tag. They come in small 20ml tubes, each in it’s own fancy little box. Really, because it is so fine and highly pigmented, the colour goes quite a bit farther than than it does with other paints. The mechanical differences between this paint and others means that it’s something you have to consciously think about while mixing brands however. Holbein recognizes this, and explains how to use this paint with others in it’s literature. I’m using a vermillion right now and the colour is simply mind-bending. So was the price! 4.5 out of 5 – but be conscious of the paint’s unique mechanics.
Lefranc and Bourgeois are a very old French paint manufacturer. The history is worth reading. Their oil paint is now reorganized, and separated between Lefranc and Lefranc & Bourgeois Fine. I have read they are now produced in the same (French) plant as Winsor & Newton, and that the quality seems to have dropped somewhat. I haven’t used these “new” lines, so I can’t comment on them specifically. I do however have a ton of older tubes in this paint, because a store I frequented was clearing them out. I bought as much as I could afford. The 250ml tubes came in fantastic stackable plastic boxes which have kept my unused tubes in impeccable condition – classy. These are great feeling paints which I would class above Winsor and Newton Artists’ paints. They are richly pigmented and have nice body out of the tube. Single pigment paints from this brand (Cadmium Red for example) are knockouts. 4.5 out of 5.
As an added note, I have one colour which has hardened in the tube on it’s own accord. Bummer. Maybe could have put a little more oil or stabilizer in that one! Rating remains the same though.
Williamsburg makes fantastic paint. They were bought by Golden a few years ago and production moved away from New York City, but the quality has not changed as far as I can tell. Golden does a lot of research into paint attributes and they are constantly developing their colours – this research has lead to the recent near total removal of Zinc White from it’s line, due to the troubling and increasing brittleness of the pigment over time (information here). Williamsburg paints have a different consistency from tube to tube, depending on the base characteristics of each pigment. I like that a lot. Also, each tube has a painted strip of the colour at the top which I find helpful and classy. It should be done by more manufacturers – some other brands have printed labels that are nowhere close to the colour of paint inside, and I’ve sometimes had to smear paint on the outside of the tube so I can actually see what’s in there. That kinda sucks. Williamsburg paints are pretty expensive, so I use this brand for more important colours. They’re also pretty hard to find in Canada, depending on where you live. The hex-nut cap design they use can become impossible to unscrew without pliers. That can be frustrating, but they still manage a 5 out of 5.
Michael Harding is a UK brand of paint. I cheerfully classify him a craftsman, and any of the paint I’ve used in this brand is truly the highest quality. I have a Cremitz White which he painstakingly makes by traditional method. It’s a level above Flake White or Lead White, made by anyone, in my opinion. There is a proper paint sample at the top of each tube also. Stay classy Michael! The price of a tube is about the same as a Gucci handbag, but it’s like your tools are jewels. A joy. 5 out of 5.
Pebeo Fragonard paints are labeled extra fine, but they are usually cheaper than other brands and are often on sale on top of that. The low price point is for a reason – these are basic quality paints no matter what the label says. That’s fine. I buy Burnt Umber when I see it in a sale bin. My girlfriend steals my Ultramarine Blue, so maybe there are other good colours in there too. These paints have changed a lot over the years in place of manufacture, packaging, and quality, and Pebeo don’t seem to even make the Fragonard line any more. I have a very old tube of this paint (searching revealed early 1950’s) which is of superior quality and labelled made in Paris by Armand Drouant. Well, certainly not any more! Pebeo is a big company and it seems you can buy their paint everywhere. No matter where you look, there it is. 3 out of 5 (but I use them, because cheap).
Pebeo Studio oil are basic paints which are usually sold in sets aimed at beginners. The cost is kept as low as possible through the use of small tubes (12ml), hues across the range, and fillers. That all said, these are half-decent, consistent paints. Nobody expects these to compete with Old Holland, but judged on their own merits, they are perfectly serviceable. 3.5 out of 5.
Ferrario Van Dyck is an Italian paint that isn’t distributed in Canada that I know of. I came across some tubes of this paint randomly and it’s the one and only time I’ve ever seen them. I’ve found little information on this paint. Apparently the company had financial troubles a few years back, so maybe that has something to do with it’s rarity. It’s a pretty saturated market in North America anyway… This is decent paint though. The caps on my tubes are painfully scalloped and were totally impossible to open without pliers right from the start. Marks off for paint you can’t even get out of the tube. 3.5 out of 5.
