Oil Painting Colors

Oil painting colors are made with a pigment (colored powder), and oil. The pigment defines most of the paint's character. It's not just a color: it's a specific substance with its own degree of hiding, upper and undertones (defining its character), and chemical features. Every brand has its own recipes as well, using fillers and sometimes even mixing colors to get a hue. In single pigmented oil painting colors, the pigment character comes out the best. These colors are like personalities - you get to know them, and then you can work with them. Check here for more general info on oil paint.

Transparent and opaque oil painting colors

Transparent blue oil paint

Transparant and semi-transparent colors are more versatile than opaque (hiding) ones. When they come out of the tube, they look very dark, but you can make them lighter by adding white. On the right you can see this effect (in prussian blue). Mixed with white, it becomes a real 'blue'. But when applied pure, it's almost black.

  • Transparent colors are: viridian green, phtalo's, permanents, real earth green, red gold lake (oldholland paints)
  • Semi-transparent colors: alizarine crimson, quinacridones, burnt siena, zinc white
  • Oil painting colors with a strong hide: titanium white, flake white, chromium oxyde green, real cadmiums, real cobalts, iron oxydes.

This is an indication - the amount of hiding also depends on the paintmakers' recipe. Semi-transparent colors are versatile: thinned a little, they can be transparent, and with some help (adding titanium white) they can be made to hide. Both Old Holland Classic Oil Colors and Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colors keep their paints single-pigmented (where possible), so their transparant colors will be really transparent. These paints are expensive (Old Holland more than Winsor). I use only small tubes, for the last layers. For studywork and building up underlayers it's worth to research the economy brands.

Economy and quality oil paint colors

There's been a shift in the market - Amsterdam used to be Talens' cheapest brand (I used them a lot), but they were taken out of production. But we still have Blick oils, Daler-Rowney Georgian and Winsor Winton, they are economic as well (except for Winton's real cadmiums and cobalts). Daler-rowney and blicks sell 225 ml tubes (the biggest around) for 7 to 8 dollars. Both Daler-Rowney and Blick oils come in small tubes as well, but if you know you'll keep painting for a few years at least, it really is cheaper to buy big tubes. Amsterdam tubes are still available, but the last stocks are sold now.

One big difference: Blick oils are all made with linseed oil. The whites and blues of Amsterdam and Winton are made with safflower oil. Of Georgian, I'm not sure yet (more on that soon).
Linseed oil dries quicker and better, but it's more yellowish. Check here for more on the oil-issue.

For paints with specific pigments, you might want to take a smaller tube of a better brand (if you use it only in the last layer, you won't need that much of it). A big tube of a better quality costs 20 dollars or more, but the smaller ones go from 7 dollars (and up). The prices of these paints vary strongly, depending on the kind of pigment.

Cheaper paints are a bit thinner, have more fillers and less pigment, but for regular painting and underlayers that's no problem. The difference does become clear when you stretch the possibilities (glazing, building structure), or want to use the specific features of a pigment. For that, W&N artists grade, Schmincke, Rembrandt (transparancy!) or Old Holland paint is better. Especially Old Holland has the authentic feel. Still, not all pro's work with old holland paint. There is a quality difference, but it depends much on preference.

Quick remarks per color:

  • Whites: titanium white is good for all layers (hides very well). Lead is great for underlayers (quick drying), and zinc (very bright)for top layers. Check here for more on white oil paint
  • For black, choose mars black (iron oxyde is by far the most stable black). Blick oils and Rembrandt have it.
  • Blues: ultramarine is a good warm blue. Phtalo is cooler (and can be mixed with phtalo green for turquoise). Prussian is greenish (cold but dark). Prussian is good for mixing greens.
  • Greens and earth colors: viridian and phtalo green are very strong and cold prismatic green, chromium oxyde is a stable leaf-grean, and most earth greens are imitations.
  • For yellow and red, take cadmiums, permanents or quinacridones (check the pigment specs!).
  • For violet: dioxazine violet, or mix quinacridone magenta and ultramarine.
  • "Hue" means: this color is an imitation. That's not always bad, but it's good to know.

