A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 3- So What Should I Buy?

 
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Artist and Student Grade Brands-

There are a variety of artist-grade brands, and the truth is that despite the fact that they’re not all the same (pigments often handle differently or have a gently different hue in one brand versus another) they’re all, generally speaking, excellent. Daniel Smith is great, and Winsor Newton too. DaVinci, M. Graham, Holbein, and Sennelier are excellent too. Don’t worry too much on that account.

Each has a reputation for certain handling characteristics or brand details, with some grain of truth to the generalizations. Winsor Newton is more expensive, but the quality is almost always good and it can be found almost anywhere globally. M. Graham and Sennelier both use honey, and are goopier and runnier than other brands- they work very well in a studio but can cause sometimes problems in the field because they’re so gooey and active in the palette. Holbein uses a different kind of dispersant and tends to be more inert wet-into-wet. On and on. Many experienced artists often mix and match pigments between brands, as they come to prefer the characteristics of this or that specific pigment by a specific brand. There are no issues with doing that.

So, what about student grade paints?

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Historically, student-grade paints often featured both fugitive pigments and tubes that are less densely pigmented than their artist-grade counterparts. This is part of why they cost less. That is changing though. Two good quality student grade brands that I have experience with are Cotman’s (which is Winsor Newton’s student brand) and Van Gogh. Both currently feature generally lightfast pigments that are (yes) less densely pigmented than an artist-grade counterpart of the same pigment. However, it is worth saying that there are all kinds of student grade brands out there, and many of them are of highly varying quality. You’ve got to, oddly, know more about your paints to make sure you’re looking at an off-brand student grade paint, to make sure they’re lightfast, single pigment, etc. Many aren’t. But a big brand name, like Cotmans as an example, is generally very good these days (compared to the reputation they had, say, 20-30 years ago), and easier to buy without as much research or fretting.

Many beginners understandable purchase cheaper student-grade paints. However, general advice is often that students should learn with artist-grade paints as early as possible, as the more densely pigmented artist-grade tubes can handle differently. This is true, in my opinion. Artist-grade pigments also often provide a richness and vibrancy to color application that can be difficult at times to achieve with student paints. As such, there can be a frustrating re-learning phase when a student switches over. But is it essential to use Artist Grade paints? Absolutely not. Are there some professional artists that use lightfast student grade paints, and make great work? For sure. Nothing is really dogmatic on this.

Having said that, my advice is to buy the best quality paints that you can. It’s better to purchase a smaller range of artist-grade colors in the beginning (distributed judiciously around the color wheel), than to buy a whole bunch of student grade paints that you’ll eventually discard or move on from. Still, even then, if one is just beginning to dabble in watercolors and is feeling frugal, I would recommend Cotman’s and Van Gogh as the best quality low-cost student-grade paints I have personal experience with. It’s cheapest to buy from an art store (online or in person) like Dick Blick, Cheap Joe’s, or Jerry’s Artarama. Common “craft” stores charge a premium for pigments.


Tubes versus Pans-

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Every once in a while, I get asked about this. What can I say? Every artist has a personality and approach, and, to me, it’s a clear recommendation for tubes.

The primary benefits of tubes are two-fold, as I see it. First, it’s far cheaper per ml of paint to buy things in tubes than it is in pans. Secondly, my experience is that its far easier to get rich juicy applications of color when you’re working from fresh blobs of paint from the tube. Some companies state that they put some sort of special humectant in their pans to make them rewet better than tube paints, but experientially, spritzing tube paints in a palette has been fine for me and many other far-more-well known painters out there.

The real benefit of pans, as I see it, is that they’re interchangeable and they’re hyper portable. When you squeeze out your paints into your palette from a tube, you’re sort of stuck with that paint in that well for a while. This is true. Tube paints can also get messy. Sometimes they move around in the palette a bit, particularly after painting when everything has gotten pretty moist. That’s a bummer, for sure. Pans are hard and compact and tend to stay put. So there are some logistical arguments to be made in favor of pans if you’re doing plein air work (although I still use tubes for plein air work, myself), but for studio painting… I can’t see why one wouldn’t just use tubes, all the time.

However, if you’re really interested in pans, I would suggest buying the little empty cubes and filling them up with tube paint and letting them dry, instead of buying the pre-filled ones. Like this-

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Then, voila- you have hard, portable, interchangeable pan options made using the cheaper tube paint. You have to buy a palette that allows this can of “snapping in” ability, but they’re out there. Here’s a link.

