pigments, paints & papers

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball – In this exceptionally well written book, science writer Philip Ball makes the case that painting techniques and artistic styles have evolved in response to advances in the science and technology of artist's pigments (the raw materials of color). His theme is that artists can only use the pigments that technology makes possible: the Fauves did not set out to revolutionize art theory, but to take advantage of breakthroughs in industrial color chemistry. Across history, it was not artistic vision but scientific discoveries, growing art markets and industrial commerce that set the course for new kinds of painting.

In this revisionist version of Western art history, Ball doesn't lose track of the cultural threads of the story. He explores the class distinctions, religious symbolisms and fashion fads that raised the prestige of certain pigments, the role of art guilds and alchemists in developing new painting methods, the economic influence of art patrons and modern art markets, and in particular the role of commerce and consumerism as the economic engine for pigment innovation. Thus, the European "mauve decade" arose from consumer demand for the first aniline dyes, introduced in the 1850's. Within each major art historical period, he links the availability of new pigments to new artistic practices, from the Renaissance (Botticelli and Titian) to the modern age (Cézanne, Kandinsky and Klee). He concludes with a chapter subtitled "Color as Form in Modernism," which argues that advances in color science have transformed color from a decorative role to become one of the fundamental themes of modern art.

Ball intelligently discusses many background topics to his main story. An introductory chapter on the science of color vision does a masterful job of making the perception and measurement of color easy to understand. Because print media are the way in which most of us encounter most great paintings, Ball surveys the history and methods of color reproduction, from color prints to color photography and computer monitors. Another chapter, titled "Time the Painter," explains the chemical changes in pigments across time and the dicey problems of picture restoration. Ball even tracks historical confusions in the naming of colors and pigments, which arose in the vagueness of ancient languages and the obscurities of alchemy, and are perpetuated today by modern marketing practices and the ignorance of most artists. In several places he disparages "color theorists" (such as Faber Birren and Johannes Itten) who pontificate about color without understanding its material origins, and mentions with regret painters (such as Joshua Reynolds and Vincent Van Gogh) who used pigments and binders with complete disregard for their permanence.

Although his narrative is choppy at times, and clearly relies on the expertise of English curators, as well as color experts John Gage and Max Dörner, Ball describes the painter as a craftsman rather than a visionary, and painting as more a product of social and technological forces than of garreted inspiration. Ball is not interested to play trumpet in the march of science. He hopes that painters, by learning the amazing history of their craft, will choose to use their materials with better care and intelligence, and put modern technology to good use. A superb book for any painter.  

Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints by Hilary Page – The only reliable guide to watercolor paints — besides my guide to watercolor pigments — and a model of patient and careful research. Though it is no longer current for rapidly innovating or recently revamped paint brands (such as Daler-Rowney, Maimeri, Holbein or Daniel Smith), and it omits Utrecht and Cheap Joe's paints and most interference (luminescent) paints, I'd guess that around 60% of the paint reviews are still accurate. (Page has an online update page with additions to the paint guide, and has reviewed interference paints on the Daniel Smith site.)

The clean, compact design presents 12 paint swatches per page, over 1300 tested paints in all, organized by major color categories. Each color chapter opens with a brief historical review of the color, followed by single paragraph comments on the origins, history and chemistry of each of the pigments currently used for that color in watercolor paints. In her ratings Page sometimes adds comments on a paint's staining power, opacity, handling wet in wet, and (of course) lightfastness, with additional comments on ingredients or toxicity as appropriate. Page provides both her own and the manufacturer lightfastness rating for each paint, along with an overall rating based on lightfastness, color quality and handling attributes.

The book opens with a concise discussion of paintmaking, including its history and current methods, with advice on issues such as paint toxicity, lightfastness, and color mixing. The appendices provide pigment color reflectance curves and a table of technical data on all pigments. There is also a convenient index of the paint marketing names listed under each manufacturer.

Page has done her work with remarkable care. I had discovered in my own paint tests that MaimeriBlu cobalt violet is actually a mixture of two pigments and is not "cobalt phosphate PV14" as claimed on the tube and in the manufacturer's brochure. (Let the mixed paint sit in a palette well overnight: a cobalt blue sludge separates from a pink quinacridone broth.) To my delight, I found that Page had noticed and reported this fact too.

She has also actually done the onerous labor of lightfastness testing on all the paints she reviews, using the changes in the dye colors on a specially made fabric card (the "blue wool" standard) to measure the amount of sunlight the paint samples received. Although low tech, this is a reasonably trustworthy test sanctioned by the ASTM. This is the major point of difference with the Michael Wilcox paint guide: Wilcox merely reprints whatever test results the manufacturers imposed on him, or uncritically passes on the generic pigment rating from the ASTM. Page identifies several cases where the manufacturer and even the ASTM ratings seem incorrect — and it's interesting to notice that this happens more frequently with some manufacturers than others.

