Monday, March 23, 2009


Today I want to share information you should know when you go to buy those beautiful tubes of paints. This information applies to all paints -  watercolor, acrylic and oils, and will help you to determine whether you already have that color - but perhaps it is sold by a different name with a different manufacturer. This could save you time, money and frustration! AND this could help you to achieve those transparent effects you are after when you know what to look for in choosing among those many, many colors of paint tubes.


One of the first choices you will face is whether to buy  "Artist" or "Student"  quality of paint. Here you see Winsor & Newton's artist quality on the left, student quality on the right. They go by different names, as you can see. Student quality is cheaper, but the colors of the pigments are not as intense, concentrated or bright as the artist quality. You simply cannot achieve the same results with student grade. I have read over and over again, and I agree - if you can possibly afford it, paint with artist quality paint so that you are learning with your "choice" materials right away. Why learn with one grade, and then switch to a better grade and have to learn all over again? If you do that with both paint and paper, then you have just increased your learning time and frustration exponentially!  But if all you can afford is the student quality of paint, then you are still painting - and that is the main thing, right? Generally, student grade paints all cost the same amount per tube, no matter what color, while artist quality tubes are priced differently (see below).

There are many manufacturers of paint, and I probably have at least one or two tubes from at least 6 different companies. I have found that there are major differences in some of the colors, and very little difference in others. (Payne's Grey is one pigment that varies greatly  - so buy the small 5 ml. tubes to experiment with to determine which  you like best before investing in a larger tube.) 

In the above photo, you will see that each tube of paint has a series letter or series number or grade number. This indicates how expensive each tube will be. Series 1, Series A or Grade 1 is the cheapest, while you know you will be paying quite a bit for a tube of Series 4... so again - you can go with a tiny tube (5 ml.) to test the color, or see if it also comes in the student grade and try that instead.

Here you see some information which is important to you... lightfastness. Each tube of paint is rated for how well this color will retain its color over time when exposed to light. Some colors can fade, can get lighter, can darken, turn brown, or grey with time and exposure to light. This would mean that your painting could look vastly different just a few years after painting it - and this is NOT a good thing! 

Each maker of paint does their own internal testing for lightfastness, then submits their data results to either the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) or the SDC (Society of Dyers and Colourists). A panel of people then vote on whether to accept these test results, and the ratings submitted by the manufacturer. 

On a tube of paint, the number 1 generally indicates a high degree of lightfastness, but you could check each manufacturer's site to ensure that you understand their method of rating, and also check the above societies to see if their numbers agree with the paint manufacturer. Then you can assure your client that your painting will stand the test of time, and not fade away...

Another thing to check on your tube of paint is the pigment or color index (c.i.) classification. This tells you whether the paint is a single pigment or a combination of pigments.  If a tube is one pigment only, it will appear brighter on your paper or canvas. The more pigments used to create a color, the duller the color will generally be. This can be especially important when you are mixing colors, as you might actually be mixing up to 6 pigments just by combining 2 blobs of paint from 2 tubes. If you check the pigment numbers, you can determine if this is the same pigment as another tube of paint that goes by a different name. So, for example, if you see PB28, no matter whether it is called Sky Blue or Baby Blue or any other name, this is actually the color index number for "cobalt blue".

And last, but not least, your tube of paint should tell you whether the pigment is transparent or opaque. For now, we will define transparent as pigments which allow the white of the paper to shine through, are vibrant in appearance, and can be easily "lifted" from the paper if you need to remove them. There are semi-opaque and opaque pigments - which allow less of the white of the paper to show through, and can create dull, lifeless paintings if used on their own. In the weeks ahead, I will help you to understand how to build paintings using the semi-opaque and opaque paints to advantage.

Whew! This was a llllooonnnggggg posting - but I hope that when you go to make that major investment of one or more tubes of paint, you now can make a purchase based on information that will enable you to be wise, spend-thrifty, and knowledgeable in what you will be able to achieve with that particular color or pigment!

Please consider giving me feedback as to whether this was helpful to you, and whether you would like to read more postings on techniques and tips. If you prefer not to comment here, you can e-mail me at

Have a great week everyone - and may you get lots of painting done!


Kim said...

Wow. That's lots of good information. Have you thought of writing a how-to book? Your wealth of experience would be great bound into a book.

Michelle said...

Great tips! Learned a few tips today. Good photos too!

Kristin Summerlin said...

I'm not a painter, but I found this article fascinating. (Well, I should mention that I am interested in watercolors because I want to do watercolor enamels... But I haven't been active in my pursuit of it.) I agree with Kim that you should consider writing a book. This is incredibly useful knowledge and presented in an easily understood *and* thorough form.

Joanne said...

No Kim - I have not thought of writing a book... mostly because there are already so many that have this information available. :-) But, I thought it might be helpful if others would not have to search for this info- just come here to my site and find it in one spot.

Joanne said...

Thanks Michelle... when i was reading, I found that I didn't know what some of the information on a tube of paint meant. Now I do - and you too!

Joanne said...

Thanks, Kristin! Keep checking back if you want to learn more - hopefully any posts on watercolor techniques and tips will give you more useful info! Thanks for your visit!

Anonymous said...

This is like the Cliff Notes of everything you ever needed to know to demystify ( haha ) The de Vinci code of cryptic tube markings.

Even the photos of the tubes look like still life set ups.

A very generous gift to your readers- thank you!

theresamillerwatercolors said...

I enjoyed reading this - very informative!

Joanne said...

Bonnie, You are hilarious! A little over the top in this post, but didn't want to drag it on over weeks, nor miss anything! Thanks for reading through all of it. :-)

Joanne said...

Hi Theresa,
Hopefully the time you spent reading was worthwhile. Thanks for slugging through it all!