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This is a video on the subject-

I’ve read of artists who swear by this ability, so it’s a real thing. It seems awfully finicky to me!! LOL. But to each their own. :) However, it is worth saying that I understand that functionality and have an alternate means of switching up my palette for special subjects. I keep a little ziplock baggie in my backpack with alternate paints in it that I use only now and then. I squeeze out a little into the far side of my palette, in the big mixing area, and wipe them away later when I’m done with that subject. This approach is much like the benefit of having the “snap in” pans. So, it’s not like the issue isn’t real.

Even then, most pans, even the full-sized ones, are smaller than I want them to be. I like to use big brushes, and I don’t like to have to dig around in the well for paint. This is another minor but true selling point for using tube paints in palettes with bigger wells, versus using pans. But all in all, these are the personal elements of painting. Can interesting images be painted from a small palette with little ½ pans of paint? Of course! If you’re using good, lightfast pigments, the rest of these sorts of logistical details are often dictated by personal preference and style.


My Current Brand of Choice-

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For what it’s worth, I currently use American Journey paints when possible. Research suggests they are a rebranded version of DaVinci paints, marketed under the Cheap Joe’s label. They are lightfast, well pigmented, handle nicely, and are significantly cheaper per ml and come in huge 35 ml tubes. This is great when you know what you want and you want a lot of it. It’s bad for testing small quantities. The other major issue is that you can only get them online through Cheap Joe’s. If you are traveling and run out while far from home, you’re out of luck. For those who need an alternate good brand to pick up, I suggest Daniel Smith, Winsor Newton, or DaVinci, as all three tend to be well made and widely available.

Final Workshop of the 2018 Season- Continuing Wet-Into-Wet Watercolors

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Just a quick post today to let people know that my final workshop of the season is coming around next week. It’s going to fun, playful, and intensive! If you’d like to join in, sign up through Arts Benicia, here-

https://artsbenicia.org/continuing-with-wet-into-wet-landscapes/

The class is Th, Fri, Sat., October 11-13th, 930-330

Tuition is 295$

In this Continuing class, we delve deeper into how we think about painting. As always, we’ll be playing with some wet-into-wet techniques, but we’ll also be practicing techniques to help us bond shapes together and simplify our paintings. The goal is to learn how to break the subject into layers so you can control your edges and values. By the third day, the aim is to get people painting atleast a bit from their own images, and not just to be copying my demos. It’s the “thinking about it” that will really get you over the hump and into painting your own work— not technique.

Levels of experience vary, and thus the focus of the workshop shifts for everyone, but this isn’t an Intro class, so some previous knowledge of wet-into-wet work is presumed.

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 2- Reading Labels

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How to Read a Pigment Label-

Pigment Naming Systems-

Pigments are labeled in three ways- with a common or marketing name, an alpha-numeric system, and with a more scientific “pigment name”.  As the marketing name can vary from brand to brand dramatically, it can either be very useful (if it follows a historic precedent) or could mean almost nothing (if it’s very poetic).  However, the alpha-numeric naming system is always consistent and is essential to understanding the type of pigment you are buying.  This is one of the most important things to pay attention to when buying paint. The scientific/ chemical naming of pigments is also very reliable, but often more difficult to remember or understand. 

Even then, pigments are manufactured in various ways and with various types of binders, depending on each brand name.  As such, this means that even pigments that have the same alpha-numeric pigment code don’t necessarily handle or look exactly the same.  They will be similar, but individuated, with each brand’s version of a pigment having a slightly different hue and/or handling characteristics.

“Hues”-

Sometimes, the marketing name will feature the word “Hue”, along with the common historical name, such as “Cobalt Blue Hue”.  This indicates that the tube features a prearranged combination of (generally cheaper) pigments to arrive at a similar hue to the “primary” name.  The issue is that these mixtures almost never handle the same way as the single pigment does.  For mixing purposes, it is almost always better to purchase the single pigment.  This is one of the reasons why we always look at the alpha-numeric pigment name, and not the marketing name.

Letters and Numbers-

Somewhere on each tube or pan should be an alpha-numeric label.  It’s important to know how to read it.  Many labels will feature the marketing name combined with a tag that has the alpha-numeric pigment name, such as “Cadmium Yellow (PY35)”.  The pigment numbering system will always have a “P” (for pigment), atleast 1 additional letter (such as Y for yellow, Br for Brown, O for orange, R for red, V for violet, B for blue, G for green, etc.) and a number.  Each pigment in a color category gets a special number, only used for that pigment.  Thus, you always know, for example, that you’re getting Ultramarine Blue when you purchase PB29, or Viridian when you get PG18, regardless of mild brand variances.  If the label features more than one letter-number combination, then you know you are getting a multi-pigment mixture in that tube, and that may cause issues later on when you’re actually painting.  It’s good to know, and I generally (though not always) avoid multi-pigment tubes.

