Buying acrylic paint art supplies can be confusing…
Sometimes it feels like they complicate things on purpose.
There’s an endless amount of variations, confusing names, and labels that need a scientific degree to understand.
Almost ready to give up?
This guide is designed to get you up to speed and painting ASAP. It covers everything you need to know before you buy acrylic paint, and delivers some sage advice along the way.
Before you start: Choosing paints is not an exact science. It depends on your art style and the painting techniques you use. You’ll be able to make an informed choice after reading this, but the best thing you can do is just buy some paint and start creating! You’ll quickly learn which brand or variety you like the best.
This guide covers a lot. To make things easier it’s separated into two chapters. Read through it from start to finish or use this index to jump to the section you need.
Buying Acrylic Paints
Buying Acrylic Paints
What is Acrylic Paint?
Acrylic paint is a quick drying paint made by mixing pigments into an acrylic polymer emulsion.
Paints are easy to understand once you realize they’re all made from dry pigments and wet binders.
The pigment is what gives the paint color, and the binder is what holds the pigment in place.
All paint mediums (oil paint, watercolor paint, acrylic paint, etc) use the same type of pigments, but the binders are different – this is what sets them apart.
Oil paints use oil as the binder (usually linseed oil), watercolors use gum arabic as the binder (a plant based product), and acrylic paints use an acrylic polymer emulsion as the binder.
Two Different Qualities
There are two categories of acrylic paint: student quality paints and professional quality paints.
Professional quality paints (sometimes called artist quality) are more expensive but look much better. Student quality paints (sometimes called craft paints) are cheaper but the trade off is they’re harder to work with and the end results aren’t as good.
Note: If you’re confused by some of the terms below just keep reading, everything is explained in detail further down.
- More expensive
- Highest pigment levels
- High permanence rating
- Rich and vibrant colors
- Low color shift
- Cheaper price
- Lower pigment levels
- Fillers (vinyl or PVA resins) are used to stretch out the paint and lower costs.
- Low permanence rating
- Fake plastic appearance when dry
- High color shift
So how can you tell the difference when buying paints?
Professional quality (or artist quality) paints usually say so on the label.
They also have these details listed on the label which student quality paints do not: pigment index numbers, lightfast rating, transparency rating.
All of these details (and more) are covered in detail in Chatper 3 below.
Sometimes when acrylics dry the color becomes a little bit darker. This is called color shift.
This happens because the acrylic binder is white while wet, but it dries clear.
With student quality paints the color shift is more pronounced. In professional quality paints this is less of a problem.
If there is a large color shift it can make things harder for beginners trying to mix colors they see in their minds eye. They keep thinking they have failed, when actually it’s just their paints that are letting them down.
At Element Paints we have almost completely removed this problem by using a special binder. What you see is what you get when mixing your colors.
Viscosity is all about the thickness or consistency of the paint.
- If your paint has a heavy or thick viscosity then it will retain peaks and brush strokes as you paint. When the paint dries it will have a rougher textured surface.
- If your paint has a soft or fluid viscosity then the paints will be smooth and dry flat onto your painting. This is the paint viscosity most people are familiar with and what most people associate with “normal” acrylic paints.
The viscosity of the paint does not reflect the quality – it’s just a matter of preference. They both have the same amount of pigment if purchased from the same brand. The only difference is that a heavy or soft binder has been used.
There is no right or wrong choice here if you’re just starting out, through trial and error you’ll figure out which viscosity you prefer.
You can also use water and acrylic gels to change the viscosity of your paints as needed. An acrylic gel is something you mix into your paints to thicken them up, so it can change your soft bodied paints into heavy bodied paints. And alternatively, you can mix water into your acrylics (because acrylics are water soluble) to make them more fluid.
Different Types of Acrylic Paint
This is where things start to get a bit complex.
On top of having two different qualities of paint, there are also many different varieties. New variations of acrylic paint are being invented all the time. They vary in viscosity, unique properties and effects.
I’m going to simplify things by listing them all out here, explaining each of them in simple terms.
Heavy Body Acrylics
These are acrylics with a thick viscosity that hold peaks and brushstrokes as you paint. They have a consistency similar to oil paints and are good for impasto work when you want a rough texture that appears to be coming out of the canvas.
