Oil Paint Sets Can Help You Grow as an Artist

by Susan L Stewart

Oil paint sets are a great idea for any artist, especially those who are unfamiliar with various brands and aren’t quite sure of color choices. Manufacturers understand how their colors work together and use that information to combine them into sets as a convenience.

Benefits of artists’ oil paint sets

  • Buying your oil paints in small sets lets you try out different manufacturers until you decide just which brand you like the best
  • You can experiment with more colors to begin to understand each one and how they mix with other colors
  • By choosing sets of professional paint, you will get better results when mixing color that if you used student grade paints

And this is where sets can be helpful. There are so many different blues, for instance, that using a set of colors takes much of the guesswork out of it. I went to a popular online artist materials site and counted 11 different blues that one manufacturer made. With a set, you can expect fewer colors, but they will have been chosen to harmonize beautifully.

What to look for

As far as color theory goes, you can make any color you want with just the primaries: red, yellow, and blue, along with black and white. However, the theory found in the lab and practical experience don’t always work out. While much of the frustration of creating various colors depend on which specific shade of each color you use, it’s also fun to go for it and see what happens. I would expect a set of oils to have at least one of each of these five colors. Companies offer more or fewer colors, but depending on which colors you have, you might not be able to make the exact color you want.

For example, if the red you have is Cad Red Hue, you will get a very different orange when adding yellow to it than if you start with Alizarin Crimson. Cad Red Hue is a warm color with an orange undertone while Alizarin Crimson is a cool color with a blue undertone. Orange made with Alizarin Crimson will be darker and less bright because of its blue component. There isn’t a right or wrong here; there is a place for each one.

Oil paint mixes with Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue

The orange at the top, made from Alizarin Crimson and Cad Yellow Hue, is darker and dull. The orange below it is Cad Red Hue and Cad Yellow Hue. It is a brighter, more vivid orange. 

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Learning through experimentation

These are all things you will learn when you get your oil paint sets and start working with them. If you buy simple sets that have small tubes of paint, they shouldn’t be too expensive so you can buy a couple of different brands and try them alone, or mix the colors in several sets together.

The only way to refine your ability to mix just the right color is through practice. To avoid wasting paint always start with a small mix

If you end up with duplicate colors from different brands, say Ultramarine Blue, put a patch of each side by side on a white background. Wait until they are dry and then compare them. Do you see any color shift? There shouldn’t be much shift at all. Student grade oil paints – which I don’t recommend – can have a very different color even though they have the same name

There’s a right and wrong way to mix colors

While we are talking about mixing colors, you should know there is a right and wrong way to do it. Some artists leave the colors untouched and pure on their palette and combine them on the canvas. The Impressionists used this technique. For example, if they wanted to portray something as green, they would put little dabs of blue and yellow next to each other. When the viewer steps back, their eyes do the blending and interpret the colors like green.

An important technique to learn is how to double load a brush. Take a little dab of two colors on your brush and apply them to the surface with a minimal amount of mixing. I prefer to keep mixing paint to a minimum to avoid muddy colors.

Orange oil paint made with Cad Red and Cad Yellow, and Alizarin Crimson and Cad Yellow

On the left side are the colors we have been using. At the top of the middle section is orange made with Cad Red and Cad Yellow; the orange underneath was made with Alizarin Crimson and Cad Yellow. The dark mixes are Ultramarine Blue, and Cad Red (top) or Alizarin Crimson (bottom). On the right is a double loaded brush at the top, and both orange mixes next to each other.

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What if you need a larger quantity of a mix?

But let’s say you want to make a large amount of a mixture, say for the sky. First, never use a brush to mix large quantities of paint. The paint gets up in the ferrule – the metal piece that joins the brush to the handle – and is difficult to get out. On top of that, a brush will become so laden with paint that it cannot work as it is designed to do. And cleaning a brush full of paint can be a tedious process.

Instead, mix paint with a palette knife. Art and hobby stores have cheap plastic palette knives all the way up to expensive, handmade ones. One day, I picked up a Holbein palette knife and was surprised at how it felt in my hand. It was perfectly balanced. I pushed the palette knife against the table, and it sprang back. I think it was more than 50% discounted and I still paid around $35 for it. It is always within arm’s reach. The plastic palette knives will work just fine as you are experimenting.

One last thing, when you are mixing a large amount of paint, don’t mix it thoroughly. Let the individual colors come through a little. Paint mixes that have been over-mixed look dull and flat. v

How to get the most out of your sets

When choosing your brands of oil paint, be very careful to buy professional-quality paints. Although student grade paint is cheaper than professional, you may have issues with it. I understand your hesitation to spend money if you’re not going to continue to paint in oils. But if you aren’t sure you’re going to want to oil painting, or if you already feel like a student, it’s logical to want to choose student grade paint.

However, student grade paint does not have the same color load as professional paint. That can make a big difference in what and how you can use them. Using paint with a low color load means you’ll have to use more of it to get close to the same coverage which negates any perceived value. Using a student paint can be frustrating. The paint can vary in consistency, too. Manufacturers add fillers to stretch the pigment load to lower the price.

Oil painting can be challenging. Learning with oil paint sets takes a lot of the guesswork out of it. Play with colors and see what happens. Then loosen up and have fun with the process.

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What I used for this demonstration

Zenart Supplies Infinity palette series from the Essential palette and Impressionist palette with Zenart Supplies brush.

These are the supplies I used in this post’s demonstrations.

ZenART Supplies has an Infinity series of three oil paint sets: Essential Palette, Impressionist Palette, and Portrait Palette. Each one has eight colors including black and white. The paints are smooth, creamy and hold brush marks for beautiful texture. For more information, visit their sites on Amazon.com and Shopify.

ZenART Supplies is a family-run business located in London, England. Ardak Kassenova, one of the co-owners, is a professional artist who created the brushes, paints and other artist supplies she longed for but could not find. ZenART Supplies is known for its reasonable prices and excellent customer service.

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Susan L Stewart is a professional artist and author. She grew up with artistic parents. Her mother, who worked in oils, had a special guiding hand in her growth as an artist. “…it’s all about the color” is at the heart of her semi-abstract art. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband. You can see her art on her website, SusanLStewartArt

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