The most obvious shortcoming? Across the many color categories, Page inconsistently and confusingly handles the simple problem of distinguishing "colors" from individual pigments. In some cases ("viridian," "cobalt blue"), all the paints in the category use only the named pigment, and imitation colors ("viridian hue," "cobalt blue hue") are listed in a separate "hue" category. In other cases, Page puts together all paints with the same marketing label ("raw sienna," "hooker's green," "carmine"), even though the pigments used in the paints vary widely, and are technically "hue" (imitation) paints. (Why do paint guides use these cheesy marketing labels, when they have no consistent relationship to the ingredients or color appearance of the paints?) And in still other cases she lumps together paints in ad hoc color appearance categories ("deep reds," "mixed pigment orange reds," "synthetic organics: orange reds"). The problem is especially bad in those pesky green paints, where for example green gold (PY129) and terre verte (PG23) are lumped together as the same "green earth" color! Manufacturers are not alphabetized or meaningfully ranked within a "color" category, and a single pigment is usually scattered across different "color" categories without a pigment index to pull the many paint examples together. As a result the guide is often cumbersome to use. The right way is to organize the paints first by basic color categories ("red," "green") and then by pigments, as I have done in my guide to watercolor pigments. This teaches artists to distinguish the essential pigment name from the useless marketing labels, to separate the good pigments from the bad, and to understand the range of colors that a single pigment can produce. Page also does not consistently point out brand differences in paint formulations (see for example my comments under watercolor brands). This would help the reader solve that most basic question: which manufacturers produce the best quality paints?


philip ball

hilary page

michael wilcox

sylvie turner

ian sidaway

Overall, these are relatively minor issues. The scope of testing and depth of background information alone make the book an indispensable reference. It is no substitute for doing your own paint swatches and lightfastness tests, but it is the only trustworthy guide to navigating the many paint brands and paint "colors" available on the market.  

The Wilcox Guide to Watercolor Paints (2001-2 edition) by Michael Wilcox is an updated edition of the widely quoted and groundbreaking paint reference first published in the 1980's and last revised in 1993.

Wilcox's original mission, back in the Reagan era, was to give artists accurate information about their paints and to demand that manufacturers routinely do the same. He wrote his book at a time when the emerging ASTM lightfastness ratings were limited to oils and acrylics (which overestimate the lightfastness of a pigment when used in watercolors). Disregarding the ASTM recommendations as well as previous industry standards, manufacturers did not list ingredients or lightfastness ratings on paint packaging, use of impermanent or fugitive pigments was rampant, and paint names were imprecise or misleading. By evaluating every watercolor paint he could lay his hands on, testing many paints for lightfastness, and evangelizing the work of the ASTM committee (including Mark Gottsegen, David Pyle, Hilton Brown, Zora Pinney and Joy Luke), Wilcox helped educate artists and the art materials industry into taking product quality more seriously.

However, in a review of the previous (1993) edition, I wrote that the Wilcox Guide had aged poorly. Regrettably this new edition does nothing to improve matters. If anything, it's gotten worse: the Wilcox Guide is not what it pretends to be.

Wilcox claims "every pigment has been subjected to our own controlled lightfastness testing. Every manufactured color [does he mean paint?] has also been tested." But notice the wording he uses: he does not say every manufactured paint has been tested for lightfastness. It's clear from his comments that the test for each "manufactured color" involved nothing more than brushing out the paint sample to see if it is "gummy" (Wilcox dislikes gummy paints). Then, to make a lightfastness claim for a specific paint, Wilcox slyly sidesteps to the ASTM generic pigment rating by saying, for example, "reliable pigments have been used."

Have they? An accurate and candid disclosure by Wilcox would instead read more like this:

I asked paint companies to send me free paint samples for analysis, and used whatever they gave me. If they didn't send me samples I complain about it, but didn't purchase samples on my own. About 10 years ago, I asked a paint chemist I knew to test several paints for pigment lightfastness, but have not done any lightfastness testing since then. I have not tested for lightfastness any of the paint samples described in this book. Instead, I brushed out the paints to see whether they looked nice, or were gummy. I asked the paint companies to tell me what was in their paints, and just pass on to you whatever they told me. I didn't check it out through additional testing. If they didn't send me ingredient information, I complain about it in my book, but say I have "no information." I then affirm that the pigment is "reliable" (lightfast) or not based only on what the ASTM said in 1999 about the lightfastness of the generic pigment the paint companies claim they used, although some of the ASTM lightfastness ratings are known to be inaccurate, and many paints contain pigments not rated for lightfastness in watercolors by the ASTM. If the ASTM hasn't tested the generic pigment in watercolors, I quote the test results for acrylics or oils instead. If the ASTM hasn't tested the pigment at all, I just say I have "no information."