Soft Body Acrylics
Also known as fluid acrylics or high flow acrylics, these have a fluid viscosity. They’re smooth and self leveling so you won’t see all your brush strokes in the painting.
These are the acrylics you’re probably familiar with, and the type of paint we sell here at Element Paints. They’re great for working in detail, dry brush and watercolor techniques.
They have the same pigment levels as heavy body acrylics but use a different binder for a softer feeling and texture.
You can also mix them with other acrylic mediums to thicken or thin them as you please, which turns them into heavy body acrylics or something similar to watercolor paints.
One of the main characteristics of acrylics compared to oils is that oils take a long time to dry whereas acrylics dry quite quickly. Different drying times allow for different techniques. Some people like slow drying paint while others find it a hassle.
Open acrylics were created for the people who want to use acrylic paint but with a slower drying time. Instead of drying quickly they’re designed to imitate the long drying time of oils which can take days or weeks to dry depending on environmental conditions.
These are normal fast drying acrylics but you can “re-hydrate” them with water or special mediums to allow for more blending after they have dried.
This is a speciality paint. Similar to watercolor gouache, this paint will dry to a matte opaque finish but since it is made from acrylic binder it becomes water resistant when dry. This allows you to paint over it without smearing, which would happen with normal watercolor gouache.
Iridescent, Pearl and Interference Acrylics
These are more of a novelty than anything else, something to add to your collection of colors. They create an iridescent shimmering effect as the light hits the painting. Use them to enhance your painting.
Best Paint Colors for Beginners
There’s an ever growing list of colors to choose, and sometimes it can be overwhelming.
I suggest you shortcut the whole process and start painting ASAP with an acrylic paint set. It makes things much easier.
Nevertheless, if you’re going to the trouble of picking your own colors you should try and strike a balance between base colors for mixing and popular pre-mixed colors that allow you to start painting quickly. The mix of colors below is a good start.
Don’t Get Ripped Off
The paint industry has been doing the same thing for years on end.
They make paints, sell it to distributors, who sell it to wholesalers, who then sell it to retailers. It’s a massive operation that adds an extra costs at every step. Not to mention all the sales reps that need to be paid to keep this going and the heavy marketing campaigns they continuously run.
This is why good quality paints can be so expensive.
Here at Element Paints we’re doing things differently – no more middle-men, retail store overheads, and costly marketing campaigns.
We streamlined our supply chain to bring you professional paints at affordable prices.
You get lush professional quality paints that are packed full of pigment, with a soft buttery texture you know and love.
Plus you get free shipping and free returns anywhere in the United States, and heavily discounted international shipping rates.
Click the red button below checkout our paints…
Understanding The Labels
This is one of the labels we use here at Element Paints.
There are some funny and confusing things that go on with paint color names…
1) They Don’t Match
Paint color names do not match from brand to brand.
For example, one brand might call a color “Phaltho Blue” while another calls the same color “Phaltho Blue Green”, and another might call it something totally different and very brand specific like “Windsor Blue”. All of these paints are the same color, but they all have different names.
To correctly match colors between brands you need to check the pigment index numbers, more on that later.
2) Hues Are Confusing
The word “hue” can mean two different things…
When you’re mixing paints the term hue refers to the color of the paint. For example, “that blue has a purple-ish hue”.
While on paint labels a hue refers to paint that is a mix of different pigments designed to imitate the original color. For example, Cadmium Red Hue is not made from pure cadmium red pigment, instead it’s a mix of pigments designed to approximate the pure Cadmium Red pigment.
These hues used to be a sign of poor quality paints but that is no longer the case. Now it just means the original natural pigment was replaced because it is poisonous, no longer available, or is not very light fast.
Pigment Index Number
Every pigment has a unique pigment index number (also known as a color index name), and they can be used to identify the exact pigments that are inside each tube of paint.
Some colors only use one pigment (for example, PB29 for Ultramarine Blue) while others use a combination of pigments (for example, PW6 PB29 for Cobalt Blue).
Since brands tend to use confusing color names (not us!) you can use the index numbers printed on the tube to match different colors between brands. For example, if both tubes have index numbers “PW6 PB29” printed on the tube then you can assume both will have a similar color.
