On Watercolor Palettes: Choosing Paints (2 of 6)

On Watercolor Palettes: Choosing Paints (2 of 6)


In this article we’re going to talk a bit more about the considerations of choosing our actual paints. We’re going to talk about pigments, paint composition and paint market, which should help us select the best paints for our palette.

Paint Market

The paint market is a mess. It is what it is and we, as consumers, have to educate ourselves in order to successfully navigate and see through the many marketing tricks, half truths or simply inconsistencies that are going to mislead us along the way. It is a market after all, and so we are made to believe what may not be in our best interest. Terms like “Artist’s quality” don’t necessarily mean anything. Not that that’s a rule, but it may be wise to get to know our materials, so we can judge what’s happening with insight and understanding. Even if you’re a veteran artist using the same paints for decades, there may come time that manufacturers switch their pigment suppliers or adjust their paint composition. The reasons may or may not be influenced by bad business practice, but in either case the change poses a problem if you’re not familiar with what’s going on in the market place and your tube of paint. The prudent thing to do, therefore, is to try and understand how paint is made and marketed. Then you can make an informed decision when selecting your paints.

Of course, our own personal preference comes into play here as well. We are creatures of habit, after all, because we find comfort in what we know. But unfortunately this can be very easily exploited by a clever marketing team. Some paint names today are straight out misleading or just not very helpful at all. Terms like Primary Red, Brilliant Orange, or a more crazy Duochrome Hibiscus or Ornamental Red sound all cool but they tell you nothing about the actual paint, however pleasant your association with their name may be. Some paints, on the other hands, have a more “standardized” names that are used across brands, such as Phthalo Blue, pretty much all Cadmiums, Cobalts, etc. Some manufacturers keep their naming very conservative across the whole line, such as Winsor & Newton (with the exception of their “Winsor” colors and a few others), others go wild with their naming, as is obvious in American Journey. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s fun. But it’s only fun when you know what you’re actually buying.

I want to say, however, that I’m not criticizing any one brand and their practices. I really don’t. I personally love American Journey and if I could, I would use their paints exclusively. However, were I not educated and aware of the individual paint’s composition, I would have a hard time making sense of their offerings.

Paint Composition & Additives

Paints are made of pigment and vehicle. There may be some additives but that mostly depends on the individual manufacturer. No additives are actually necessary to make a watercolor paint, unlike oil paint, for example. Paint is made by grinding pigment into a fine powder and dispersing it in a vehicle. The fineness of the pigment grind plays a big role in the quality of the paint. The vehicle used in watercolor paints is Gum Arabic. The “solvent” we use with watercolors is simply water, because Gum Arabic and water work well together. The most common additive we see in watercolor paints is honey. Manufacturers like Sennelier or M. Graham use honey to keep their paint moist on our palettes. This may be a great concept but it doesn’t always work. I learned the hard way. Let me explain.

Honey is supposed to absorb water from the atmosphere and keep the paint workable even after days, perhaps weeks on the palette. I have extensive experience with M. Graham paints and I have to say it works! However, whether this is a good or a bad thing depends entirely on you and the way you use your paint. There is no one size fits all. I can say that using paint with honey in them is really a bad idea when you paint on Yupo, for example. Since Yupo is basically a plastic, not paper, the honey never really absorbs into the surface and dries. Unless you paint very very thinly the concentration of honey may cause problems. One time I stacked up my fully dried (or so I thought) Yupo paintings one over another when I was getting them ready to be photographed. When I went back to photograph them they were stuck to each other, almost glued together with my honey paints. My application of the paints wasn’t as heavy as you might expect either.

Another example would be a very thick application of paint, such as the example below (notice the upper lip).

Painting by Daniel Novotny
Painting by Daniel Novotny – Detail

I find that when using paints with honey, the best results are achieved with traditional watercolor techniques, meaning your washes are substantially diluted with water and applied on a sheet of watercolor paper. Despite these examples being slightly on the extreme side, I believe paint should not pose restrictions on the way you work. It should serve you to realize your vision. And that’s another reason to educate yourself about the materials you use.