The problem is that Wilcox advertises his guide as a help to the artist who wants to choose lightfast paints and avoid paints that fade. Given the methods he actually used, that's a claim Wilcox can't honestly make. After all, if "every pigment has been subjected to our own controlled lightfastness testing," why does he say that he has "no information" about pigments not tested by the ASTM? (Also on the topic of ethics: Wilcox has contracted DaVinci to produce his own line of "School of Colour" paints; he reviews the DaVinci products without disclosing this relationship.)

The deeper problem is this: Wilcox assumes that a pigment which tested lightfast (or fugitive) in a single ASTM test done years ago will be lightfast (or fugitive) in every paint in which it is used today — regardless of who makes the paint or how the pigment was manufactured. In that way he can apply the ASTM rating of a single pigment sample to dozens of specific paints. (His logic is equivalent to rating a single egg, then applying that rating to every omelet.) This is indefensible, a point I have confirmed with both the ASTM testing board and representatives of the major paint companies. Paint lightfastness varies by pigment quality, purity, manufacturing processes and particle size; all these typically differ from one pigment manufacturer to the next. (For discussion of the actual situation, see this page.) The pigment color index name cannot be used to guarantee paint lightfastness simply by linking it to the ASTM ratings, because there is no guarantee that the quality of the pigments used by the manufacturer and tested by the ASTM is the same. Yet this guarantee is exactly what Wilcox claims to offer.

He refers in a few places to his now two decades old "watercolor guide" (WG) ratings, but he nowhere explains his test procedures. Yet no paint guide is usable without a clear description of testing methods. Did he use a xenon arc fadeometer, or sunlight? — he doesn't say. Did he control exposure using a blue wool card, or measure color differences with a spectrophotometer? — he doesn't say. Did he test pigments obtained from the pigment manufacturers, or from the paint companies, and which ones, and when? — he doesn't say.

I wrote to Michael Wilcox through his web site and requested this information from him personally but — he wouldn't say.  

In fairness to Wilcox, the shell game of swapping generic ASTM ratings for individual paint tests appeals to some paint manufacturers, too. They print the ASTM ratings, or the lightfastness claimed by the pigment manufacturers, as if these guaranteed the lightfastness of the pigments actually in the watercolor paints, which they don't! Some manufacturers actually test, or pay an independent laboratory to test, at least some of their own paints — especially the synthetic organic paints — and will report their own results rather than the ASTM ratings. But less reputable companies (and paint guides) simply appropriate the ASTM generic pigment ratings without testing anything. The loophole is in the labeling standards.

The only way for artists to confirm the lightfastness of paints they use is to do their own lightfastness tests. They are not hard to do and they are worth the trouble.

Because you can get the ASTM generic ratings from watercolor labels or watercolor paint brochures, it is obvious that Wilcox charges you the price of a book for information you can get for free. If you enjoy using a paint guide as a shopping companion, then Hilary Page's book (based on her own lightfastness tests, and with testing updates available by contacting her directly) remains the only genuinely independent, useful and trustworthy paint reference. The Wilcox book is something altogether different.  

The Artist's Guide to Selecting Colors by Michael Wilcox is a recycled and much shortened version of an earlier version of Wilcox's Watercolor Paint Guide. At the time, the paint information in the Guide was largely useless because it was outdated. Recognizing this, Wilcox fixed the problem by omitting paint information entirely. He offered what was left — the commentary on basic pigments — as applicable to all media: acrylics, oils, watercolors. But the result is a book stuck somewhere between pigments and colors without paints to bridge the gap.

The single page discussions of "colors" such as cadmium yellow, burnt sienna or cobalt violet are pretty feeble stuff: this "color" is very new (very old), it is a good (bad) "color", you should (should not) use it. The selection of "colors" is also strangely backward looking: among the yellows, for example, there are four pages on cadmium yellows and earth yellows, a page each for the chrome yellows and natural gamboge (!), but nothing on the many arylide and benzimidazolone yellows, not to mention nickel titanate, nickel dioxine yellow, nickel azomethine yellow, isoindoline yellow ... Wilcox's pigment research apparently ran out of steam somewhere around 1990.

Worst of all, since "colors" are neither pigments nor paints, the organization around "colors" defeats whole purpose of paint ingredient information: to identify the desirable pigments and choose the paints that contain them. Colors have nothing to do with it!

Although the unsightly paint tube chart junk of the original Wilcox Guide is mercifully disposed of, we're not spared any of Wilcox's juvenile sarcasm. If paint manufacturers can be made to appear unscrupulous, or artists who use alizarin crimson to appear stupid, then Wilcox takes the opportunity to dispense (sometimes unjustified) ridicule. As if wielding a cattle prod, Wilcox applies his sniping to make paint preferences an anxiety issue — "vital information for the concerned artist!" blares the cover. It's very distasteful.

