Acrylic Paints : A guide to selecting yours 

                                                                                                                                                             Port Art Studios

Q. Which acrylic paints are best for you?      

Acrylic paints are the most convenient and affordable for all learners, so here we will concentrate on tips and information to help you select your acrylic range of paints.


There are so many brands out there, it is very confusing for beginners plus financially challenging . My general advice is, if cost is an issue, it is better to buy only the basics of the best paint than a full range of rubbish. (My definition of rubbish is a product with low pigment loading, poor lightfastness and inferior pigment colours.)

Q. Acrylic Vs Oils?

This is a whole other subject , read more here


Q. Do I buy artist quality or student quality? How can I decide?

A. The main differences with artist quality (other than price) are the pigment loading (better coverage and more vibrant hues are what we all need, beginners included, so worth it to get quality), lightfastness (longevity, durability: very important for professionals), less tonal or colour shift (more predictable results, also very helpful for beginners.)

Q. What would you recommend in a basic paint kit for a beginner?

A. At least these: Titanium white (larger), burnt umber, ultramarine (warm) blue, phthalo (cool) or cerulean(cool) blue, a primary red (like magenta or quinacridone rose, in short a rosy transparent red), , a cadmium light yellow. With these pigments, you can make your basic secondaries and tertiaries. Later as you develop favourite mixes, you may buy more secondary or tertiary multiple pigment mixes plus transparent versions of hues or even metallic and pearlescent options. To learn about colour relationships, it's best to learn well how to make them yourself . (mainly so you can understand the relationships between them but for learners it is good economy as well).

Q. Why are artist's paints priced differently according to series?

A. The pigments' raw materials all vary greatly in cost, so the manufacturers price them accordingly instead of averaging them out. In general, the higher the number of a series, the more lightfast (or just more rare and/or expensive the raw pigment).

Q. Why do some paint names have Hue written after them?

A. Hue, of course, is a word which refers to the colour (position around the wheel) but it is also used to imply that a pigment looks like a colour (but is not that actual substance) eg. cadmium hue may have the colour of cadmium but be manufactured from something else.

Q. What if I don't know if I'll stick to painting? Shouldn't I start with student quality?

A. If you get inferior results partly because of chalky, weak pigments, you may well be disappointed or give up for the wrong reasons! I recommend learning drawing and tonal modeling with no or minimal colour anyway to start (admittedly, very few students nowadays can resist launching straight into colour), but if you are unsure of your future as a student of art, just get artist quality titanium white, ultramarine, burnt umber. You can build on it after you have practised tonal painting, in fact many students historically were made to work in monochrome for months or years before launching into colour. The next priorities would be a primary red, primary yellow and a cooler blue. Depending on what subjects you are wanting to tackle, some great transparent pigments would be a helpful addition next. 

Q. I already have a lot of student quality paints. Should I throw them out?

A. If you have some, use them for under-priming and blocking in. The best quality pigments can be used for the final layers.

Q. What about Opaque vs Transparent?

A. Pigments all differ naturally in their level of transparency or opacity , and also some paints have more chalky extenders and fillers which makes them more opaque.

Most paint manufacturers will have a letter or symbol on the product to tell you if it is transparent, opaque or semi-opaque. As you gain more experience with glazing techniques, having quality transparent pigments in your kit becomes very useful.

Your opaque pigments will give you better coverage.

You cannot make an opaque transparent, although you can thin it to a semi-opaque level. You can make a transparent pigment opaque by adding white or another opaque colour.

Q. Paint consistency - do I buy heavy body (thick) acrylics or the liquid variety?

A. In some brands of artist quality acrylic paints, the manufacturer offers a range of different paint consistencies. Although it can be very handy to use a liquid paint to get faster coverage, drying and easier feathering and blending of finer detail, the first choice would usually be a heavy bodied version as it is more versatile [thinning it with water or medium will not give the same result as a (quality) liquid acrylic due to pigment loading being decreased with the thinning process]. But to thicken a liquid acrylic with an impasto thickener will lower the pigment loading as well.

Q. Do I buy tubes or pots?

A. In some brands, you can choose, so your budget might determine it. Usually it is more economical to buy in pots. You will need spatulas, or similar to remove paint from jars, whereas a tube can just be squeezed. Lids on tubes can clag up as can pots but I find pots easier in this scenario as there are rubber cloths or jar openers available to help with pots, but tubes can be fiddlier. I have used both over many decades and prefer pots.

Q. How can I estimate the tonal or colour shift in an acrylic?

A. With acrylics, the tone of the paint darkens slightly when it dries, this is because the binder is often a white substance when wet and transparent when dry (like you see in white glue).

Different brands have different levels of shift and also different individual pigments too. With time and familiarisation you will get a feel for yours. (student quality acrylics have the most obvious tonal shift). Windsor and Newton say theirs have the least tonal shift (actually they say there is no shift!), they also take the longest to dry. In a classroom setting, the faster drying products can be slowed down with misting and retarders. It can be irritating to wait when the main benefit of acrylic over oils is the fast drying time.

Q. Which mediums should I buy?


A. With acrylic ranges, there is usually a retarder medium (I recommend to my students to find or buy a fine water spray mister to keep working areas moist just with water and if they can manage, do without retarders to start). There is usually a satin, matt or gloss medium (which sometimes doubles as the finishing protective varnish, and is also a great collage glue). I do recommend finishing with a varnish, not just to protect the painting, but it can enhance the contrast as well. To start, try to buy one that will be good for glazing layers as well as varnishing. Impasto mediums and modeling pastes are fun, especially if you are wanting to learn about a range of textures.

