An overview of oil paints, including key qualities, what distinguishes brands from one another, and the oil paints that are on Virgil’s palette

Topic List

General Comments

Virgil encourages all painters to take the trouble to find out what is in the paints they’re considering buying; not just what color they are, but what pigments they’re made with, what binders are used, and what other ingredients are in there, such as stabilizers in particular, fillers, driers, whatever. ASTM lightfastness ratings are important to pay attention to, information which ought to be included on the label. Some companies do not provide that information, and that is unfortunate. As long as they can sell enough of their products without proving important information about them, they’ll have no incentive to do anything differently.

Key Qualities

Below is a list of paint qualities you need to keep in mind when choosing what paint to buy, and at what stage of a painting they are most appropriate to apply.  Page references in Virgil’s book are given in parentheses.

For a definition of these terms, see the Terminology section of our Pigments page.

  1. Lightfastness  (p.123)
  2. Type of oil used to bind the pigment (p.124)
  3. Ratio of Oil to Pigments  (p. 125-128)
  4. Drying Rate   (p. 129)
  5. Tinting Strength (p.130)
  6. Consistency
  7. Degree of Opacity / Transparency  (p.131)
  8. Single vs. Multiple Pigments in the Paint:  A single pigment in a paint is always preferable to a paint consisting of a mixture of pigments trying to approximate a traditional oil colour.
  9. Chroma: Some artists prize particular brands of paint for their high chroma out of the tube and how that enables them to mix colors at the highest possible chroma for a particular hue.

Note: The quality of toxicity is discussed in the Pigments section.  Safety practices are covered on the Health and Safety page.

Brand Names

In the Facebook group, readers often ask what are the best oil paint brands for traditional painting.

Virgil’s assessment:

The brand is not the primary criterion for quality. All brands have some colors that are not the best. The lightfastness, the binding oil, the pigment volume concentration, the presence or absence of fillers, the presence, type and amount of stabilizer or the absence of it, these are criteria that go into determining an oil paint’s quality.

The best oil paints are made from pigments of the highest lightfastness, bound with linseed or walnut oil, with minimal or no stabilizer and no zinc oxide.

Some pigments do benefit from the addition of an inert, colorless pigment such as calcium carbonate, barium sulfate or aluminum hydrate, so with those pigments that require it these inert pigments are not necessarily a point against an oil paint’s quality. There are several brands that have paints that meet these standards of quality.

I have certain criteria that I use to dismiss oil paints as being of inferior quality also: pigments of ASTM lightfastness III or below; binding oils of inferior drying and/or film-forming properties, including poppy oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil; excessive adulteration with stabilizers; excessive additions of filler pigments; presence of zinc oxide, and presence of resins.

There is no brand that I know of whose entire line meets my criteria for quality. To get top quality in all the colors we want to use, we must buy the colors that meet those quality criteria from several companies while avoiding the colors that don’t meet those criteria from those same companies.

What makes one brand different — better or worse — than another? Here is a short list of the important factors:

  1. The Choice of Pigment (See page 123 of Virgil’s book)
  2. Presence of Zinc Oxide in colours or mixed whites
  3. The Type of Oil used as a Binding Agent.  Examples: linseed oil vs. safflower, poppy, sunflower, and walnut oil) (p.124).  And cold-pressed linseed oil vs. alkali-refined linseed oil.
  4. Additives in the Paint:  The presence (or absence) of stabilizers, fillers (barium sulphate), drying agents, and other additives (like aluminum stearate, alumina hydrate)
  5. Grind Quality: The degree of fineness to which the manufacturer grinds the paint.
  6. Single Pigment vs. Multiple Pigments in the paint.

As an aside, the names paint companies use to market their paints can be misleading.  A case in point is Burnt Sienna. It is important to read the pigment numbers on the backs of the labels of the tubes. 

What's on Virgil's Palette?

Below is a list of oil paints that Virgil uses. Note that he doesn’t have all of these on his palette at the same time, just the ones he thinks he’ll need for the immediate session. They’re all ready at hand in his #1 paintbox right next to his studio glass palette.

Paints that Virgil includes on his portrait palette are marked with ***.   

Note that these choices are subject to change as new paints are introduced or retired by manufacturers.

