daniel smith primatek™ watercolors

This page summarizes and reviews the line of PrimaTek™ watercolor paints from Daniel Smith. The publicly available information about these paints is relatively limited, and sometimes obscured by Daniel Smith's marketing romance. Here I put the paints in context and clarify their attributes as art materials.

Summary. Natural mineral pigments have been used for centuries. They are today among the most interesting innovations in synthetic pigment manufacture, including the synthetic spinel and metal titanate pigments adopted by ceramics and paint manufacturers over a decade ago.

Daniel Smith's PrimaTek pigments reflect the growing niche manufacture of "historical" pigments and extremely fine grinding of semiprecious minerals, and the expanding range of manufactured mineral colorants. A charming slide narrative and YouTube video document the initial coarse milling of a single pigment (lapis lazuli genuine). But these documents omit several steps necessary to produce near micron size, pigment grade material, and I am skeptical that raw minerals are the source for some of the most finely divided and saturated paints.

As a line of watercolors, the PrimaTek paints are generally dark valued, low chroma colors. The paints are relatively expensive and have a low tinting strength (a lot of paint goes a little way), which means they may not be a value purchase for the painter. The granulating and complex color effects produced by these paints can be easily mimicked at much lower cost by mixtures of traditional mineral pigments — iron oxides, cobalt oxides, chromium oxides and magnetic black primarily — with a few synthetic organic pigments, such as perylenes and quinacridones, and "iridescent" paints formulated with mica; these mixtures often also provide greater visual texture and painting control.

The paints are formulated in a dense vehicle that produces a gooey and occasionally foamy (when rewetted) paint consistency. Wet in wet effects (backruns, diffusion) rarely occur. All the paints lift easily from paper which can make it tricky to use multiple paint layers or glazes. These paint attributes encourage a different painting approach that relies much more on the brush than on wet in wet, and on pouring rather than precise manipulation. The low chroma and low tinting strength encourage using the paints as pure color rather than in color mixtures.

Both the pigment characteristics and optimal painting techniques produce an attractive visual effect reminiscent of classical frescoes painted on wet plaster. The "classical" (muted but balanced) color gamut must be augmented by one or more "earth" yellows and mineral blue paints to produce a satisfying color range.

The paint color and texture cannot be accurately judged from the Daniel Smith print and online images. I found that the delivered paints were randomly either more chromatic or less chromatic, and were similar or different in hue, when compared to the marketing images. This must be expected given the natural variation in minerals and the difficulty in matching subtle colors. However the coloristics of the very expensive azurite and lapis lazuli paints seem to me consistently oversold.

As watercolors, the PrimaTek paints are an intriguing but hardly indispensible addition to the artist's palette. Novices may dislike the limited color range, but experienced painters may enjoy the challenge of using to best artistic effect paints that are distinctive in color, texture and handling attributes.

Mineral Pigments in Context. First, what exactly is a mineral pigment?

A mineral is a naturally occurring inorganic substance with a definite crystal structure and chemical composition and predictable physical properties, including hardness, refractive index and color.

A pigment is a finely divided insoluble substance used for its colorant properties in an artistic medium or manufactured product.

Most natural minerals are chemically defined as a structural compound or crystal lattice (e.g., silicates, aluminum or iron oxides) in which other elements may appear in unspecified proportions; and a mineral is often associated with other compounds that characteristically intrude into it as bands, veins, spots, interpenetrating crystals, and so on. Thus, the mineral lapis lazuli is characteristically a blend of the distinct minerals lazurite, calcite and iron pyrite ("fool's gold"). Such mineral "impurities" and aggregates can cause wide color variations in the basic compound that recur to the geologic origin of the rock.

Until the late 18th century, nearly all inorganic pigments not made with copper or lead were minerals physically dug out of the ground or the byproducts of ceramics manufacture. The principal difficulty with these colorants was that the minerals were labor intensive to retrieve, grind and purify, the pigment color was difficult to standardize, and the color intensity (saturation) was generally low.

The late 18th century and 19th century saw major advances in industrial chemistry that allowed the economical mass manufacture of chemically pure synthetic inorganic pigments for use as colorants in burgeoning European and American consumer markets. These "classical" pigments generally had colorant properties (particle size and consistency, chemical purity, color saturation) superior to natural minerals, and are still widely used today.

The late 20th century saw the development of industrial technologies of crystal engineering that permit very sophisticated control of the industrial manufacture of very complex crystal structures. These techniques led to the development of high performance pigments, both organic and inorganic, of superior purity, color intensity and permanence. Several of these high performance, engineered colorants based on silicate, titanate or stannate crystals have recently appeared in artists' materials, including cobalt blue deep (PB72), cobalt titanate (PG50) , chrome titanate (PBr24) and chrome stannate (PR233). For an idea of the color range possible in these synthetic materials, see the Sicocer™ ceramic and tile colorants by BASF (Switzerland). These "modern" pigments typically have extremely homogeneous color and physical characteristics. Processing advances also include more sophisticated and precise methods for the crystallization, dry grinding, ball milling, washing and grade separation (levigation), kiln drying and finishing of pigments to smaller and more homogeneous particle sizes, so that the pigment can be tuned to specific colorant applications.

