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An Essential Guide to Artist Materials for Painters: Part 2

brushes artist material painters

In Part 1 of my essential guide to putting together an artist’s tool kit, I covered canvases, stretchers and primers, brushes, palette knives, easels and general tools that are handy to have in the studio. Part 2 focuses on the different types of paint, mediums, additives and finishes.

Types of Paint

Art supply stores display a vast array of paint options: dry pigment, spray, acrylic, watercolor, inks, poster paints, oil, air brush paints, tempera, enamel and fabric paints. Generally, they all break down into either oil or water based. Whatever you want to experiment with, it is important to know the base of a paint in order to know how to work with it. The type of paint you use will dictate the type of brushes you will use, the type of surface you will paint upon and how you will mix, clean and dilute the colors.   


In this guide I will focus on the more common types of paints that artists use: oil, acrylic and watercolor. Each type of paint has its own quality. Watercolor and acrylics are quick drying and water soluble, so cleaning your brushes and letting down your colors requires only water. Oil based paints are slow drying and a solvent is used to clean and alter the viscosity of your paint. Oil based paint tends to be heavier and requires a treated surface such as a primed canvas

Here are some of the key characteristics of each type of paint:


-       Vibrant and intense colors that don’t fade in time

-       Water resistant and durable once dried

-       A variety of textures and viscosities can be achieved through dilution and layering

-       Quick drying (thin layers can dry in under 30 minutes, thicker layers can take three days to fully cure)

-       Can be used on many different surfaces including paper, wood, canvas



-       Slow drying times (you can buy faster drying products but they still are slower than water based)

-       Textures can be built up and hold structure

-       Layering using semi-translucent layers creates different effects, visual depth and richness

-       Opaque thick layers can block out other colors below



-       Fast drying, suited to a faster way of working (which is one reason it is often used by landscape artists out on location, it can also capture movement like splashing water)

-       Paper is the most common surface to paint upon

-       Translucency of the paint allows you to build layers and create different effects

-       Granulated paints have heavier particles and create a specked effect for the appearance of textures 

Once you have decided on the type of paint you want to work with there are a few more factors to consider such as the quality, brand and colors.


There are a lot of brands out there with varying quality – I suggest investing in a known brand with a good reputation even as a beginner. It depends on what you want to achieve but generally cheap paints have poor textures, don’t spread well and colors have no richness or vibrancy. Good quality, professional grade (or artist grade) paints contain higher pigment ratios and retain their quality for longer if they are stored properly. A few good brands that are widely available are Winsor & Newton (oil, acrylic and watercolor), Gamblin (oil), Liquitex(acrylic) and Daniel Smith (watercolor).


Your choice of colors depends on what you are going to paint. If you are just going to work in black and white or with certain tones then just choose those. However, most artists starting out would be advised to get a color palette that includes: black, white and the primary colors (yellow, red and blue).


This is a good list to start with:

Titanium White

Ivory Black

Cardinal red

Yellow Ochre

Cardinal Yellow

Viridian Green

Alizarin Crimson

Burnt Umber

Mediums and Additives

Mediums and additives are used to create different effects whilst painting. They can be laid down before a layer of paint or combined with the paint to create different textures, viscosities and alter its state. Additives can often change the drying times of paint and the finish. I suggest experimenting with samples first.


Typical mediums used with oil paints include: Linseed oil to slow down drying times of thinner layers, liquin which speeds up drying time and gives a silky consistency to layers and solvents to thin paints.


Watercolor painters often use masking mediums, gum arabic, wax resist sticks and also basic household products such as salt to create absorption speckling.


Acrylic extender polymers can help to adhere paints to nonporous surfaces such as plastic and glass.

Varnishes and Finishes

Varnishes and finishes for oil and acrylic paintings are used to give a certain consistent overall look to a painting (gloss, matt or satin). A gloss finish will bring out bright colors but also creates a lot of reflection. Matt varnishes don’t reflect but colors can appear duller. Varnishes offer longer lasting protection to an artwork: resistance to chemicals, water, ultraviolet radiation and abrasions. If you are working in watercolor it is not typical to varnish the final painting, however, if you would like to create a layer of protection you can use spray-on fixative.Acrylic painters can also use a leveling gel which gives a painting a high gloss, transparent film.


In my next post I will look at more eco-friendly products and approaches to painting.

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