How does house paint differ from artist paint, and why shouldn’t I use it for my paintings? For this post I want to examine the characteristics of house paints, how they differ from artist paints, and explain why they are not directly interchangeable.
There are two main reasons why you might use house paint for your art. One reason is to save money by using household emulsion paint to prime your canvas. After all, it’s paint and it’s white so why would it be any different to the primer or gesso we sell at Jackson’s? This post by Julie Caves explains why this is ill advised. The other reason is as an artistic statement – maybe you want to make a comment about high/low culture, and juxtapose the mass-production aesthetic of lifestyle colours with your personal expression. You can use house paint for your art, but household paint and artist’s paint are by no means a direct match for one another.
The Function of Paint
Let’s think about this logically. House paint is for painting domestic interiors and exteriors, while artist paint is for painting works of art. How they are made is specifically tailored for their intended use. So if you are going to start using house paint in your works of art, you need to be prepared for the fact that it will always possess the characteristics that painters and decorators seek. Characteristics such as flat, even colour in a range of pre-mixed hues. Colours that are easy to live with when applied on walls from floor to ceiling.
How Artists have used House Paint in the Past
When an artist such as Sarah Morris uses household gloss paint, she does so to reference contemporary culture – colours that reflect our lifestyles, advertising, consumerism. She paints shapes onto canvas with crisp edges, stripes and shapes, that remind us of buildings, slogans, and machines.
Gary Hume uses household enamel to paint his large scale canvases. He does so in pursuit of the sublime. The work suggests that the artist is interested in combining the ‘lifestyle ideals’ that are suggested by house paints with an intuitive way of working. His painted lines are undeniably made by the artist’s hand. Combining expressive form with the beauty of mass-produced house paint is arguably Hume’s USP.
Another artist who springs to mind is Damien Hirst. His famous Spin Paintings are made by placing round canvases on a specially made spinning machine, and then pouring household paint on. Unlike Hume, there is no trace of the artist’s hand composing the image. The artist’s role is merely one of selecting colours and turning on the machine. The lack of control on the paint allows us to see how household paints behave with one another. When you look at a Spin painting you’ll notice there is hardly any evidence of colours bleeding into one another. Instead each colour retains a purity that when thrown on to the substrate competes with the other colours, pushing them out of the way. It’s this quality that ensures an even application when you paint them on your walls. When worked with in spin paintings, the paint looks dramatic and chaotic. They always give me the sense that something has been broken, or gone wrong, like a malfunctioning computer screen.
House Paints Used Before the YBAs
It would be remiss of me not to mention 2 pioneers of using house paint in fine art: Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. Jackson Pollock used very fluid enamel paint to create his drip paintings. He would do so by drawing in air using a stick or hardened paintbrush loaded with paint, which would fall onto the canvas in dynamic ways. This process was termed ‘action painting’. For Pollock enamel paint was the perfect match for his approach. It was the perfect consistency for a start. Secondly, much like Hirst, Pollock enjoyed the characteristics of enamel paint. They did not bleed into one another too much, so the pure colours would sit alongside one another. Consequently, his drip paintings are each a sophisticated web of lines of paint in vivid colours.
Picasso and Ripolin
In 2013 X-Rays confirmed that Pablo Picasso used ‘Ripolin’ enamel paint in some of his bolder, geometric painting, such as his masterpiece ‘The Red Armchair’, painted in 1931 and now in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago. It is thought that Picasso favoured working with both Ripolin and oil paint on the canvas to stretch the variety of marks he could achieve. The Ripolin dried in uniform layers with crisp edges that contrasted dramatically with the slower drying, easily blended oil paint. However the paint that Picasso used in the early 20th Century had more in common with artist oil paints than a lot of house paint available today, and is thought to have greater longevity.
What Is Paint Made Of?
The main components of all paint are pigment, binder, and additives. Let’s take a look at them each in turn to examine the differences between indoor paint, exterior paint and artist’s oil paint.
Pigments are used to give paint its colour. Artist paints have a greater concentration of pigments in their formula than house paints, because colour brilliance and lightfastness (the extent of how much a colour will fade over time) is a high priority for artists. Artist paints also need to possess the qualities to mix well. When colours are mixed pigments are combined and inevitably the strength of each colour used in the mix is weakened. For this reason the best paints have maximum colour strength. Indoor house paints in comparison have a much lower level of pigment saturation.
Additives in Paint
Also, the paint tends to only contain organic pigments for health and safety reasons, and not all of them have the highest lightfastness levels. Exterior paints have similar pigment saturation to indoor paints, but their lightfastness levels are improved thanks to UV blockers and other additives used to make the paint weather resistant. Because the majority of artist paints only use lightfast pigments, there is no need for such additives in their manufacture. The lightfastness ratings of oil paints are indicated on the labels of their tubes, or on the manufacturer’s colour chart.
The binders that are used in each of the types of paint reflect the purposes of the paint. In the case of indoor paints, the binder needs to be fast drying and rigid. This helps the paint withstand the kind of wear and tear you might expect in a domestic interior, including scrubbing. As a result, the paint is durable, but completely inflexible. If it were to be applied to a wall that was likely to experience fluctuations in humidity or extreme temperature changes, it would very likely crack or chalk the paint. Exterior paint is more flexible because it needs to be weatherproof; it needs to have the permeability required to absorb moisture from the brick wall it may be applied to.
Exterior paints need to withstand all weather conditions without cracking. The flexible binders of exterior paints emit VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and are not suitable for use on indoor walls. Both indoor and outdoor paints will have colour shift – that means that how the colour looks from wet-dry will differ noticeably. In the case of artist’s oil paint, the binder (drying oil) needs to be clear, so that there is no influence on the appearance of the pigment and no colour shift.
There is also no fixed ‘ideal’ drying rate. Some painters want the paint to dry very slowly to allow for blending techniques, while other might add driers to speed up the process. If left to its own devices oil paint dries much more slowly than house paint. Linseed oil in oil paint is flexible while drying, but once dry it can be brittle, and doesn’t like big changes in humidity and temperature, which is why it can be important to keep your paintings in an environment that is fairly constant. In the short term, artists that use outdoor paint won’t need to worry about keeping conditions constant as the work will withstand changes in extreme temperature and humidity. However as previously stated, we do not recommend using outdoor paints indoors as they often emit gases that may be unhealthy to breathe in.
Household paints are designed to make even applications of colour easy. Exterior paints are designed to be resistant to chipping and peeling, even in extreme weather conditions. As a result their characteristics are difficult to modify. They really only do one thing well – that is to go on surfaces evenly. If you try to mix colours, blend or glaze with house paint, you may find that, compared with artist paints, it is difficult to achieve subtle effects. If you’re considering working with either indoor or outdoor paints, we suggest you think carefully about their characteristics before you do so, and use them to your advantage to avoid disappointment. Use them with intent, and not as a compromise, as you are guaranteed to experience disappointment.
Artist oil paints of any quality are designed to be mixed and blended, glazed and layered. They have the highest lightfastness levels and the greatest pigment strength. If you are looking for vibrant colour and paint that is easy to control and modify, there really is no substitute.
This is an updated version of an original post published on 29th December 2018