The way the manufacturers make their paints can differ greatly. Additives, pigment concentration and pigment grind all influence how using the paint feels. Consistency of the paint is a personal matter. Some really enjoy the creaminess of the M. Graham paints, others really enjoy the more thick and dryish consistency of other brands. There’s really nothing wrong with either, the important thing is to notice the difference and choose paints that match your preference.

Pigment Load, Pigment Pricing & Tinting Strength

Closely related to paint composition is pigment load. Pigment load is the ratio of pigment to Gum Arabic which then directly influences yield of the paint. There are companies that made it their policy to provide as much pigment per tube as possible. Others realize that this is their opportunity to save and make two tubes instead of one with the same amount of pigment. Gum Arabic is relatively cheap, what we really pay for is the pigment. That’s why there are usually four price categories when you buy paints, Cobalts or Cadmiums being the most expensive while simple Iron Oxide earth colors are the cheapest. The best companies in this respect, offering the most pigment per tube are in my experience M. Graham and American Journey/Da Vinci (AJ is Cheap Joe’s brand, made by Da Vinci, a US based paint manufacturer). These are worth every penny. After these two comes closely Winsor & Newton, they are also very well made with a pretty high pigment load but the price goes dramatically up. On the other end of the spectrum, my experience indicates that the worst brand of paints I have used to date is Turner Artists’ Water Colours. This is a newcomer to the market and their policy seems to be low price/low value. Of course, there are some exceptions in every brand’s line, some paints may be more or less concentrated than the rest. But these are general guidelines based on my experience. I personally love Turner’s Sepia because it is not a stingy paint, for example, and it offers good value for money. But the majority of the paints I have tried from them lacked pigment severely.

There is one more consideration I’d like to talk about in relation to pigment load. Some pigments have more tinting strength than others. Some staining paints such as Phthalocyanines are so strong that you really need to use very little of them because they overpower other colors very easily. You need to take this into consideration as well. Cobalt Violet, on the other hand, is so weak that it almost cannot be used on its own regardless of the brand you use. These are inherent properties of the individual pigments. You’ve got to learn to distinguish these characteristics through practice and separate them from an actual poorly made/performing paint.

Pigment Codes & Single Pigment Paints

Now that we understand what to look for in a paint, how do we go about selecting our paints? We read the labels! It is the pigment codes that matter. There’s just so many pigments in the world. Currently there’s around 80 pigments made. And so what does it mean if a company offers 120+, 130+ color selection? That’s right, they offer their own pre-mixed colors. Their own proprietary blends that then get names like Peachy Keen or Shell Pink. These are not single pigment paints but a mix of two or more pigments. The way to recognize this is to learn to read pigment codes. Pigment codes tell you clearly what pigments were used to make any particular paint. Let’s see why this is important and why it is a good practice to focus on single pigment paints.

Reading pigment codes is really very simple. The codes go like this: PB15, PV19, PY150, etc. The P stands for pigment, the next letter designates color, such as Blue, Violet, Yellow and the number specifies the particular pigment in that color family. These codes are standardized, which means that they are, for the most part, going to be consistent across manufacturers, although subtle differences may occur due to the source of the pigment.

Two Sennelier PB15:3 Paints

Once we can read pigment codes, we can judge for ourselves the paints that are offered to us. On the example above, both paints use Pigment Blue 15:3. Phthalocyanine Blue (left) is a single pigment paint but Cinereous Blue (right) is nothing more than the same Pigment Blue 15:3 with the addition of Pigment White 4. In this case they added white to lighten the tonal value of the paint as well as made it more opaque. And this practice is not necessarily bad. You may find that you like to use opaque blue in certain situation and you don’t have to have white on your palette to accomplish that. But when selecting our core palette, it’s necessary for us to understand what’s happening. Having Cinereous Blue as our primary blue would result in difficulties with mixing our washes, because we’d be mixing blue pigment 15:3, white pigment 4 with another paint on our palette that too contains one or more pigments. And we simply cannot expect a clean and transparent mix when it contains white.

