The art of painting is a varied form with a long and rich history dating back to the very first civilizations. It’s evolved along with humans and culture, and because of this it reflects society and it’s progression like no other art form.
Many types of paints have been used over the many years, with lots of different types and combinations of paints being used this very day – in this edition of Art Tools we’ take a look at the five major types of art paint: oil, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, and encaustic – and give our recommendations for the best buying options if you want to try’em out.
Oil paints are just that, pigments combined with certain oils, such linseed or walnut, to create a smooth, flowing medium. They have been dated back to at least the 7th century where a cave in Bamiyan, Afghanistan was discovered with murals of a dye and poppy-seed paste. Oil paints were not seen in Europe until the 11th century, but this is the most common region in which people associate traditional oil painting. This medium is known for its versatility, as it can be mixed to be opaque or translucent. It can be built up into a wide range of textures, and it’s ability to capture luminescence is renowned. This ability stems from the oil itself. As light hits the image, it travels down through the paint, hits the painting surface, and then reflects back through the oil to the viewer’s eye. The reflective light passing through the oil is what gives the paintings their jewel-like quality. Oil paints can be cleaned through the use of mineral spirits, however due to fume concerns, there are also special soaps and brush cleaners which are available to artists as alternatives.
The New Professional Oil Paint set are cheaply produced in China (you can get them very cheap if you hunt), but if you only want to spend about $10 bucks, it’s a good entry set – the tubes are a bit smaller than they may appear however, so it’ll go fast. The Reeves Fine Oil Colours Sets set of 24 has more colors and is a quality paint, but having more colors in this set means you get less of the base colors, so be aware. The Windsor Set is the most expensive of the three (about $28), but it’s a quality paint, and good mix of colors, you also get enough to really get a sense of working with oil paints.
Acrylic paints are pigments combined with synthetic acrylic resins, such as epoxy, to create a water-based, fast-drying medium. Acrylics were first produced commercially during the 1950’s, but only really gained popularity in the 60’s. Many artist’s loved it’s ability to mimic the thin transparencies of watercolor, while also being able to be built up like oil paints, without the tedious drying time. Acrylics are less susceptible to warping and discoloration than oils, however, the fumes produced during the drying process can be toxic if not ventilated properly. This medium is the most versatile for mixed media work, as it can be combined with pastels, graphite, watercolor, and even layered under oils to create a wide range of looks and aesthetics. Artists such as Anselm Kiefer even introduces medium such as ash, sand, and dry grass to his work. Acrylics can be cleaned with soap and water when wet, but mineral spirits must be used to loosen them when dry.
You may be tempted to go with the ubiquitous $10 cheap set of acrylic paints, but don’t do it. The quality of the paint is just that bad. It often comes so dried that it’s worthless. The Reeves Acrylic Paint Set (set of 24) is just a few bucks more and is much better quality – but it’s not very much paint. The Liquitex BASICS Acrylic Paint Sets are pretty much the standard for entry-level paints. The 6 tube set gives you more of the basic colors and the 24 gives you less of more colors (they’re about the same price – $20).
Watercolor paints are arguably one of the oldest forms of art making in the world. They are created when pigments are mixed with gum, such as gum arabic, and diluted with water to create a thin, transparent medium. Neolithic cave paintings were decorated with primitive watercolor images, and Ancient Egyptians used water based paints on the walls of tombs. However, it was the Chinese and Japanese artists of the early 17th century that truly brought watercolor to a distinctive art form. This medium is famous for its translucent washes, and it’s ability to be built up in thin layers. Watercolor also differs greatly from other mediums in the technique in which it is laid down. While paintings in oil and acrylic achieve areas of white by applying opaque pigment, watercolorists builds up the darks and leave the bare white of the painting surface as highlights. This characteristic and the unpredictable nature of watercolor makes it a uniquely challenging art form. Watercolors can be cleaned using soap and water and do not permanently dry, unless coated or mixed with another medium.
Gouache paints are just as historically venerable as watercolors, and are made in a similar way. Indeed, gouache is simply watercolor mixed with an opaque white in order to add opacity. The pigment particles in watercolors become trapped and held by the fibers of the surface it’s used on. Gouache particles on the other hand, lie on top of the painting surface, making a smooth, coated layer. This difference makes the medium thicker, but capable of capturing brilliance in the same way as oil paints. The way this medium reflects light made it very popular with Rococo artists in the 1700’s, however like watercolors, it is highly effected by moisture, and can be susceptible to warping or discoloration if left in a damp environment.
Encaustics are a type of paint created when pigments are mixed with hot, liquid wax. The use of encaustics date back as far as 5th century Rome. Wax was originally used to protect material from damage, such as ships. Encaustics were born from the colored wax used to decorate and protect Greek and Roman naval fleets. This medium is very similar to oil as it is visually rich, with a wide range of textures that can be accomplished. One reason artists preferred using encaustics was due to its longevity. It had far greater durability than both watercolor and oil paints, as it was not affected by moisture. However, there were enormous practical difficulties in using a medium that had to be kept warm. Once an artist finished applying the color pigments to the painting surface, a heat source was then passed over them until each individual wax application fused into a uniform layer. After this process was completed, the painting would be left to cur for a few months. The “burning in” of the pigments was the trademark of the encaustic technique, and it’s this characteristic that made portraits in encaustic so strikingly lifelike. However, during the burning it was easy for the heat to become to intense, causing colors to blur together. Encaustics can be cleaned by dipping brushes in soy wax, following with soap and water.