Rublev (Natural Pigments)
Blue Ridge Yellow Ochre
Bone or Ivory Black*** (in layers above the underpainting)
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Light
Cadmium Red Maroon
Cadmium Red Medium
Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Yellow Light
Chromium Oxide Green***
Italian Burnt Sienna***
Lead-Titanium White
Lead-tin Yellow
Lead White #1 ***
Lead White #2
Madder Lake
Mars Brown***
Mars Crimson
Mars Red***
Mars Red Light
Mars Yellow***
Red Sartorius Earth***
Stack Process White Lead (for impasto highlights)
Transparent Red Iron Oxide***
Venetian Red
Verona Green Earth***

Michael Harding (website)
Burnt Sienna
Manganese Violet***
Naples Yellow Genuine***
Pthalo Green***
Pyrrole Red
Quinacridone Rose
Rose Madder
Stack Lead White
Transparent Oxide Red***
Yellow Ochre***

Williamsburg (website)
Cerulean Blue***
Mars Red

Vasari (website)
Cadmium Vermilion Red Light***
Naples Yellow***

Blue Ridge Paints (website)
Burnt Sienna***
Cerulean Blue***

Langridge  (website)
Manganese Violet
Mars Black (for underpaintings, to make greys in mixtures with lead white)
Phthalo Green***

Blockx (website)
Mars Brown
Mars Orange
Raw Sienna,
Venetian Red

M. Graham (website)
Cerulean Blue***
Phthalo Green
Ultramarine Blue

Sennelier (website)
Ivory Black

Archival Oils (website)
Indian Yellow
Permanent Alizarine***

C.A.S.  (website)
Cobalt Blue

Daniel Smith Original Oils (website)
Pyrrole Red***

Old Holland (website)
Raw Sienna***

Virgil's Portrait Palette

Chapter 8 of Virgil’s book is dedicated to Portraiture. 

With portraits, variations in choices of colors must always take into consideration the colors of the light sources and the setting, as well as the complexions of the subjects, and the clothing.  

The main choices for flesh tones are: Michael Harding or Vasari Genuine Naples Yellow, Michael Harding Yellow Ochre (it’s actually Mars yellow) and/or Rublev Mars Yellow, Rublev Mars Brown, Rublev Italian Burnt Sienna, Blue Ridge Burnt Sienna, Rublev Red Sartorius Earth, Rublev Mars Red, Vasari Cadmium Vermilion Red Light, Daniel Smith Pyrrole Red, Michael Harding and/or Rublev Transparent Oxide Red, Archival Oils Permanent Alizarine, and Michael Harding Manganese Violet.

On the left edge of his palette running upward from the white are greys mixed from Rublev Lead White #1 and Rublev Bone Black. Rublev Bone Black is at the upper end of that string.  

On the upper side of the flesh tone strings (not always in the same exact order) are Langridge, Blue Ridge, Williamsburg or M. Graham Cerulean Blue, (sometimes) Rublev Viridian, Michael Harding or Langridge Phthalo Green, Rublev Chromium Oxide Green, and Rublev Verona Green Earth.

In the later stages of a painting, Virgil might add a somewhat slower drying Lead White (either Vasari or Michael Harding’s lead white or Rublev Lead White #2)  and Blockx or Old Holland Raw Sienna.
“As Natural Pigments adds more of the colors I normally use to their Rublev line, the ones of those colors that I have from other companies might get bumped from my #1 paint box to my #2 paint box unless the color is different enough from the Rublev to warrant using both. This is often the case, for example with rose madder lakes, burnt siennas, and transparent red iron oxides.”

Painting Flesh Tones

There are several traditional ways of painting flesh colors in oils, but the key to success with any of them lies in the ability to read subtle gradations of hue, value and chroma rather than any particular procedure.

All human coloring is based on three pigments: one red, one yellow, and one black. Combinations of these in different percentages to one another account for the differences in complexions, not only from one individual to the next, but from one spot to another on the same individual.

In paint, white must be added to the palette of red, yellow and black in order to indicate sparsely pigmented complexions.

Further complicating the issue is the color of the primary light source in the areas illuminated by it, where its influence is seen to some degree, and the colors of secondary light sources, including color reflecting from nearby surfaces, which colors register to some degree in areas beyond the reach of the primary light source.

Understanding of these factors is essential when painting human flesh.

Shadows and Environmental Influences

With respect to shadows on flesh, they don’t necessarily have to be cool. It depends on what color is registering in them from secondary light sources, which can be any color.