DeSerres (house brand) is run of the mill paint. I think it’s made by Pebeo but I can’t even be bothered to check. That’s how inspiring this paint is. Even if I was a first year student I would look elsewhere. MEH. 2 out of 5 (1 point for actually being paint).
Blick artists’ oil colour (house brand) is much better than DeSerre. Blick has huge sales for back to school and that type of thing, so we used to sell a ton of it. Great for students and Christmas gifts for amateur painters. Ground with safflower, this paint is otherwise pretty straightforward. It’s made in France by Sennelier, so the characteristics of the two paints are much the same. It dries a touch too slowly for me. Blick’s second tier Studio Oil Colour line is pretty underwhelming and should probably be bypassed by serious painters in my opinion. For the artists’ oil colour, it’s about a 3 out of 5.
Reeves oil colour paints are small tubes sold in economical sets aimed at the absolute beginner. You can buy them at places like Michael’s craft store or Walmart. These are probably the most economically produced tubes of oil paint of all time. They are made in China and have almost no information on the tubes as to what is inside. Linseed oil? Paint? If you have zero expectations, these paints will happily surprise you by actually being paint. If you aspire to do anything beyond a dabble, I advise you to look elsewhere. Hilariously bad. 1 out of 5.
Kama Pigments is a Montréal based pigment supplier and paint maker. They have only one level of paint, which is excellent. Because it is made where I live, it is often a little bit cheaper than other paints at the same quality. Some people swear by it and use it almost exclusively – it is certainly very common among local artists anyway. I buy many of my raw pigments there and have a number of their tubed paints also. They perform admirably. Most of my colours are mixed with both walnut and linseed oil. It seems to be a good balance, as the colours remain clear, but drying time is not too frustratingly long. They have moved toward using just walnut oil (with dryers) now, so that is something to be aware of. The Cobalt Green Light is gorgeous. I can recommend this paint across the range. Winsor and Newton level without doubt. 4.5 out of 5.
Daler Rowney Georgian. What is there to say about this paint? A mainstay of an undergrad’s paint box, they seem filled to maximum with oil and filler. Generally weak in tinting strength, they make up for that by being oily, loose out of the tube, and easily blown out when mixed. Even the most potent pigments (like pthalo blue) are let down by the unsatisfactory consistency of the paint. Don’t let the blah-blah on the website fool you. They fill a purpose, but these paints will disappoint unless you are a total novice or your practice is simply about covering lots of real estate. None of the more expensive pigments in the line whatsoever. But hey, they’re cheap. 1.5 out of 5.
M Graham is an interesting paint. They use walnut oil across the line, which dries clearer (less yellow) than linseed but also slower. They promote a system in which you add alkyd medium to the paint mixture to speed the drying time. None of that bothers me, but I find their paints ground a little like Gamblin – soft and smooth almost to a fault. A few years ago I acquired quite a bit of this paint, and while it’s decent, I don’t use it that much. It’s really just a taste issue. 2.5 out of 5.
Blockx is a Belgian paint manufacturer that is going on five generations of paint-makers. They’ve gotta be doing something right! Ground in (mostly) poppyseed on old-school style stone rollers. Their paint is Gucci price, but the quality is within the very top tier. I suppose some artists can swallow the price on the regular, but it’s a special treat for me. I Google-mapped their manufacturing facility and it’s adorably Belgian. 5 out of 5 (if you can afford it … and also don’t mind the rather slow drying time of poppyseed).
Old Holland Classic Oil Colours, like Blockx, exists outside my price range for general use. When I sold it, some customers would swear by particular colours – and there are a lot of particular colours. Their colour range seems excessive to me (there’s 168), and their paint, in general, has just never “grabbed” me. They make a lot of colours other brands don’t, which is interesting but maybe not necessary. It all seems just a bit “fancy”. This is excellent quality paint no doubt, but unlike Michael Harding, this stuff doesn’t really inspire me to shell out. For a while it was the only stock we had of lead white, and the price for a tiny tube was simply astronomical. If you are interested in this paint, I would first do some research online for favoured colours, because there are some in the range for sure. There are some lovely greens for example. Overall, they are 3.5 out of 5 for me however – excellent paint, but I don’t use them because there are other brands which are cheaper and/or I like more.
