Getting started: Paint

Welcome!  I’m posting a series of tips for beginner artists, based on my own trial-and-error experiences as a self-taught painter.  

1. Paint


My primary medium is acrylic on canvas, which I recommend to all beginners since it’s a water-soluble medium (no solvents needed) and you can paint over your mistakes and start again on the same canvas whenever you want.  There are some arguments to be made for learning in watercolor, but I’ll be talking about acrylics only in this post.  My advice is to spend most of your budget on a small but careful selection of high-quality paints and brushes, rather than the large cheap beginner sets, and I’ll explain why. 

Student quality vs. Artist grade paints

When you go to the store to buy paint, you’ll see that there are two grades; student quality and professional or “artist” quality.  Some brands carry both.  The main difference, other than price, is that professional quality paints have a much higher pigment concentration, meaning more pigment and less filler.  With artist quality paints, your colors will be more vivid, mixing will be easier, and you won’t need to use as much paint.

When choosing paint, beginners tend to gravitate towards the large, budget “student” sets with a lot of colors.  However, you’ll develop more mixing skill and have better results if you just start with quality paint in a few basic colors.  These are Golden Professional Heavy Body acrylics, the brand I use, but in general just look for a type that doesn’t say “student”.

Essential Colors

(I scanned my hand-painted color guide so you guys can see the actual paint strokes, rather than just the web color swatches which are not very useful.  Note the transparency of each color in the strokes – some colors are more opaque than others. Look for paints that have a hand-painted swatch on the tube.)

ultramarine_blueprimary_yellownaphthol_red_mediumcarbon_black titanium_white

1. Ultramarine Blue (or Phthalo if you like a greener tint)

2. Cadmium Yellow (or Primary Yellow)

3. Naphthol or Cadmium Red (or Primary Red)

4. Mars Black or Carbon Black

5. Titanium White

You can mix just about any color with these five. These were the only colors I used for my first two years.

Nice to Have

If you have money left over, consider:

yellow_ochreburnt_umberquinacridone_magentapthalo_green_bs zinc_white

6. Yellow Ochre (a more natural yellow)

7. Burnt Umber (a rich, all-purpose brown)

8. Alizaron Crimson or Quinacridone Magenta (good for mixing vibrant oranges and purples)

9. Phthalo Green (a bluish, vivid green)

10. Zinc White (a transparent white that is handy for layering).

These colors will make your life easier but are not necessary for starting.

If you do really prefer to buy a set, I recommend this one, for about $20.  It has most of my recommended colors and although the tubes are small, it’s artist grade paint so you’ll have a high pigment strength and not have to use as much as you would with cheaper student paints.  I would consider supplementing this set with Burnt Umber to get more natural browns.

Introductory Set of 6

As a professional artist, I have about 20 colors in total, but I usually use about the same 6-10 colors in any given painting, depending on whether I’m doing portraits or landscapes.  As you find your own style, you’ll develop an affinity for certain colors and shades and branch out in your paint selections.

Next: Brushes

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