If a light-complexioned person is outdoors in midday, standing near green foliage, the green of the foliage will reflect into the shadows on his/her flesh, but only on the planes facing the green foliage.

If the sky overhead is blue, some of that blue will influence the color in the shadow planes that face the sky, but not the planes that face downward; those will be influenced by what is below.

If it’s a red shirt or dress, red will be an influence on the shadow planes that face that red garment.

If the garment is yellow, then that yellow will be an influence in the color of the shadow planes facing that garment.

Prove this to yourself rather than taking my word for it. Put a strong light on a white object, and then place a red card near the opposite side, and observe what color is registering in the shadow. Then replace the red card with a blue card, and look again at the shadow. Do this with cards of other colors, and then you’ll understand color in shadow.

If cool shadows are what you want, to contrast with your warm lights, then have the model wear blue, green, or purple, or pose on cloth that’s one of the colors near blue on the color wheel, so those colors reflect into the shadow areas on your model’s skin.

What Determines Tinting Strength and Opacity?

A number of factors determine the tinting strength and opacity of a pigment dispersed in paint, according to George O’Hanlon in an article he wrote on the Natural Pigments Website (“Why Some Paints Are Transparent And Others Opaque“).

They include:

  • The pigment’s refractive index
  • wavelength light-absorbing properties
  • pigment particle size and
  • the degree of dispersion in the binder
  • the type of binding oil (and its refractive index)


A pigment that has a very high tinting strength or is opaque might have a high refractive index relative to the binding medium (scatters light efficiently), or it absorbs a large amount of the visible wavelengths of light. (General rule of thumb: “a substance that has a higher refractive index is a substance that impedes the velocity of light or offers more resistance to it. Therefore a larger proportion of the light will be scattered.)

Or a pigment’s relatively small particle size (and random particle shape and orientation) improves its light scattering and light-absorbing properties and thereby enhances the pigment’s tinting strength.

The tinting strength and opacity of pigments improve when they are well-dispersed (meaning that the solid pigment particles have been blended homogenously and smoothly with the binding oils; no unequal shapes or clumps or uneven distributions.)

Furthermore, a higher pigment volume concentration (PVC) in paint typically achieves higher tinting strength up to the critical pigment volume concentration (cPVC).  Beyond that threshold, “the number of air voids and the degree of microroughness on the surface of the paint film creates more light scattering…” 

Pigments usually considered opaque may appear transparent in a highly refractive medium. Using a medium of high refractive index, it can be shown that the most opaque colors, even lead white, appear transparent.  One example offered: “When mixed with linseed oil, some pigments, such as chalk, lose their hiding strength and appear translucent because they have a refractive index close to that of linseed oil.”

Here are some more generalities:

  • inorganic paints have high refractive indices and in paint give high opacity (white, black, yellow, red, and green oxides)
  • the good hiding power of black paints is due to the almost complete absorption of light (its refractive index contributes little)
  • the hiding power of white paints depends entirely on the high refractive index of the pigment relative to the medium; also the nearer the particle size to the optimum, the greater the scatter and the greater the opacity of the paint.
  • as linseed oil ages, the refractive index increases. (For example,  the refractive index increases from 1.479 to over 1.525 in about ten years). Oil paint with pigments whose refractive indices are close to that of the linseed oil will lose their covering power and become more transparent with time.  Therefore, to avoid that you should use pigments with high refractive indices, and apply sufficiently thick layers of paint.
  • For underpainting, you will typically need an opaque pigment
  • For scumbles use opaque pigments; for glazes use more transparent paints
  • For the final layers, use pigments with lower refractive indices (i.e., more transparent and with less tinting strength)

More Themes related to Paints (To Be Developed)

The “Fat over Lean” Advisory


  • Review of the “fat over lean” advisory (p.125)
  • The oil to pigment ratio for each pigment is listed in the Pigments section
  • More information on painting with “fat over lean” in mind will be covered in the Techniques section

Historical vs. Modern Paints

— The comparison between modern, store bought paint in tubes, commercially manufactured vs. the hand ground/mulled paints used by the Old Masters (p.122)

Hand-Made Paints
— Best practices for grinding/mulling one’s own paints (and whether one should even bother, especially for certain hazardous pigments)

How to Store Paints
— How best to store paints (e.g., some people want to put their palette in the freezer to reuse the paints the next day)

Search Traditional Oil Painting

Try searching for a specific term on our website. Some examples: safflower oil, burnt sienna, varnishing.