Which paints and substrates should you use and why?

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Just about every guidebook you will ever read about learning to paint will tell you that you should always use the best paints, brushes and substrates (the materials which you apply paints to, e.g. paper, board, canvas, fabric, wood etc.) you can afford to use. Starting with paint you will be advised to avoid student-grade paints, at all costs, where possible.

Using student grade paint and cheap paper

The reason behind this is straightforward, particularly when you are just starting out. You never know how a piece of work will turn out, so you want to aim for every piece being the best you can do. Sod’s law, you will create your favourite piece using cheap paint.
Student-grade or graduate paints will contain reduced pigment density, use cheaper fillers and run the possibility of fading and discolouring. They handle very differently to professional quality paints, so you would need to learn all over again how to handle the better-quality paint.
However, I still use student grade paint. There is a place for it, clearly, otherwise it wouldn’t be made, and I have learned how to handle both high quality and student grade paint. Why?

I use it if I am taking a class to learn someone else’s methods of producing work. I know I am not going to produce a masterpiece – that is not the aim of the class – and I would never want to put up for sale a piece I had made in someone else’s class, so using student grade paint suits me in this situation.
I am there to learn how someone works, how they achieve what they do and to figure out if anything I have learned from them is something I want to incorporate into my own working practice.
I generally only take classes with tutors I respect and whose work I admire, so being there to learn how they work means I don’t need to use my good quality paints at this stage. A good but cheaper student paint allows me to work in their way and when I get back to my studio I can decide where I want to take what I have learned, to explore further.

Also, using cheaper paints, both at home and in classes I take, allows a freedom that you often don’t have when using the most expensive tools. I can produce reference works without being precious, but then at home I can use my good quality paint once I have decided where I am heading with my new investigations and how best to incorporate that knowledge into my work.

And no, this is not stealing. It’s research. If I copied one person’s work or methods, that would be stealing but by looking at lots of different artists and the ways they work, I am continually researching possibilities to improve the work I make by exploring these different ways of working. Some fit, others don’t.
I have spent many hours watching other artists work, through classes, on YouTube and when I am teaching my students. There is always something new to learn and even if I don’t use something in my work, knowing about it means that I can share it with my students.

Using top quality acrylic paints, inks and paper. Compare this with the piece above to see the difference in the depth of colour.

Where I don’t scrimp, though, is on the substrates I use in my work. As a painter and a printmaker, I have all manner of different papers to use, depending on the type of art I am making, so I feel quite passionate about this.

The permanence of paint and ink is affected by the paper you use and the binder in the paint. You could use the most expensive permanent pigment possible but if you use Newsprint, for instance, your painting won’t last very long.
Newsprint is made from wood fibres and contains cellulose, which can cause a chemical reaction between the paint and the paper. It causes the paper to yellow, becoming brittle – because it is decaying – and this paper will ultimately disintegrate.

Canvases primed with Gesso work well with acrylic. Canvases come in linen (the most expensive), cotton in different weights and prices and there are also some new synthetic cotton blends which hopefully will be good but haven’t been around long enough for people to know if they have good archival properties.

Gesso, by the way, is a mixture used to coat surfaces as a permanent, absorbent primer. It usually consists of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment or a combination of these.

I also use board in my work so I am aware of the problems with it. Even the most expensive art shop-produced boards are not perfect. Sealed birch is reportedly the most archival as it less acidic than other woods and sealing it prevents oxidation. Pressed boards, which I use, are made with non-archival glues which can degrade over time. To mitigate this, I seal all the boards myself and all my works on board are coated in resin for extra protection. As board is not considered to be stable, stretching canvas over sealed board and then coating it with a number of layers of gesso, will give you reasonable archival results.

Hand coloured Lino Print using top quality paper and watercolour paints.

With watercolour paper you really do get what you pay for. Cheap papers will leave you very disappointed in the outcome; my advice is to leave well alone. Medium-priced watercolour papers again are probably best avoided, but good quality, heavyweight paper that doesn’t contain cellulose can be used for watercolour, oil and acrylic and if looked after will last a very long time.

That said, the most permanent, most archival materials used in a painting do not stand a chance if the work is kept in an inappropriate environment.  Extremes of moisture, temperature and air pollution will cause chemical reactions in the paint, growth of mould on the substrate and, ultimately a risk of the death of the artwork.

As long as your artwork is kept inside a building, out of direct sunlight with temperatures and humidity which do not fluctuate hugely, it should last and give you years of enjoyment.


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