paintings · Tutorials

A word about student paint

“Jorge – Zorn Palette” approx. 4×6″ oil on unstretched canvas. (From a canvas pad.) If loving Jorge Salinas is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

So… I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to do a review, or perhaps a treatise, on the subject of student-quality paints.

Lately I’ve had reason to shop at the North-American-based chain craft/art supply stores, Michael’s and Hobby Lobby. I realized that for many people, these types of stores are their only access to art materials, at least hands-on. So, I thought I’d explore what it would be like for a new artist to try to select paints (oils or acrylics) from one of these stores, while also being budget-minded.

So I purchased some oil and acrylic sets from both stores (haven’t finished collecting my samples yet) with the intent of trying them out and reporting back what I experienced.

An overview of chain craft store brand paints.

First off, the prices in brick-and-mortar stores are almost always much higher than online or mail order. I just can’t get past that. The only paints (oils or acrylics) that are more “affordable” are the store brand of paints. For Hobby Lobby, that’s “Master’s Touch” paints, and for Michael’s, that’s “Artist’s Loft” paints. These are all inexpensive “student grade” paints and are suitable for beginners.


So I started with using a set of Michael’s “Artist’s Loft” oil paints, at an incredibly cheap price of $5 ($4 on sale) for a dozen 12-mL tubes of oil paint. Who could pass that price up? But let’s see about the quality!

I wanted to paint with a limited palette, and chose the Zorn Palette (described in more detail here). This saves money and is also a prudent exercise for any artist, in particular students.

I didn’t use the Artist’s Loft tube of white, because white is the most crucial and often-used color. It’s not wise to cut corners on white. So instead I used an artist-grade Titanium-Zinc white.

I found some colors in the Artist’s Loft paint set to be surprisingly decent. I did try a little bit of Burnt Sienna, but it was so weak and almost nonexistent in coverage. I was forced to give up on it. Fortunately, the colors needed for the Zorn palette were okay.  They were Vermillion, Lamp Black, and Yellow Ochre. In fact, the Lamp Black was surprisingly potent.

The only troublesome thing was that this small, cheap oil paint set had no lightfastness rating for the individual tubes. I have no idea how lightfast these colors are. I would hope that they are decent (6-7 on the blue wool scale at least), but who knows? The single 60 mL tubes of Artist’s Loft oil colors are labeled with lightfastness ratings, but are the cheap 12 mL tube sets from the same product line? I don’t know.

My recommendation to anyone looking for a deal at Michaels is to buy the single 60 mL tubes of Artist’s Loft oil colors, and only get the cheap $5 sets for your kid or if you’re just starting out. Some of the colors are not very strong (at least in my experience) and there’s no way to know how lightfast the paints are. You might assume that it doesn’t matter when you’re just starting out, but what if a painting turns out unexpectedly well? For instance, my little experimental oil sketch of Jorge (seen above) turned out better than I thought it would, and here I used this inferior quality of paint. Uh oh! You never know, do you?


Next I did a sample painting (not shown here, as it’s not completed yet) using Hobby Lobby’s house brand of oil paints, called “Master’s Touch.” I’ve used some Master’s Touch paint brushes and painting panels before, and they seem to be decent quality (for the price). I wish I could say the same for the oil paints.

Again I painted with in the Zorn Palette, using all Master’s Touch colors (with the exception of white, which was again artist grade). I bought a set of oils (fortunately this time all the colors had lightfastness ratings). Alas, there was no equivalent of a “Vermillion” color (Cadmium Red would have done) in this set. All I had was either some bright red or Crimson. Oh well. Both these colors were too cool (magenta). But, they had adequate tinting strength. I just wish the painting set had a warm red.

The Ivory Black was so weak that I had to finally give up and use some artist-grade black in order to keep working on my experiment painting. The Yellow Ochre was fine, however.

I am ambivalent about the Master’s Touch oil paints. On one hand, at least they have lightfastness ratings. On the other hand, I couldn’t even complete my sample painting because of the inadequacy of the Ivory Black. I’m not sure if I can recommend them, until I can test out more colors.


Some people claim that they can’t tell the difference between student grade and artist grade, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. Sometimes you just have to use artist grade unless you want to deal with a lot of wasted time and frustration! Otherwise, you end up fighting the materials. If you don’t have adequate experience with using oil paints, you may assume that the trouble you’re having is due to your own lack of experience, instead of it being an inferior, weak paint!

I’m planning on writing a follow-up tutorial with some advice and workarounds for artists wishing to paint “on the cheap.” I think there are ways to use some student colors and get by okay (for a while), but you have to choose carefully and know which colors/brands to pick and which to avoid!

UPDATE: I’ve written a thorough blog post about what brands of paint I like best. If you’re struggling to figure out what paints to buy, this might help you.

9 thoughts on “A word about student paint

  1. I am in full agreement with you about student grade paints. I have been using Daler Rowney oil paints and when I ran out of a couple of colors I purchased Artists Loft brand because the price was right. I regret my purchase.
    The Artist Loft paints seem to me like they have more oil in them than pigment. The Titanium white is almost clear. The deep yellow is awful because the pigment is so weak. I paid $5.00 a tube for these paints and I will use them but I won’t be using them without mixing them.

    1. I had the experience you mention, with student grade pastels. It was my first set, and I concluded that I hated pastels. A few months later I read something about different brands and decided to try a single Unison. That was when I figured out that the pastels had been the problem, not the painter. Now that I have a growing collection of quality pastels, I have no more excuses!

      1. I’m so glad you discovered that it was the quality of the pastels, and not you, that was at fault, Christina! I wonder how many newer artists have been discouraged, thinking that there’s something “wrong” with them when they struggle with materials…and it was the cheap materials that were to blame all along!

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