In part as reaction to the bland homogeneity of these pigments and their "artificial" color appearance, and in part through renewed interest in historical painting methods and materials, the modern manufacturing knowledge has been applied to an economically small trade in "historical" pigments manufactured from natural materials, using either traditional or modern milling technology (which produces smaller and more homogeneous particle sizes). These pigments are important primarily to museum conservators restoring historical works of art, and to artisans and artists interested in exploring historical methods or asserting total control over their art materials by making their own paints.


mineral pigments in context

the geologic minerals

pigment sources

paint color appearance

paint handling attributes

using the primatek paints

final comments

The Geologic Minerals. I list below a brief description of the minerals designated in the marketing names of PrimaTek paints that are recognized in geology references. Color is noted to suggest the geological variety in the stone. In a few cases the PrimaTek marketing name (Sedona genuine, Côte d'azur violet) is not the name of a recognized mineral or type of rock (sandstone, shale). (Côte d'azur violet is not marketed as a PrimaTek paint, but is included here due to its mineral and handling similarity to other paints in the line.) For additional scientific information on these minerals, see the online Minerology Database or the Alphabetical Mineral Reference at UC Berkeley.

Artists making talismanic images may be interested in the "spiritual" meaning of these stones, and I quote some of these from the Metaphysical Descriptions of Gemstones and Basic Crystal Meanings, among other sources.


Silicon [Si] is a light metal that readily combines with oxygen and other elements to form a variety of crystal structures; it plays a role in the inorganic domain very similar to carbon in the organic domain. More than half of the earth's crust is made of tectosilicates or silicate minerals.

• amazonite [KAlSi3O8] – Amazonite is a form of microcline feldspar (potassium aluminum silicate), a tectosilicate. It is colored green by trace metals. Hardness ~6.3, specific gravity ~2.7, refractive index ~1.53. Amazonite enhances creativity and communications concerning love.

• bloodstone [Fe++SiO2] – Another tectosilicate, bloodstone is a form of chalcedony (fine grained quartz) colored red with iron. Some varieties are green with red spots. Hardness ~6.8, specific gravity ~2.6, refractive index ~1.53. Bloodstone strengthens and oxygenates the blood.

• catlinite [pipestone] – A form of argillite (sedimentary stones formed from metamorphosed silicate clays), usually brownish red in color. Hardness ~6.8, specific gravity ~2.6, refractive index ~1.53.

• fuchsite [KAl2(Si3Al)O10(OH,F)2] – Fuchsite is one of the mica family of sheet silicates (phyllosilicate), containing potassium and aluminum and noted for its cleavage into thin flexible plates. Color may range from reddish to greenish white. Hardness ~2.3, specific gravity ~2.8, refractive index ~1.65. Fuchsite facilitates energy transfer from other minerals.

• jadeite [Na(Al,Fe+++)Si2O6)] – A mixed metallic inosilicate with a characteristic pale to deep green color that may become blue green or pink if iron or chromium are present. Hardness ~6.8, specific gravity ~3.3, refractive index ~1.67. Jade facilitates peace and brings good luck.

• kyanite [Al2SiO5] – An aluminum nesosilicate, typically with a blue color. Hardness ~5 to ~7, specific gravity ~3.7, refractive index ~1.72. Kyanite calms the mind and dissolves anger or frustration.

• lazurite [Na3Ca(Al3Si3O12)S] – An aluminum silicate combined with sodium and calcium sulfate and chlorine, lazurite is a deep blue to greenish blue tectosilicate related to sodalite. Lapis lazuli is typically a mixture of three separate minerals - deep blue lazurite, white calcite, and whitish gold pyrite. Hardness ~5.5, specific gravity ~2.8, refractive index ~1.5. Lapis increases inner vision and communication with spirit guides.

• piemontite [Ca2(Al,Fe,Mn)3(SiO4)3(OH)] – A heavy metal sorosilicate, in the epidote group, often with iron, calcium or magnesium replacing manganese atoms in the crystal lattice, usually with a characteristic rose red color. Hardness ~6.5, specific gravity ~3.5, refractive index ~1.75.

• rhodonite [(Mn++,Fe++,Mg,Ca)SiO3] – A manganese inosilicate, often with iron, calcium or magnesium replacing manganese atoms in the crystal lattice, usually with a characteristic rose red color. Hardness ~6.3, specific gravity ~3.5, refractive index ~1.73. Rhodonite vibrates with love.

• sandstone [Sedona Genuine] – An aggregate of very small granules of tectosilicate (i.e., quartz or feldspar sand), deposited in layers by the action of water or wind, and cemented together under pressure through deposits of dissolved minerals such as silica or calcium carbonate.

• serpentine [Mg3Si2O5(OH)4] – A variety of hydrous magnesium iron phyllosilicate, named for the scaly appearance of the polished rock. Hardness ~3.5, specific gravity ~2.6, refractive index ~1.56. Serpentine is useful in the rise of the kundalini.

