All About Paint: Which Paint Do I Use?

All About Paint: Which Paint Do I Use?

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Welcome to the first in a series of posts on art supplies. Today’s post is all about paint. We’ll be digging into paint ingredients and discovering how those ingredients affect the working properties of the paint. We’ll compare acrylic, oil, and watercolor paints to help you choose the right paint for your next project. Ready? Let’s get started!

assorted paint brushes with paint


All types of paint include the same basic ingredients.   Paint – whether acrylic, oil or watercolor – includes pigment and a binder, generally plus a liquid and/or other additives.

pigment plus binder plus other equals paint

Not surprisingly, pigment is the ingredient that gives the paint its color.  Pigment is derived from both natural and man-made sources.   Mineral materials are used to create earth color pigments with names like Ochre, Umber, and Sienna as well as heavy metal pigments with names like Cadmium, Cobalt, and Titanium.  Newer, man-made pigments can be recognized by their chemical-sounding names like Quinacridone, Diarylide, and Phthalocyanine.

The binder fixes, or binds, the pigment when the paint is dry.  The binder varies widely across the 3 types of paint and helps gives each paint unique characteristics.


Acrylic paints use a synthetic polymer binder.  Acrylic polymer is a translucent white color while wet.  Because of this, acrylic painters should know that acrylic paint will appear to be a lighter color when wet than when dry. Though compatible with water, the binder in acrylic paint will lose its integrity if too much water is added to the paint.

Acrylic binder is milky white and makes wet acrylic paint look lighter in color than it will appear when dry


Acrylics dry quickly by evaporation, leaving behind a permanent film of paint.  This is the reason that acrylic paint has such a short working time.  Thin layers of acrylic paint can dry within minutes. Acrylic paint cleans up with soap and water. Artists should keep a water container handy for brushes and other materials.

Acrylic paints dry fast! Keep a water container handy to keep dried paint from ruining your tools and brushes.



Oil paints use an organic binder like linseed oil.  The oil binder is very slow drying in comparison to the ingredients in acrylic paint.  As a result, oil painters can often work with their paints over an extended 8 hour time period.  Oil paint must be cleaned up using turpentine or mineral spirits.  However these are flammable and painters should keep this in mind when disposing of rags or paper towels soaked in these materials.

Oil paint binders and mediums are oil-based and give oil paints a long working time compared to other paints.

Oil paint binders and mediums are oil-based and give oil paints a long working time compared to other paints.

Special solvents like mineral spirits are needed to clean up oil paint. Rags covered in these solvents are flammable and require careful disposal.

Special solvents like mineral spirits are needed to clean up oil paint. Rags covered in these solvents are flammable and require careful disposal.


Watercolor paint uses an organic binder called gum arabic.  Gum arabic is derived from the sap of the acacia tree.   Watercolor paint also includes several key additives to help the paint flow and to prevent the gum arabic binder from turning brittle.  The gum binder differs from the synthetic binder that is used in acrylic paint in that it can be thinned with water for transparent paint washes without losing its ability to bind the paint to the surface.

Gum arabic is an organic watercolor binder harvested from the acacia tree.


Paint Grades

The quality of the pigment and the ratio of pigment to binder and other ingredients determines the grade of the paint.  Acrylic craft paint contains pigment and binder, but the pigment quality is lower than with student or artist-grade paints and more fillers are present.

Craft paint

Student grade paint

Artist grade paint

Student grade paint can often be recognized by a paint name that includes the word “hue.”  Hue indicates an expensive pigment has been imitated by a combination of cheaper colors.  Some common examples include Cadmium Red Hue, Cadmium Orange Hue, and Cobalt Blue Hue.  Artist grade paint features the highest quantity and quality of pigment and offers the greatest consistency and range of color.

The amount and quality of pigment in relation to binder and other materials help to determine the grade of the paint. Magenta, like many colors, is available in a variety of grades.


Artist grade paints are divided into groups such as A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 based on the type and quantity of pigment present.  The higher the letter or number, the more expensive the pigment and the higher the cost of the paint.

The Series 1 designation indicates a relatively inexpensive pigment is used in this paint. Student grade paints are only available in Series 1 and 2. This paint label also notes how resistant to light damage this paint is.


Paint Forms

All 3 types of paint can be purchased in a tube.  Acrylic paint in a tube is often called heavy body acrylic and has a thickness similar to oil paint.  Heavy body paint is well-suited to thick applications and textured painting techniques.  Acrylic paints also are available in fluid (thinner) and high flow (thinnest) types.  Fluid acrylics are ideal for thin applications like glazing.  Of course, any of these acrylic paint types can be mixed with a wide variety of acrylic mediums to create a thicker or thinner consistency.

This Green Gold color of acrylic paint is available in several consistencies including heavy body and fluid.


In addition to tubes, watercolor paints come in liquid or pan forms.  Pan paints are beloved for their ease of transport and use.  In addition, because all the colors come in one set, you don’t need to purchase them individually.

Watercolors are available in tube, pan, and liquid forms.



Paint ingredients affect the transparency of the paint.  Some paints are naturally opaque while others are nicely transparent.  Manufacturers of artist grade paints will usually include on the paint label where the paint falls on a range from opaque to transparent.   Paint made from earth pigments like yellow ochre and burnt sienna are opaque and will hide the surface to which they are applied.  In contrast, man-made pigments like quinacridone nickel azo gold let underlying layers in a painting show through.

Labels on artist grade paints include information about transparency. This bottle of fluid acrylics also includes information about the paint finish (matte vs opaque), viscosity (thin vs thick) and tinting strength.


It’s easy to check the transparency of your paint with this simple experiment.  Print or copy (using toner-based ink) this paint transparency chart on a piece of heavy paper.  Write the name of each paint you’d like to test on the chart using a pencil or permanent marker.  Paint a line of paint over each corresponding square.  After the paint dries, the text will still be legible beneath a transparent paint. In contrast, an opaque paint will cover the markings or leave a deposit behind.  Hang the chart in your studio to use as a reference when you paint.

Do More

Check out these paint kits to help you get started on your painting journey.  These kits all contain materials developed to help beginning artists find success without breaking the bank:

Artist Set For Beginners-Acrylic Painting


Artist Set For Beginners-Oil Color Painting


Artist Set For Beginners-Watercolor Painting


Happy Painting!

Related Posts

After You Paint: Finishes for Oil, Acrylic, and Watercolor Paintings

All About Brushes, Knives and Other Paint Tools

Before You Paint: The Right Surface for Your Paint Project


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