Initial review of some Vasari oil paints in earth colors: Make your own paint or buy the best?

Vasari is often described as the Cadillac of oil paints. I’ve held off a long time on buying any since I tend to be too precious with oil paint even when it’s cheap, but some dry pigments that I really like from are now available in oils in the Vasari line, and I was interested to compare my handmade paint to commercial equivalents.  I waited for their earth sale, but still paid $11 to $21 per tube.   The tubes came in a fancy box with faux-suede lining, alongside a tote bag with Vasari logo. This is boutique paint!

I have a lot of dry pigments, and often make my own paints.   I make small batches and use them in one day, which allows me to forego additives needed to stabilize tube paints. I mix the paint very thoroughly, but I often don’t mull it.  It would take half of my painting session to mull several colors and clean up.  Where are those apprentices when you need them?!!  I follow Sinopia’s advice that  you should mull if you plan to tube, but otherwise can just mix.   So my comparisons to Vasari are done with oil paint that is mixed thoroughly, but not mulled.

I had expected  that Vasari would be clearly superior to my own paint, but in some ways, for my purposes (emphasis on that), I didn’t find it so.  That’s not to say these aren’t great paints and beautiful colors, but handmade paints are dramatically less expensive and in some cases even better for what I want.  Where mulling matters for color intensity, Vasari definitely wins, but the color difference is pretty subtle and often lost in mixes, and I could always break out the muller and get close.  Vasari also wins for a very smooth consistency that textures very nicely. But my homemade paint shows some interesting rheology that is missing in Vasari.

The premium paints I’ve tried, Vasari and Blockx and Blue Ridge, manage a very pleasing brushability while holding texture from brushstrokes without slumping. They create organic edges without blobs when a brush is dragged through thicker paint. They don’t resist the brush or pull against it. They have a long character that is much more like handmade paint than most brands. (We are all familiar with short paint, since most tubed paint is short. It breaks off quickly and stops when you lift the brush. Long paint is the opposite, more mobile and tending to continue moving a bit when you lift the brush; some even pulls out into strands.) These three are on they looser end of the scale, allowing them to be used without solvents or mediums if desired, but they are not runny (like Sennelier in some tubes I have). The tactile experience of painting matters to me, and these are really nice!  Of the three, I like Vasari and Blue Ridge best for the way they hold texture and edges, and the way they look when dry (fairly even, satin sheen in the paints I have, without a jarring difference between thick and thin areas). But Blockx has a very appealing silky feel, sensual to move, that probably comes from the poppy oil. In thin paint, I’d probably prefer to paint with it just for the feeling.  (I have a limited number of tubes, so I don’t know if these observations hold through the complete lines.)

Once you try something like Vasari, you may find less expensive tube paints a bit disappointing, but it depends very much on how you paint.  Lower end paints generally compromise with over-use of fillers and additives like aluminum stearate, resulting in paints that may hold brushstrokes but lack sensual brushability and tend to be quite short, even waxy. With a few exceptions, in my experience, handmade paints are the only thing that can really compete with Vasari and Blockx in this area. One of the great advantages of handmade paint is its tendency to be longer than tube paint and brushable, yet adjustable to hold texture when you want it.  Of course, every painter’s process is different, and something one of us finds desirable is the opposite for another. If you like the textures you get with a stiffer, shorter paint, these are probably not for you. 

This is an initial review at this point; I’m sure other handling differences will be clearer as I use them in painting. This mainly addresses color, pigment load, general handling — things that are apparent quickly.

Here’s what I got.  The inner two columns are Vasari, outer two are homemade paint. In the Vasari swatches, the top section is a wiped glaze, the bottom is with added titanium white.  On the outer swatches, wiped glazes are smaller, to the upper-right of the swatch (not all have them).