Recommended oil painting colors

Here's a list of oil painting colors I would advice having - character paints (with real value pigments) of an economy-quality pick.

  • Yellow Ochre, Burnt Siena, Raw Umber and Burnt Umber can be of Amsterdam or Blick oil colors (mostly iron oxydes)
  • For real earth pigments, check these: Maimeri Italian Natural Earth Oil Colors (scroll up for specs)
  • I use earth colors in bulk in the inderlayers, for this I choose the cheaper earth colors which are made of synthetic iron oxydes (they're re nearly as good as natural earth pigments, except for green earth - scroll down for more). Since Amsterdam oil colors were taken out of production I use Daler-Rowney Georgian Oil Colors
  • for this purpose.
  • From a Blick Oil Colors: Ultramarine (French ultramarine, warm blue) or (and!) prussian blue (colder blue), dioxazine violet, crimson alizarine, mixing white (made of titanium and zinc white) for the upper layers, flake white (lead and zinc white) for the underlayers.
  • Rembrandt Artists' Oil Colors: Cadmium yellow lemon (real cadmium yellow), caput mortuum violet (an iron oxyde), oxyde black (iron oxyde black), chromium oxyde green, real cobalt blues. ery handy: phtalo turquoise (transparant turquoise the only transparant turquoise I know. Very nice about Rembrandt whites: you can choose them in either linseed- or safflour oil. Linseed oil dries better, but safflour oil doesn't yellow. You can mix them too, if you like. Check here for more about white oil paints.
  • Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colors: the economy line of W&N. Turn here for real cadmiums and cobalts in big 200 ml tubes (almost 18 bucks). Also for real earth yellow ochre and burnt umber.
  • Winsor & Newton Artists' Oil Colors - Very fine paints, really a different quality zone (you'll notice the price difference as well). Cremnitz white: a real and pure lead white (for quick drying underpainting). Foundation white is made with lead, zinc and linseed oil, very good for the base layers.
  • An even finer quality: Old Holland Classic Oil Colors. If money is no issue, buy these paints (if it is, read the rest of this page). This firm has been in buseniss since the 17th century, and is uncompromizing towards durability and purity. I use the "old holland red gold lake", because its color can change from yellow (when applied thin) to red-orange (when applied thick). And Cremnitz white (real lead and linseed) for its quick drying. Only buy this in tubes, not in cans (it will dry in the can)
  • If you want cheap but good single pigmented oil painting colors, consider making your own oil paint, if only for the more expensive colors or a real green earth. There's no red like a home-made permanent red.
  • Yellow and red: cadmiums and quinacridones

    These are my favorite red and yellow pigments. Cadmiums have a very strong hide, they're neutral and bold at the same time. There's no yellow as smashing as cadmium yellow. Quinacridones are the opposite - they have a beautiful warm transparancy, and often a really good magenta. Permanents are good too, they're transparent as well.
    All These pigments are stable and lightfast. Cheaper reds and yellows are often hansa, monozao or azo colors. At fist they're OK, but somehow they seem to lack character.

    For big tubes of real cadmiums, check Winsor's economy line: Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colors . The price difference between a small Rembrandt oil colors Rembrandt tube (40ml) and a big one from W&N Winton (200ml) is not that big.

    Earth colors

    Maimeri Italian Natural Earth Oil Colors, 30 White Earth from Carrara, 60 ml

    Maimeri - oils with real earth pigments

    Earth colors are important in oil painting techniques for two reasons: chemical stability, and providing a natural base-color for underpainting. Imitations and natural earth pigments lie close together - natural earth pigments are colored by iron oxydation, a process that's easily reproduced in a lab. Manufactured iron oxyde oil painting colors are very stable as well. Underpainting techniques are usually done with earth colors, because they provide the painting with a natural basis. Every earth color has it's own function in this respect, which was developed through the ages. If you use one earth color and white, to tone your other (prismatic) oil painting colors, it connects the other colors and makes them look natural. The earth tone functions as a unifier.