Lightfastness Ratings-

Unfortunately, this can be a little vague, as the labeling process varies from company to company.  Winsor Newton, for example, has a “Permanence” rating which is positioned prominently, with AA (the best), A, B, etc., but it’s unclear exactly how the rating is achieved or what it means.

Alternately, Winsor Newton also has a “Lightfastness” rating which is much less prominently placed, on the side of their tubes where it’s hard to see.  This label follows a consistent testing process run by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), and has a labeling system from 1-5, with 1 representing excellent lightfastness.  Many other brands follow a similar rating method, such as Daniel Smith and M Graham, where the system is 1-4, with 1 still being the best.  This is, in my mind, the number to look out for.

Still, other Artist Grade brands use other systems, some of it depending on where they are made globally.  For example, Holbein has a three star system, with 1 star being the worst and 3 stars being best.  How is it achieved?  I don’t know?  Are there standards they use in Japan to arrive at these ratings?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it exists somewhere, but it’s hard to find the info.  This gives me pause about using a lot of Holbein paints, even though many of them really may be perfectly fine.

What do I do then?  Stick to brands I know, that have an ASTM label or something an alternate rigorous system, and stick to pigments I know.  And, of course, I skip the worst offenders- Alizarin crimson, Rose madder, Aureolin, Opera Rose.  Those are the biggies.  But if I do buy a new pigment, I’m always hunting for the ASTM label, and I’m always looking up results on handprint.com or elsewhere. 

If you’re interested in reading about Lightfastness testing and ratings, you can find out a lot here-

https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/pigmt6.html#lightfast

If others care to share more info in the comments, please do.  I’m happy to gather additional new info.

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 1

 
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In anticipation of my upcoming mini-workshop on "Exploring Color for Watercolorists" (a shameless plug if there ever was one!), I've been writing up this primer.  Students will get it all next week, of course, at the class, but over the next few weeks I'll also be sharing it all with you here as well.

This primer is meant as a tool to help fellow artists understand some of the basic physical properties of watercolor pigments and how they are labeled for purchase, with the goal of creating more informed buyers and painters.  The way watercolor paints are physically constituted affects the way they act, both when wet and when dry.  It’s mildly technical, but this can be very helpful knowledge when we paint with them and, of course, when we buy them!

I’ve broken things down into three sections.  The first is a basic introduction to the physical properties of pigments.  The second goes over labeling practices so we can decode what we are buying!  And the third section features my personal opinions on purchasing paint- Student versus Artist grade paints, brands, etc. and my current, idiosyncratic list of pigments (with some alternates listed as well).  Based on an understanding of sections one and two, folks should be better able to assess some of the reasons why I use the paints I do in section three.

 

Physical Characteristics of Pigments-

 

How Watercolor Pigments Work Physically-

 
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Pigments are made up of dry colored powder that is carried in a binder.  A “binder” is a substance that holds the dry powder of the pigment together.  Different mediums use different binders, and each binder dictates the handling, drying, and “suspending” attributes of that specific medium.  The binder used for a pigment is one of the most important elements of what makes a specific medium itself.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder for watercolors, and unlike the viscous binders used for Arcylics or Oils (which permanently suspend the pigment particles inside of themselves) binders used in watercolors disperse when applied with water. 

Once applied, watercolor pigment is then held in suspension, using the water as a vehicle for movement.  As the water evaporates the particles of pigment remain, which sink into the fibers of the paper.  This process affects all kinds of crazy stuff- how we apply paint, how we make washes, how we work we-into-wet, what kind of paint we buy, etc etc.

 

Drying Shift-

 the in-process wet version

the in-process wet version

 the slightly paler and less chromatic dry version

the slightly paler and less chromatic dry version

Pigments generally look more vibrant when wet than they do in a dry completed painting.  This is called a drying shift.  I actually did a whole post on this in the Spring.  This occurs because pigment particles refract light differently when seen through the lens of the water than they do after having sunk into the fibers of the drying paper.  Drying shifts can be expressed through a loss of value, a loss of chroma (aka vibrancy), or a shift in hue (aka color).  As has been said before, “If it’s right when you’re painting it, then it’s not right.”  Given the physical nature of how watercolor works, you need to expect and anticipate drying shifts of some sort or another.