If information has a lightfastness rating, then this is a very fugitive book. Not recommended!  

The Book of Fine Paper by Sylvie Turner is an illuminating survey of an intriguing topic — the methods and products of paper manufacture around the world.

The survey is limited to art papers — the materials for paintings, etchings, prints and collages — not the majority of papers produced for books, documents, and thousands of commercial tasks. The book does not delve into all the art activities that paper makes possible: the focus is on the deckle, the laid screen, and the milky thick paper pulp. Even so, her listing of papers contains 450 entries for handmade products alone; over 300 manufacturers, distributors, museums, workshops and scholars contributed information to her review.

Setting aside the information on Eastern and Asian papers (likely to be of secondary interest to a watercolor artist), Turner still describes the products from 50 handmade and 13 mouldmade paper manufacturers, as well as many historical papers that still occasionally turn up at specialty art retailers. All are described in great detail (including reproductions or descriptions of the watermarks): art historians and archivists will use this book as a reference.

Turner's extensive research into handmade paper manufacture generated personal correspondence with many of today's finest practitioners and most informed historians. She lets them speak at length from correspondence with her, in long excerpts on paper manufacture, the market pressures on small manufacturers, and the noble material they all work with — in government, business, literature and art, one of the most important inventions of all time.

The book also covers the methods to evaluate a paper sheet (lick it with your tongue to assess its absorbency), the proper ways to handle and store papers, how to trim or repair papers, how to care for works on paper. She lists papers suitable for a variety of tasks (from watercolors and serigraphs to computer images and photocopying), and even includes a folder of illustrative paper swatches tucked inside the front cover.

The breadth of information is extraordinary, and although sometimes this is achieved at a loss in depth or consistency of coverage of specific items, there is never a feeling that care has been stinted or avenues of information were left unexplored. Turner's book is an instant classic that will bring to many different practitioners of the visual arts a deeper appreciation for the diversity and beauty of paper.  

The Watercolor Artist's Paper Directory by Ian Sidaway is a welcome first step toward filling a need that every watercolor artist has often felt: for a reliable "user's guide" to the wide range of art papers.

Sidaway makes an ambitious survey of the commercial art paper inventory (covering 24 manufacturers or brands in all), and even includes a sampling of smaller mills and manufactories in India, Japan and Nepal. It's a treat to see these Third World papers reviewed (briefly) alongside the market leaders of Europe and America. Oddly, these Asian manufacturers are not identified: I was intrigued by the "banana fiber" paper that is "made in Southern India," but exactly whose paper should I ask for? (An obscure note in the "resource directory" sends me to Khadi Papers in England.) In any case, every artist should have the paper catalogs from New York Central Art Supply (which has the most comprehensive retail stock of watercolor papers in the USA) and Falkiner Fine Papers (in the UK, 76 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4AR, telephone 011-44-207-831-1151).

It's odd that Sidaway presents brands of paper divided into three categories of surface finish. Two problems with this: a cold pressed surface by one manufacturer can be rougher than a "rough" surface by another (especially since Sidaway tests different weights of paper in each category, and finishes vary by weight); and we lose sight of the elements of brand style (deckles, sizing, pulp chemistry, paper tint) that emerge across all finishes of a manufacturer's offerings.

Most papers are covered in a two page spread that briefly describes the manufacturer and basic paper attributes, and reproduces test swatches to show the paper's absorbency, response to drybrushing, masking, pencil strokes, washes, calligraphic brushstrokes and corrections. These and other ratings are summarized in a corner graphic. But Sidaway never describes how he did his tests: and accurate test descriptions, though apparently too dry for the editors of North Point Books, are essential to interpret and really use any kind of consumer products testing.

For all its merits, the text shows signs of hasty preparation and sloppy editing. Zerkall, Lanaquarelle and Velké Losiny are misspelled throughout, and several details of specific paper attributes are simply incorrect. I was particularly baffled to read the glowing review that Sidaway gives to the durability of "Lana Aquarelle" papers ("the surface is remarkably tough"), although my own tests (and reader comments) suggest the paper disintegrates under even moderate rubbing or lifting. The review reads as though it were switched from another paper.

Sidaway's book will no doubt be followed by others. The market for papers is rapidly expanding and changing, and there are other media uses for art papers — pastels, lithography, giclée prints — that deserve treatment. That said, I hope this book is a sign that the artist materials industry and associated niche publishers finally realize that artists want, and can use, intelligent and in depth information about watercolor materials.


Last revised 08.01.2005 • © 2005 Bruce MacEvoy