Professional quality paints will always print these index numbers on the label so you know exactly what is inside. Student quality paints do not.
Note: This method of matching up index numbers does not always work. Small controlled changes to the pigment during production (temperature, pH, relative proportions, etc) can produce different colors. So two paints with matching index numbers can look different. Matching index numbers is a good start, but it’s not full-proof. If you absolutely need the perfect match then it’s best to test a swatch of the paint side by side – but art is not science so you rarely need this level of accuracy.
If you enjoy matching and researching pigments then www.artiscreation.com is a valuable resource, it lists all the pigments and popular names.
How to Read Pigment Index Numbers:
The first two or three letters describe the color family (Red, Blue, Green, etc) and the numbers identify the individual pigment. For example, PW4 is PW(White) 4(Zinc Oxide) more commonly known as Titanium White.
Sometimes there will also be a colon. For example, PR57:1 is the index number for Crimson. Pigment manufactures use colons to distinguish minor differences in the property or structure of the pigment. They are used somewhat ambiguously, so just think of it like any other index number.
The pigment inside your paint is the most expensive part, the binder (acrylic polymer) is cheap by comparison.
Because of this, paint companies usually split paints into different price categories depending on the cost of the pigment, and they call each of these price categories a “series”.
For example, Cadmium Red uses an expensive pigment so they class it as Series 9 paint and charge the highest price, while the Burnt Umber pigment is cheaper so they class that as Series 1 paint and charge a cheaper price.
Sometimes they also use letters like Series A, Series B, Series C, etc. It depends on the brand.
Note: Here at Element Paints we think there is already too much confusion in the paint industry so we’ve decided to do away with series and sell all our colors at one flat price! We want to make buying professional quality paints as simple as possible.
Each color has their own lightfastness rating (also known as permanence).
It’s used to describe the rate at which colors fade when exposed to light.
The rating will be different from color to color depending on the pigments used – some pigments naturally fade and some do not. When pigments are predisposed to fading they’re called fugitive colors.
The good news is that acrylics in general are much sturdier than oils or watercolors, so your paintings will last a long long time.
There is a standardized classification system setup by the American Society for Testing (ASTM) but it’s not always used because some colors have not been classified. Therefore many brands prefer to use their own classification system to give customers a consistent reference point.
ATSM I = Excellent Lightfastness
ATSM II = Very Good Lightfastness
ATSM III = Not Sufficiently Lightfast
AA = Excellent Lightfastness
A = Very Good Lightfastness
B = Moderate Lightfastness
C = Fugitive
Professional quality paints will always list the lightfastness or permanence rating on the label, student quality paints do not print this information on the label.
Make sure you use paints with a “very good” or “excellent” light fast rating. It will stop your paintings from fading away.
The transparency rating (also known as opacity rating) describes how well the paint can cover another color. Or said in another way, how well it can hide whatever is painted underneath.
If it’s an opaque color you can’t see what’s underneath. If it’s a transparent color you can see through the paint to what’s underneath. If it is translucent it is somewhere in-between.
Some colors are naturally more transparent (for example, yellows) while some are naturally opaque. It’s just a normal feature of the color and the pigments used.
Professional quality paints will list the transparency rating on the label of each color, student quality paints do not.
This rating is commonly symbolized on the paint label using a circle that is all black (opaque), half black and half white (translucent), or a full white circle (transparent).
These ratings are not a reflection of the quality of the paint, but just a helpful guide if you want to know how the color will work when painting over something else. Your paint set or collection of colors will naturally have a mix of transparent, translucent, and opaque colors.
Also keep in mind this is a general guide only. Any thin film of paint will be more transparent than a thick one.
There are some other codes printed on the label, but they’re just industry regulatory standards enforced by ASTM.
You can ignore these. They will have no impact on your purchase decisions and have nothing to do with the type or quality of paint. They’re just codes to show the paint conforms to certain standards.
For acrylic paints these are the most common:
- ASTM D4236 – Standard Practice for labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards
- D5098 – Standard Specification for Artist’s Acrylic Dispersion paints
Get Started Painting ASAP With a
Professional Acrylic Paint Set
Lush buttery soft paints that you know and love. Packed full of pigment, lightfast colors, and a smooth texture. Plus free shipping and free returns!