I use many different brands of paint; I enjoy trying new colors and comparing the differences between manufacturers. But I know several painters who stick with just one brand of paint. We see brand loyalty such as this in all kinds of consumer markets; you find something you like and you stick with it. While there’s nothing wrong with this mindset, limiting yourself this way when it comes to paint really does take away some very worthwhile possibilities (it’s limiting, after-all). Now… before getting ahead of myself, it bares mentioning that it’s not the products which are important, it’s what you do with them (which is to say, you can make wonderful paintings with very modest materials, and you can also make terrible paintings with extravagant materials; in the end it’s the painter which is important, not the products they use).
Lower quality paints, commonly referred to as “student grade”, tend to regulate paint consistency across their lineup with any number of additives. Paint manufacturers, like modern food-makers, add numerous foreign ingredients which are often unseen (and unconsidered) by the consumer. Aluminum stearate, hydrogenated castor oil, bentonite clay, calcium naphthenate, silica gel… the list goes on. These are common additives used to manipulate the state of the pigment as it sits in the tube and the way it pours onto your palette. Unlike foods, paint manufacturers are not required to disclose any information about the contents of the tube. As a rule, you can bet some additives are present in your paints. (Aside from those used as filler in low-quality paints, additives are most commonly used as preservatives, to extend the shelf-life of the paint by preventing oil/pigment separation in the tube.)
The first thing a student will notice when sampling higher quality paints (“professional grade” vs. “student grade”) is the variance which exists between pigments. All pigments are different; they aren’t supposed to squeeze out of the tube in exactly the same toothpaste consistency as the last. Sienna should not feel like cadmium. Also, cadmium should not dry as quickly as sienna. Back when paints were made by hand in the artist’s studio, it was understood that different colors had different properties. One may be gritty while another is buttery. One may be very light and transparent while another is heavy and opaque.
Unfortunately these differences are compounded when looking across different manufacturers. Some brands are more heavily pigmented than others. Some are generally thick and stiff while others are creamy and soft. Some of these differences are due to the way the paint was milled, some are due to additives, and some are just a mystery. Many manufacturers disclose a great deal about their practices, while others consider it a trade secret. Most manufacturers list the pigment content on the tube, but we have to do some research on our own to figure out what kind of binder they’re using (the type of oil) and what kinds of additives, if any, are disclosed. (If you care to look for it, most of this information can be found on the manufacturer’s websites, and that which is not is often given on request in response to a friendly inquiry to their customer service department.)
It’s also important to point out that color names are completely arbitrary. One manufacturer’s “sky blue” may be another manufacturer’s “primary blue” which is the same as another manufacturer’s “cerulean blue”. This is an unfortunate obstacle painters must overcome. We can get around it a little by looking to the pigment content, but that’s more an indicator of how the paint will behave than to what it actually looks like. (For example, the pigment contents will help us to estimate the tinting strength, opacity, etc, but the actual color of any of these pigments varies a great deal.) And what’s worse, those colors which should be most predictable are often the most varied. Take something like Burnt Sienna, a staple earth red on any painter’s palette. Not only does the color vary from one manufacturer to another, but some don’t even use burnt sienna (PBr7); many use red iron oxide (PR101), which is usually more transparent than natural sienna.
You’ll have to decide for yourself if one is better than another; it really comes down to personal opinion and how it affects your particular working practices. I personally love Williamsburg’s Burnt Sienna. It’s a little redder than most and for me, the consistency just feels right. But Williamsburg is not my favorite for every color. Next time you run out of one of your staples, try a new brand. You never know until you try it… Plus, with earth colors, the cost difference is not overwhelming (compared to cadmiums, where the price varies from $15 to $50 between brands). Take a look at this selection of Burnt Sienna’s from popular manufacturers:
Old Holland, PBr7.........$12.11
Schmincke Mussini, PBr7....$9.20
Michael Harding, PBr7......$7.76
Sennelier, PBk11 + PR101...$7.13
M. Graham, PBr7............$6.24
Winsor & Newton, PR101.....$6.00
Da Vinci, PBr7.............$5.88
Grumbacher, PR101 + PBr7...$5.36