    • French Ochre Havane – 40ml for $10.95. The Vasari version is a bit oranger and lighter in masstone than the Earth Pigments version, comparing favorably to my hand-made one, though mine tints nicely into an adobe color that works well for the desert, and has longer rheology.   This comparison shows the most difference between Vasari and unmulled Earth Pigments. I may mull mine in the future to try for a richer color, but I doubt if that will lighten the masstone!  I think these are just not the same pigment exactly.  Vasari’s Havane is close enough to their raw sienna that it could be made from that with a touch of red earth; I’m not sure it’s worth having both.  [Vasari version touch dry in a week in my hot climate]
    • French Raw Sienna, Natural – 40 ml for $10.95. Another lovely raw sienna that I have from Earth Pigments. It’s the most golden of the batch in glazes, a nice warmer compliment to Raw Sienna Light. My handmade paint holds up fine against Vasari, so I’ll keep making my own. [Touch dry in two days]
    • Raw Sienna – 40ml for $10.95 – Gunzorro (a Wetcanvas paint guru) raves about this color from Gunzorro.  It’s a strong, rich golden-orange version, the middle ground of the genre.  If raw sienna means orange glow to you, this is a good one. I don’t think it has the character of more unusual raw siennas, but it’s very nice.  It’s closest to my Daniel Smith raw sienna pigment, which is no longer available.  I find that my handmade paint holds up well against Vasari’s. [Touch dry in 2.5 days]
    • French Raw Sienna, Light – 40ml for $10.95 –  I’m really into raw sienna lately!  The Earth Pigments version is extremely useful to me; it’s kind of my current love affair in pigments. It’s the darkest of their siennas (why is it called Light?), a bit olive and brown in tone, in tints a lovely subtle green-gray, warmer in glazes.  As a mixer, it seems to make light colors more evocative and dark colors more realistic.  It’s been useful for both landscapes and portraits.  I love it!  The Vasari version is very nice and similar to mine in many ways, but it lacks the interesting thixotropic rheology of my paint.  I’m happy to make my own as long as the pigment is available.  No mulling is required to make a great color. [Touch dry in 2.5 days]
    • Italian Green Earth – “Terra Verde Ancienne” Genuine – 40ml for $20.95 –  This is an olive-brown color, transparent, with a smoky beauty that I like sometimes for landscapes.  It makes nice greenish grays in tints. When Vasari says “subtle in tints,” though, they mean really weak!  I think I could use a whole tube up on one painting. If you want it for subtle portrait cooling, maybe that would work, but for landscapes where you need a lot, forget it. My own version has a better pigment load and handles better than Vasari’s, which feels just slightly greasy to me and wipes off with the slightest touch.   Vasari’s version is just too weak and too expensive;  I’m sticking with Earth Pigments homemade. [Touch dry in one day]
    • Italian Green Earth – “Terra Verde Brentonico” Genuine – 40ml for $20.95 (on sale!) – I have the dry pigment from Earth Pigments and have found it useful.  It’s fairly strong as earth greens go,  and quite dark in masstone.  It needs to be mulled to bring out the subtle blue in tints (like a Nicosia green earth), but even without that I find it lovely.  My paint and Vasari’s are similar in covering power and handling, but Vasari’s is better for the bluish tint.  (The EP swatch has an unmulled strip, then mulled below.  Honestly I would save all the mulling work and add a touch of viridian. You’re probably sensing my love of mulling.)  Sorry I didn’t make a wiped sample of the EP paint; it compares well in the mulled version.  Earth Pigments no longer carries this color, so it’s nice to know it can be bought tubed, even if it’s expensive, but I’ll make my own as long as I can.  It can be bought from Canada’s or A pound costs less than a tube of Vasari.  [Touch-dry 2.5 days]
    • Italian Pozzuoli Red, Genuine – 40ml for $16.75 – a lovely and strong earth red color, especially in glazes where it has a warm orange glow.  I have since bought the pigment from Kremer, which holds up very well against Vasari’s;  Ercolano Red from Natural Pigments, my warmest earth red, is a similar color.   I’m quite happy with my Kremer version. [Touch dry in two days]

    Overall, I doubt if I will order more unless I end up unable to get some of these pigments, or if I come into a nice inheritance out of the blue. It’s good to know that my handmade paint compares well (for my purposes! Yours will differ).  Maybe it’s just that I can adjust it to suit me, but that’s the whole point.  I would definitely say that Vasari is quite superior to tube paint I have from Gamblin and Winsor Newton, which hold brushstrokes well (almost too aggressively) but have the slight waxy feel of additives. Once you feel how smooth and sensual a high quality tubed paint can be, you really notice these things.  I can definitely see how someone who has no interest in making paint would want to paint exclusively with Vasari if they can afford it.  But handmade paint can give you that great brushability, adjusted to your taste. (Okay, to be smooth like Vasari, you have to mull; I admit it.)  One note on cost: if you buy Series 1 Vasari earths on sale in the large tubes, the cost per ml is comparable to buying some mid-range brands in 37-40 ml tubes,. That’s the only way I would buy it in the future. Their more expensive colors remain much more costly even in the large tubes.

    There is one way that homemade paint is really superior, even to Vasari.  Tubed paint requires stabilizers to avoid separation, and even high end ones usually have a small amount.     Even a small amount extinguishes the distinctive character of some pigments in oil, particularly long, ropey rheology and even dilatancy.   You will never get a tubed ultramarine blue or Mars violet that can pull out into foot-long strings! I probably wouldn’t even be aware that pigments have these differences if I only used tube paints.  I find them fascinating, and a desirable part of the craft of painting. There are certainly painting styles in which they are not useful or desirable at all, but you can’t know if you like them unless you experience them.

    Update:  I’ve been doing some texture face-offs between different brands including Vasari and Blockx. One that wouldn’t hold texture at all is M. Graham. It’s known for its very loose consistency, and indeed texture just melted away. But I did an experiment of adding dry pigment (not additive but the matching pigment color) to the M. Graham paint until it could hold texture.  At that point, it was the closest to Vasari and BlockX of all the paints I tried. It was smooth, brushable, and held brush marks and edges well. There are other loose, melting paints like Sennelier that are good quality and might have similar results.  Perhaps that might be a poor artist’s compromise to get close to Cadillac paint without a lot of the work of making paint by hand.   I need to play around with this more; small sample size at this point.