Artist vs. Designers’ Gouache Paints
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
If you are like me who is only starting to explore this medium, you probably have several questions about and hesitations on which brand or variant to purchase. Let’s investigate the difference between the so-called artist and designers’ grade gouache paints and why it pays to get the right tools.
In a Quandary
When you go to your favorite art store to grab a box of paints, you often see on the labels these words: artists, student, designer, and professional. What do these mean and what’s the difference?
They simply indicate the quality of the paints. Every brand manufacture various grades of the paints, which they will label accordingly. Some may only produce one type and others will have up to 3 or more variants. This gives them a broader market share. The obvious difference is in the price and you can tell right away which ones have the best quality based on that. However there are more factors that make the paint cheap or expensive.
So which variant should you use? Now you might say, that I am already biased and that this comparison is pointless. Clearly the better product in terms of quality is the professional (designers') one. If you just look at the examples here, you can determine the winner in an instant.
However, the point of this experiment is to understand why these variants exist, why the labels matter and what makes some paints a so-called investment if you really want to go pro.
Also your choice really depends on what you want to achieve and more importantly your budget, right? But then you ask, will the type of paint make much difference on the final product—in this case your artwork? Is it even worth investing on expensive paints?
Again, it will be about your goals in the end.
But all of these are hypothetical. To demonstrate the case of two paint variants, I have made a comparison between two brands and types of gouache paints. Warning: this experiment can be geeky but it won’t be extremely scientific (only because I don’t have the equipment to go much deeper, like a microscope and a spectrophotometer). I am, after all, a trained colorist and media conservationist.
Gouache is a water-based paint with a higher pigment to binder ratio than watercolor. That makes it an ideal medium to compare because of its opaque characteristics, which makes it good for mixing as well as flat application with a matte finish. Plus, I happen to have the two variants at hand and both with 12 colors. Therefore it would be a 1:1 comparison. The dozen colors were not very tedious to study unlike with watercolors that are transparent and come in much more forms and hues!
One of the variants is an “artist” grade, also known as a “student” grade (really, there’s a thin line between these two labels and it doesn’t make sense to compare the two unless comparing different brands). The second type is the “designers” grade, which is synonymous to a “professional” one. Manufacturers generally play with labels for marketing purposes.
The two brands I have used here are Reeves Gouache Artist Colours and Schmincke HKS® Designers Gouache. DISCLAIMER: This article is not sponsored by any of these brands and that my findings are based solely on my opinion.
Does Price Say it All?
Since gouache is a highly pigmented paint, a good indicator of quality is the price. So let's get this subject matter out of the way. At the time of writing, the price of Reeves Artist’s Gouache is about USD 8 (amazon.com) per box of 12 x 10 ml tubes while Schmincke Designers Gouache is a whopping USD 178.00 (amazon.com) per box of 12 x 10 ml tubes but at 20 ml per tube. They do have a student variant, Schmincke Akademie Gouache at Euro 42.90 (amazon.de) or about USD 50 at 10 x 60ml tubes.
In other words:
Reeves = USD 7.00/100ml
Schmincke Designers = USD 148/100ml
Schmincke Akademie = USD 8.00/100ml
It would be interesting to compare two student grade paints in the future since the price per 100 ml is marginal.
Appearances Matter in Art
You wonder, does price alone indicate the quality? My suggestion is to always read the labels—as in the information written on the tube or even on the box.
Packaging and labels say a lot about a product. Though most of what’s written is designed to entice consumers to purchase the item, it just helps to make the better choice when there are more useful information printed on it other than how great the product is.
Case in point, these gouache paints. Generally you only need a single information about a paint and that is the hue, the name of the color. If you need black, there’s a whole lot of name variations to choose from and yet you still get black. However it is crucial to know if that paint is of good quality if you want to sell your artworks, or if you want to preserve or display them in a gallery, which will expose it to numerous macro and micro climate. You want to be assured that your colors would retain its brilliance. The problem with water-based media, particularly watercolors and gouache excluding acrylics, is that many pigments become fugitive over time, meaning they fade.
However it is crucial to know if that paint is of good quality if you want to sell your artworks, or if you want to preserve or display them in a gallery, which will expose it to numerous macro and micro climate.
Strangely, many student grade paint manufacturers are not as transparent about their product's composition as those of the professional brands. Just head to their websites. Most student or artist grade paints give you the basic information you need: hue, volume, manufacturer information and whether it is compliant to certain toxicity tests. Professional paints on the other hand, will give you more information that assure its pigment quality. In addition to the basics, you will have a lightfastness rating, which determines the strength of the pigments against UV light exposure (fading), international pigment code that helps identify the type of pigment used, as well as the ingredients. Schmincke even informs whether the ingredients can cause allergic reactions or worse, cancer.
Did you know? Germany is a leading manufacturer of pigments, natural and synthetic, since the Industrial Revolution
If however your artwork’s preservation is irrelevant, which I highly doubt, and that you only want to play around with the colors, which is what most artists do anyway, then by all means use whatever product that suits your needs and it is totally fine.
But if you are like me—well, maybe not exactly like me, who is not only product quality conscious but also a colorist, media conservationist, avid researcher, obsessive about the minutiae, and a cancer survivor, those extensive data are quite meaningful. Moreover, that saves me from guessing my artwork’s longevity. I can also anticipate which colors to use if I know that a painting, for instance, will be hanging on a wall that is facing a window. I want to know if my painting will hold up for as long as possible in a non-museum environment.
On the images below, you will see a side by side comparison of a particular color. The variant, brand name and hue are indicated as well as the many times I loaded up my brush to achieve similar intensity.
The resulting swatches were scanned at 1200 dpi to magnify the texture. Note that the displayed image has been downsized to accommodate for web browsing. Nevertheless, the pigments’ density and flow on the paper can be clearly seen.