 

Lightfast and Fugitive Paints-

 what we now see on the left, versus the artist's original vision on the right

what we now see on the left, versus the artist's original vision on the right

Some pigments are “fugitive,” and over time (sometimes in as little as a year or two!) they can become paler and/or duller if left in the sun- even reflected, indoor sunlight.  Yellows can become brown, reds become pink, etc.  I did a post about this last year, featuring many Van Goghs, but you don’t have to be famous for this to affect you too!  A number of well-known historically-used pigments, such as Alizarin Crimson and Aureolin Yellow, are notorious for this, and it is this fact which has affected the public perception of watercolors as a transient medium.  With the currently available range of pigments, it’s entirely possible (and in fact quite easy) to paint images that will last for hundreds of years, using only what are called “lightfast” pigments. 

Outside of some notable exceptions, most yellows and oranges are lightfast.  Earth colors are almost always lightfast.  Almost all blues and greens are as well.  However, many fugitive pigments are in the red, magenta and purple color families, and in this color range you still have to be very selective in your choices.  In the third section, I’ll provide a list of lightfast pigments to choose from, and note various common fugitive pigments to avoid.

 

Pigment Handling Characteristics

Like us, different pigments have different personalities.  You can have two different pigments that happen to share the same hue, and yet… they can give you quite different results on the paper.  It’s the pigment that matters, not the hue!  You can even have two tubes of paint that are the same pigment but different brands, and even they can act somewhat differently.  How the paint is made (is it extra finely milled? What kind of dispersant does it use?) can affect its handling characteristics. 

There are, in my mind, 5 basic characteristics we can use to describe pigments- are they Staining, Transparent, Opaque, Granulating, or Active Wet-Into-Wet?  Or some combination of them?  This section is, by far, the hardest to nail down, but really the one that affects us the most while painting.  The goal is not just to label the paints as this or that, Opaque or Transparent, etc, but rather to build an awareness of the ways in which our paints act, so that we can intentionally play to their strengths or ease into their weaknesses.  Sometimes, you have to know what to look for, before you can begin to see it, right?

Each handling characteristic has its time and place when it can be of use, and different types of pigments play to different approaches to painting.  One type is not “bad” and another “good”.  Rather, much depends on how you paint, and the types of handling characteristics an artist wants may change over the course of their painting career as their tastes change and develop.

Codifying things can helpful, but please pardon the generalities I make in the descriptions below-

Pigments that are very finely ground (which can settle deeply into the fibers of the paper) are generally Staining and Transparent.  Often times the two go hand in hand.  Many modern pigments fall into this category. 

Other pigments are considered Opaque.  They tend to have “covering power”.  They can leave a glaucous cast when washed over other layers with too thick an application, and tend to achieve a dense covering consistency with greater ease than Transparent paints.

Granulating pigments are made up of a combination of particle sizes, which separate out as they settle down into the paper.

Active pigments travel rapidly when charged into a wet wash.  Many modern, finely milled pigments are also very Active wet-into-wet.  Inert pigments tend to stay put when you put them in a wash.  Many are also mildly Opaque.

It’s also worth saying that many of these characteristics have a lot to do with how you dilute and apply the pigment.  For sure, if you mix a Transparent pigment up into a thick, milky consistency, they’ll eventually get opaque.  Similarly, you can take an Opaque pigment, dilute it with water in a big wet wash, and end up with a perfectly fine transparent application.  Again, apply an Active pigment with a small, thirsty, nylon brush and it won’t spread much at all.  On and on it goes.  The goal is not to be “trapped” by the handling characteristics of our pigments, but rather to understand them enough that we can anticipate the personality of each pigment before we apply it.

 

Characteristics of Common Families of Pigments-

This is a simple list to help aide one in the understanding of pigment categories, by name.  I wish I had had this when I began, and it took some time (on my own) to learn the basic, common attributes of different “families” of pigments.

Cadmiums are lightfast yellows, oranges, and reds that are semi-opaque when applied thickly, but are transparent when diluted.  It is an old pigment group with larger particles that is “heavy” and doesn’t move very much when applied wet-into-wet.  They are mildly toxic if ingested in large quantities.  Whether this is a real-world issue in practice is up for debate.

Perylenes are a modern pigment group, in the green to red range of colors. They are, as far as I know, very lightfast.  They are a muted pigment group, featuring deep, dark hues that are commonly used to mute other mixes.

Quinacridones are warm in hue, and are mostly reds, magentas, and purples.  They are a finely ground modern set of pigments, and often aggressively disperse when applied wet-into-wet.  They are lightfast.

Cobalts are lightfast greens, blues, and purples.  It’s an old pigment group that is granulating and “heavy”.  They are mildly inert wet-into-wet and are semi-opaque or “cloudy” when applied thickly.

Pthalos are very lightfast greens and blues.  It’s a modern group, is finely ground, and is very active wet-into-wet.  Pthalos are highly staining.