For the purest mix we want to limit the amount of pigments we mix together. Purest mix is always going to result from combining two compatible pigments (compatibility refers to the problem of warm/cool primaries as discussed in the previous article). As soon as you start adding more pigments, the mix starts to lose purity. Using two single pigment paints will provide much more predictable and consistent results regardless of the brand that you use. When you use proprietary pre-mixed paints, your results will be inconsistent when you switch brands and most likely, you won’t be able to find similarly pre-mixed paint in another brand.

Now some paints you may find very exceptional and disregard of this rule is in place. I have one such color, Mint Julep by American Journey, which is the mix of PG7, PY3 and PW6. This is a rather complex paint that doesn’t play well with others but when used sparingly and with intent it works perfectly well. But your core palette – the paints that you use for painting the majority of your paintings – should be well thought-out and as straightforward as possible.


Paints and pigments are tested by the ASTM for permanence. Probably everyone agrees that the more durable the paint the better. Collectors certainly appreciate when the artist takes into consideration that the life of their painting only begins when it leaves their studio.

Pigments have various amounts of durability. UV light is the main culprit in affecting the durability of the paints. Of course, all paints that are sold today should be durable enough when the paintings made with them are displayed properly. But that’s not always the case. I’ve heard from artists with decades of experience that they never noticed their paintings losing color, despite the low lightfastness rating of some of their favorite paints. In my opinion, however, it is a responsibility of the artist to make sure their work is as durable as possible. This is especially true for watercolor painting, which is much more prone to fading than oil or acrylic. The pigment is usually applied on the paper very thinly and so even a minimal fading shows relatively easily. The paper as well is not as durable a support as a canvas or plywood is.

I therefore always try to select paints with excellent lightfastness rating. Paints that are fugitive don’t have a place on my palette. Though they may be fascinating and very pretty, I cannot bring myself to use them and then sell the work.

Final tips

Selecting one’s paints can be quite the undertaking. Free market is a place that may not be the best source of information. You need to consult external sources to make sense of the way things work. Paint manufacture also doesn’t have a set of strict standards that would make paints consistent across brands. And so I hope this series of articles is going to be of help to you when selecting your paints. Hopefully it’s going to help you navigate through the paint market and select your paints with confidence. Here’s some final tips to help you out along the way.

  • Don’t get fooled by pretty names and beautiful colors. You can mix any color you want as long as you understand your paints. Just as multiple pigment paints lose their power the more pigments they contain, you lose your power over your color by using them.
  • Study the composition of the paints, the ingredients and additives. If you like the concept of paint with honey, make sure it won’t be counter-intuitive to your painting procedure.
  • Paints with high pigment load will provide better value because one tube will last you much longer than one with low pigment load. Your colors will also be stronger.
  • Learn to read pigment codes. Pigment Violet 19, Pigment Blue 36, etc.
  • Single pigment paints are the best bet for your core palette and general mixing.
  • If you’re interested in exploring a new brand, try their version of one of the single pigment primaries that you know and use, such as Phthalocyanine Blue PB15:3. It will likely be marketed under different name but the pigment should be the same. Then you can judge how the brand makes their paint, how is their pigment load and paint consistency and how do you like it.
  • Always try to notice the lightfastness rating. The rating is there for a reason and the more modern the pigments, the more durable they are in general. It is our responsibility to take care of our Patrons even after we pass our work on to them.
  • Experiment, experiment and experiment some more! Quantity over quality again. Try, explore, don’t fear. It’s just paint and paper. Have fun and try everything you can. Widen your horizons, benefit your paintings, enrich your life!

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
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  1. Russell

    Hi Daniel. Great article as always. I’d like to mention a website to your viewers that will allow them to do research on the colors and paint codes. Its… http://www.artiscreation.com/Color%20of%20Art.html
    It cross references by both pigment color and brand, along with other useful info.

    1. Hi Russell,
      thank you very much. Excellent resource, thanks for the link. I will include it in the “conclusion” article.

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