    Earth colors are simple paints, and the cheapest ones will do just fine.

    • Daler-Rowney Georgian Oil Colors - these are big tubes of 225 ml for about 10 dollars a piece. This brand forms about half of my stock colors.
    • Blick Oil Colors, 225 mlare even cheaper: almost 9 dollars a tube.
    • For real earth pigments, check Maimeri Italian Natural Earth Oil Colors. I haven't tried them yet, but they look nice (60 ml for 6 bucks). "Antique green earth" is a beautiful dull green earth, "brown earth from Florence" means: raw umber. Two shades of yellow ochre: for the earthy feel, take the darker one. No burnt umber, and better skip the 'white earth', this pigment (chalk, really) is often applied as a filler and has very little hiding power. The green earth might very well be the only real green earth in an economy version - real green earth only comes in the more expensive brands.
    • For Caput Mortuum (a purple earth tone, also iron oxyde), you'll have to turn to Rembrandt Artists' Oil Colors.

    Big tubes are cheaper in the end - if you close them all the way after every use. Check the paint color lists on the bottom of the page too.

    Economy oil paint color list

    Blick Oil Colors, 24 Buff Titanium, 225 ml

    Blick oils (student grade) has big and small tubes. If you'll paint a lot, big tubes are cheaper in the end (they contain 5,5 times as much paint, and cost 3,5 times as much). For bigger paintings, or doing more studies, big tubes are better. But if you don't know yet how long you'll keep it up take the small ones. Except for white: you mix it in almost every color, so take a big one.

    • Of Blick Oil Colors (in small tubes only 2,91 dollars): yellow ochre, burnt siena, raw umber, burnt umber, phtalo blue, phtalo green, terre verte, dioxazine purple, cadmium red hue, cadmium yellow pale hue, crimson alizarin, lamp black. And titanium white (a big tube)
    • A bit of magenta can be very handy for mixing purples. But Alizarine Crimson, being a cool red, will do most of the tricks as well.

    The yellow is strong and light, you can make it more sedate by adding yellow ochre. Violets: with quinacridone rose, dioxazine purple and phtalo blue you have the whole range. Greens: terre vert is very earthy, phtalo green is very cold, strong and prismatic. Mix them and you have leaf-green. You can tone them further by adding phtalo blue and one of the umbers. For dark indigo (night skies), mix phtalo blue with black, for day skies mix phtalo blue with phtalo green (and white). The phtalo blue is on itself strong but neutral - for making it warmer, add a little quinacridone rose.

    What oil paint colors do you need?

    One approach is, to say you need a cool and a warm color of every main color. Together with the earth colors, you'll have a list of about 15 collors:

    • Mars black
    • mixing white
    • Cadmium yellow, yellow ochre
    • cadmium red, alizarine red
    • phtalo turquoise (rembrandt), ultramarine
    • Magenta (quinacridone rose)
    • earth green, viridian green (or phtalo green), raw umber, burnt umber, burnt siena, caput mortuum.
    Cadmium yellow can be mixed towards green and orange. Alizarine red is the deepest red, magenta (and ultramarine) take care of all the violets. for examples, check this this color mixing guide.

    Color is light, color is matter

    It helps a lot if you understand the difference between colored light, and colored matter. Light are (almost) always pure rainbow colors or prismatic colors (hue). But oil painting colors are colored matter - some look very much like rainbow colors, but they're not - there's a tone (darkness), and other colors mixed in. A pigment that's purely prismatic usually looks very chemical and artificial. Check here for more on the difference between light and matter colors in oil paints, and here for color theory on prismatic colors.

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