Looking under a 5x magnification 10mm ⌀ loupe, the pigments of the Reeves paint were distinctly bigger in size than that of Schmincke, which has a finer texture. In fact Schmincke’s gouache are so fine they are suitable for air brush application. In addition, when light is directed on a certain angle, I also noticed shiny particles on the artist quality paints, like sparkly sand under the sun, which sadly I was not equipped to identify. Strangely as well, the artist grade paints were "noisier" during mixing on the palette and application. Are those the pigment particles grinding with one another? Another thing I also noticed was the paint from the tube. Gouache like watercolor is a pigment-based paint suspended in a type of binder such as gum arabic or dextrine and in some products, chalk is added to make the paint opaque thus reducing the amount of pure pigments, which then means cheaper production.
The Schmincke paint squeezed straight from the tube is creamy while Reeves is gooey. The reason is that the binder is not well mixed, which probably explains the inconsistent texture of the paint on paper. During the experiment, I was dabbing paint directly from the tube. With Reeves, you will need a mixing plate and more brush strokes to lay a flat color.
Consistency in texture and appearance is necessary when trying to achieve a flat paint application and the same is true in washes in which a good flow and dispersion of pigments is absolutely vital. When you need more paint to achieve that flat look, then you might want to consider the true economic value of the media. How much paint do you need to get the right intensity of color? Gouache is supposed to be opaque, correct?
The wobbly lighthouse paintings illustrate this clearly. Side by side you can see the differences in saturation as well as the texture. The whites alone are a telltale sign of quality. Schmincke’s white paint, aptly called Opaque White, shows the right amount of fluffy clouds whereas Reeves’s White appears smoky. No paint was applied on the white stripes of the lighthouses.
Another way to compare them is by mixing. In subtractive color mixing, the primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow with the addition of black, also known as CMYK. You see this in printer ink cartridges. It is the same principle in paints.
TIP: If you want to just practice, you only need these four colors, CMYK, plus white and just mix. You will be able to produce a wide range of colors. If necessary, you may need to mix larger amounts and store it properly to keep its consistency and freshness. Though gouache paint dry quickly you can easily wet it again.
On the chart, you will see four columns that show the primaries with the equivalent color from each brand and the resulting mixes from secondaries to tertiaries. It may well be noted that I did not use exact measurements for each mixture and everything was done instinctively. I merely controlled the amount of primary paints to achieve my variegated hues. The resulting mixes from both brands are equally desirable.
It is however clear that the purples and oranges on the Reeves side are darker and duller than that of Schmincke because the equivalent paint color they have in the 12-tube box was not Magenta but Crimson, which has a bluish tone. Magenta is available in their 24-tube set. Also their cyan counterpart, Blue Lake, was much duller and yellowish, compared to Schmincke's Blue Sapphire, as you have seen on the lighthouse paintings. Mixing Blue Lake and Crimson resulted to duller purples. Nevertheless, the color mixes are still subjected to taste.
Despite all the observations favoring the designers’ grade paints in terms of pigment quality and color intensity, at the end of the day, it all boils down to the final picture. As the artist, you decide first and foremost which color palette to use. The artist paints are in no way inadequate. But until you’ve seen and used the paints, only then can you tell the differences between these two variants. And you must adapt to your intended usage—which brings me to my final points.
Practice, practice, practice...
When I was restarting my art career, I bulked up on as much paint and tools I can afford. I didn’t research the brands; I just bought what medium I needed to begin painting and what I can afford. I didn’t even buy gouache because I have never used it. The most expensive medium I acquired is a complete set of alcohol-based markers. I didn’t care, I had the budget that time.
Then I started coloring, illustrating and painting—everyday. I focused on watercolor and experimented on adding gold leaf. My brand of choice? Reeves because it was affordable, it would do the job I wanted and it is ubiquitous in every art store. When I realized I needed to up my ante, I began looking at more professional brands until I discovered Schmincke’s Horadam pan watercolors that come in 48 half-pan hues in a classy black metal case. For that amount of colors at that price, it was a bargain compared to other professional brands.
At this rate, I was painting like crazy even when I’m on a plane or on a safari trip. I was becoming more confident of my skills and loving my colors, too. Afterwards I decided to try out another medium, gouache. You guessed it right, I bought Reeves. To be honest, after seeing the color intensity of the professional watercolors, my artist’s gouache paints came lacking and that made me want to change. So I purchased my first wooden box of Schmincke gouache as soon as I could afford it and boy, did it make a difference on my picture quality and painting techniques. It was much easier to use. Professional paints come in many colors, too. Winsor & Newton designers gouache come in 84 colors, while Schmincke has 60. That is a wide range of colors to choose from, that can be applied straight out of the tube. Also you can easily replenish your gouache tubes without purchasing an entire box set.
Expensive paint brands do not make you a better artist if you don’t practice.
What’s your goal?
In terms of medium quality, the comparison between student and professional grade is similar to watching B-movies and blockbusters. The production value of low-budget movies is lacking, the actors are never heard of except maybe for the lead character, and story-wise it’s shallow, but that’s relative. On the other hand, with big studio movies, VFX are top notch, you get the superstars even though the story may not be Oscar-worthy. Though both can be action packed and entertaining, the quality of blockbuster movies is just much better.
In terms of price, with student’s paints, you are satiated, well-nourished even but it’s not a feast for the eyes and possibly not the top picked ingredients—ergo, not gourmet. Nevertheless, you also don’t pay for the amount of a 5-star Michelin restaurant.
Long story short, expensive paint brands do not make you a better artist if you don’t practice. I didn’t jump right into the professional league until I was comfortable with the medium and sure of my goals, which is to make a living out of my art. However, your tools will be your best allies when you want your art to improve and business to thrive.