Schminke Norma paints are German. The Mercedes of the oil paint world! They are great quality paints which are very hard to find in Canada – I don’t remember seeing them anywhere here in fact. I don’t use them much as a result, but surely would if a local shop carried them as one of their (premium) brands. If you see them, they are definitely worth trying. I have read that quality has dropped somewhat in recent years, but I cannot verify this personally. For the tubes I had, 4.5 out of 5.
Schminke Mussini paints have resin in them. It’s a really interesting (yet old) approach to formulating oil paint. Without doubt these are great paints with solid properties in terms of binding, cohesion, and evenness across the surface of the painting. I think fine portraitists appreciate these qualities. It is kind of a “system” though, and one that doesn’t suit my practice. Fantastic paint I don’t use. Also expensive. 4 out of 5.
Bocour Bellini doesn’t exist any more. They were packaged in lead tubes, made in New York, and, in the colours I have, excellent. I have a tube of lamp black (PBk 6) that smells like no other paint I’ve ever owned. It seems strange to be excited about such a basic pigment, but it’s wonderful paint and I’ll be sorry when it’s gone. 5 out of 5 (I’m in love).
Stevenson is a Canadian brand which will be familiar to many art students here. They make excellent painting mediums. Their gesso in particular is an excellent balance of price, quality and availability, and I use it almost exclusively. I bought some cheap-assed gesso once and it separated and went rancid almost immediately. You learn the most from your mistakes… Stevenson paint is different story than their mediums however. I had a 500ml can of titanium white that was very nice in terms of thickness, smoothness and strength, but smaller amounts in other colours are packaged in plastic tubes, and I’ve never been thrilled with them. Whether it’s the quality, consistency, or just trying to get it all out of the tube, they’ve always felt just slightly off the mark. As a student I immediately gravitated toward more robust paints in aluminum tubes, like Rembrandt etc. The white notwithstanding, these are 3 out of 5.
Sadly, Stevenson has recently closed all production (as of August 2018). They will be sorely missed by Canadian painters, especially students.
Sennelier makes very good paint which is ground in safflower. It dries slower than some other paints. I love the fact that this huge manufacturer still maintains their little original store across the river from the Louvre. Super cool. All weight of history aside though, I don’t rank these paints too far above other paints which are easier for me to find in here in Canada. There are 144 colours in the line and they seem just a little “mass produced”. I have some. I’m really happy with it. I usually use other paint. 3.5 out of 5.
Vasari might be the bling-est of the bling. They are a very small company that makes only oil paint in small batches. They only sell online and out of a small, wonderful demonstration showroom in Chelsea. If you are not living in the USA, you may end up paying import fees on online purchases of paint, so be careful. Either that possibility or a trip to New York. The shop is right in the gallery district, so at least you can hit a few exhibitions while you’re there. This paint is made with linseed oil and no fillers, and has a solid reputation as being highly pigmented and excellent feeling out of the tube. It is. They can be very proprietary about their mixed colours, so don’t bother asking about what’s in their sap green. They flat out refused me on that. That might bother you (the not listing the pigments on all their tubes) but their attitude is that it’s the best and they don’t want their formulas copied. In practice, their paint is excellently ground, very highly pigmented, and has a smooth lovely feel. Gorgeous. They are also some of the oiliest paints I’ve ever used… 4.5 out of 5.
I make my own paint sometimes (link goes to short how-to). Like everyone else, I rely on manufacturers to provide quality raw pigments, but I can modulate the consistency of each tube of paint and can assure purity of the mix/materials. That can be important. It’s worth doing if you are interested in the process and are willing to commit the time. I have also pre-mixed colours and tubed them for special projects that I know are going to take a while. I can guarantee colour consistency this way. No filler! No bullshit! Always 5 out of 5.
Here is good source of information about different paints: https://jeffchester.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/24/
And here is another quite comprehensive comparative review of oil paints: http://wonderstreet.com/blog/how-to-choose-a-brand-of-oil-paint