Well, here's the thing, the student grade paints (Sakura Koi pans) were actually pretty decent and I was quite happy with them until I encountered the Winsor & Newton artist pan set. I happened to get a deal on it, which is nice, but the quality and feel of the paints really are better. So, now I use the W&N artist paints and since then I've stuck to artist grade materials for my work. Its not that I'll be producing the next MoMA showpiece, but if you have to fight your materials, I don't think you'll enjoy it as much.
However, I'm well aware that not everyone can afford artist grade paints, they aren't cheap, but I have a couple of suggestions...
- Amazon wishlist. Amazon then, basically does price watching for you, so you can get notified when there is a sale on items in your wishlist and buy then. I save $110 on Derwent Inktense pencils by getting them at half price this way. You may need some patience, but it's an option.
- Go after the upper end of the student grade. Sakura Koi's student grade is really very good and with the half pans, you can start to replace the student colour with artist grade one by one as you can afford to buy a pan or a tube and you use up the student colour.
- Let people know what colours you want... Spread across many, the cost of paints is pretty cheap when it comes to birthdays and other gift giving events. :) Sets are a big initial outlay, but building your set from individual pans or tubes over time spreads the cost.
One place you should not compromise when it comes to student vs artist is in the paper. When it comes to wet media, the performance difference between the two can be dramatic and if you learn on cheap paper, going to artist grade will be like starting anew. If you can't afford the pads or books, go for single sheets, as large as you can afford, and cut them up. The water absorption is the key difference, the cheaper options will drink the water on you and make it very difficult to do wet-in-wet techniques, amongst others.
That's just my take on it. I was sort of thinking about it because I gave a niece, who is an art fanatic, some supplies the other day and realized that she's been slowly building a good collection of artist grade material for a bit.