Q. What is the 'Tinting strength'?

A. This means just how much or how little of the paint is needed to alter the colour of white paint. eg.  phthalo blue (very high tinting strength) you would only need a very little amount of paint to have a big change in the white. In comparison , some yellows have a low tinting strength and so a larger volume would be required.

When you are going to use this in practice is when you are measurung and adjusting value, contrast, light and shade. or saturationThis is a subject well worth covering in detail, so give your creative development a power boost and cover these two modules (they consist of videos and e-books that you can work through at your own pace to seriously understand value and colour.

Q. What is the best brand of Acrylic paint?

I have my favourite brands  of acrylic paint (Golden and Hydrocryl) these last 9 yrs. These two are the purest acrylics that I have come across and they dry quickly, so studio classes can move ahead very quickly and when needed, a fine mister can assist students to increase the drying window. There are no extenders and fillers so the colours are very rich. My students onsite in Port Melbourne mostly use these brands as well (available at a good price delivered to the studios) , but I have used many other brands in Australia and overseas (Pebeo, Matisse, Liquitex, Atelier and others) and in general there are pros and cons with most. I don't like to promote one brand over another, but I do absolutely promote choosing quality over quantity. I will say that (in my opinion) the newer 'open' Interactive range of Atelier is not a good idea for most new students, as you need to add one or the other medium to every bit of paint you use as there is not binder in the tube with the pigment. Most sales staff dont understand them and sell them without the necessary mediums or mixed with other products. 

I found that students and also art shop assistants were very confused about which medium is required and when. The 'fast medium' appears to take the role of binder, the slow medium seems to be adding binder plus retarder. Overall , I have found that Winsor and Newton's acrylic slower drying times also suit those who have worked in oils and are making the transition to acrylics. For everyone else,  the artist quality range of most major manufacturers should work ok for learning. I have also kept a range of oils paints on hand for my students to 'get a feel' , as you can learn to block in with a good quality acrylic, get a matt finish and then refine and finish in oils.

The Basic Information to understand on a Paint product Label

Information that appears on the label of a paint tube (or pot) will vary from one manufacturer to the next, but good artist quality paints will generally show the following:

Manufacturer’s name – eg. Hydrocryl, Matisse, Atelier, Golden,  Winsor & Newton, Pebeo etc

Common name for the color – eg. Cadmium Yellow Light. Often paint colours that are almost exactly the same are called different names depending on the manufacturer.  On the other hand you can sometimes see the same name eg. 'Alizarin' but it is a different colour to the other brand. You must learn to know where a colour sits around and across the wheel but looking at it and testing it, then generic brand names become irrelevant.

Names of the pigment(s)  & Color index names and/or number(s) - Every pigment has a unique colour index name, it consists of:

Two letters. These stand for the colour family, e.g PB – blue, PG- green, PR- red and also some numbers, which identify the pigment source. For example:

Matisse Artists' Acrylics (Manufacturer name) – Ultra Blue: 
Chemical name – Complex sodium alumino-silicate containing sulphur , Chemical index number – PB29       ASTM1   (an example of how manufacturers vary, Hydrocryl calls it Bright Blue, Windsor and Newton call it Ultramarine Blue, as do most others). It is a warm blue, closer to the blue-violet range than the primary blue.

Lightfastness or permanence rating -  AA and A rated and are recommended as permanent for artists’ use. (ASTM 1 or ASTM 11 in the American system). Very few manufacturers give the Blue Wool scale on the tube or pot, but I always seek out 7/8 or 8/8 which are the most lightfast.

Volume of paint in tube or pot – e.g. 75ml, 250ml

Series Number -  Manufacturers price category (higher number usually more expensive)

Swatch of the paint colour- this is great to be able to see the colour and consistency(transparency/ opacity) of the pigment. (in cheaper brands it is rarely correct)


Here is a brief video about making your own Stay Wet Palettes

OPTION 1 - sealed shallow plastic container

- Take a plastic (like tupperware but a cheap supermarket version) airtight container, the ones for pastry are good, low and flat, but long and wide.

- Cover the bottom with damp cloth( like chux, microfibre of flat kitchen sponges)

-Place a sheet of firm paper or card, or grease-proof paper on top and when you make up your colours for a project, store a decent size thick blob of them on top of the card or grease-proof paper. Arrange as you would on any palette. The moisture can be kept constant by re-wetting the under cloth each week or few days.(and store in the bottom of your fridge)

- Keep the lid on and store in the bottom of your refrigerator, they will keep for months, depending on how often you have them out.

- Replace the palette card layer on top with each new project or as required.

- Dont use this palette for further mixing. Take what you have there, mix or tint on another palette, replacing the lid after you have what you need. Give a fine water mist before replacing the lid.

OPTION 2 - using recycled materials

a/ Save an egg carton (6 is ok for a limited plette, 12 is better) and brush a layer of cheap acrylic paint or varnish over all lower cup shapes(so they are no longer absorbent). Add your pre-mixed pigments for your project to the individual cups, lay a wet cloth stretched over and close the lid, wrap in a plastic bag, store in the fridge. These have lasted for several months for students of mine.

b/ MY FAVOURITE - Ferrer Rocher chocolates come in a box with little cup shapes and a fitted lid, great for a stay-wet palette as well, JUST GLUE KITCHEN SPONGES ALL OVER THE INSIDE OF THE LID AND, AFTER THEY ARE DRIED, KEEP THEM WET .The sacrifice in this option is that you need to quickly eat all of the chocolates, it is a dirty job but you have to do it!!

 If you use quite liquid acrylics, the cup arrangement IN 1) is better. 

c/ We also now use towers of screw-tight bead jars which hold about 30ml of paint each. Easy to stack and very airtight.

© Port Art Gallery 2016