• shale [Côte d'Azur Violet] – Shale is the most common sedimentary rock, formed by the deposit over long periods of layers of finely divided tectosilicates (mud or clay) at the bottom of bodies of water. Slate is shale that has been exposed to geologic heat and pressure.

• sodalite [Na8Al6Si6O24Cl2] – Sodium aluminum silicate (with chlorine), sodalite is another form of feldspar (tectosilicate). Its characteristic color is a dark royal blue, but variations may appear translucent white, pink, gray or green. Hardness ~5.8, specific gravity ~2.3, refractive index ~1.48. Sodalite helps clear thinking and eliminates guilt.

• tiger's eye [clinochrysotile, Mg3Si2O5(OH)4] – A silicified clinochrysotile (a layered phyllosilicate), it is basically quartz colored yellow to brown by iron inclusions. Hardness ~3.0, specific gravity ~2.7, refractive index ~1.54. Tiger's eye enhances psychic abilities and mental clarity.

• zoisite [Ca2Al3(SiO4)3(OH)] – A calcium aluminum hydroxy sorosilicate with a gray, green, yellow or blue color. Hardness ~6.8, specific gravity ~3.2, refractive index ~1.7.


Phosphorus [P] forms somewhat rare, moderately hard minerals when its oxidized form crystallizes with heavy metals.

• apatite [Ca5(PO4)3(OH,F,Cl)] – An anhydrous calcium phosphate. Colors white, red, yellow, blue, green or violet. Hardness ~5.0, specific gravity ~3.2, refractive index ~1.64. Apatite enhances creativity and contact with UFOs.

• purpurite [Mn+++PO4] – Classified as an anhydrous phosphate. Color brownish black, violet, dark pink, dark red, reddish purple. Hardness ~4.3, specific gravity ~3.4, refractive index ~1.8.

• turquoise [CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8+4H2O] – A cryptocrystalline aggregate of many tiny crystals of hydrous copper phosphate. color green to blue. Hardness ~5.5, specific gravity ~2.7, refractive index ~1.61. Turquoise tones and strengthens the entire body.

• vivianite [Fe3+3(PO4)2+8(H2O)] – A very soft hydrated iron phosphate with a green, dark green, dark bluish green or blue color. Hardness ~1.8, specific gravity ~2.6, refractive index ~1.6.


• azurite [Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2] – A brittle, glassy hydrous copper carbonate that comes in various light or dark blues. Hardness ~3.8, specific gravity ~3.8, refractive index ~1.75. Azurite enhances mediation and spiritual insight.

• malachite [Cu2(CO3)(OH)2] – Another hydrous copper carbonate, often found with azurite but with a green color. Hardness ~3.8, specific gravity ~3.8, refractive index ~1.8. Malachite helps with changing situations and spiritual transformations.


• yavapaiite [KFe3+(SO4)2] – An anhydrous potassium iron sulfate with light pink color. Hardness ~2.8, specific gravity ~2.9, refractive index ~1.6.


• hematite [Fe2O3] – Hematite is an iron oxide that reduces stress and enhances personal magnetism. Hardness ~6.0, specific gravity ~5.1, refractive index ~2.9.  

Pigment Sources. Where is Daniel Smith getting these arcane mineral pigments? If you consider the Daniel Smith marketing materials, it would appear that chunks of rock are blasted from mountains, hand sorted for quality, mechanically pulverized by a jaw mill, reduced a hammer mill into a dry pigment powder, and finished once with a wire sieve.

Really? Several additional pigment manufacturing steps would be necessary to produce pigment particles to the average particle size quoted in the JJC Industries presentation ("36 thousandths of a micron", which must be a misprint for "36 thousandths of a millimeter" or 36 microns). This is the largest particle size passed through a 25 mesh industrial sieve. But in my judgment several pigments (e.g., rhodonite, sodalite, turquoise) are even more finely divided to near micron size: there is significant variation in the pigment texture from one mineral to the next, indicating they have not all been processed in the same way. The remarkable purity of several pigments also would require that colorless or gray contaminants were removed and particles sorted in size, which is commonly done by levigation (wet milling and sequential washing).

There are several industrial or wholesale sources for synthetic, gem quality versions of these minerals and for pigment powders manufactured from them. The Japanese have manufactured synthetic azurite and malachite for decades, in a range of pigment crystal sizes (which affects the color appearance); a wide range of synthetic mineral products are now available from China and India; a range of synthetic mineral and synthetically colored natural ochre products are available from The Earth Pigments Company. There are also USA manufacturing sources for bulk synthetic minerals such as lapis, rhodonite, turquoise, jasper, agate, tigereye or pipestone, and gemstone simulants of lapis lazuli, malachite, and turquoise.

Many colors matching the PrimaTek pigments are available as raw pigment powders from Sinopia Pigments and Kremer Pigments Inc., including crysocolla, sodalith, green and red jasper, jade, rhodochrosit, sodalite and "côte d'azur violet" (slate colored pinkish brown by iron manganese), along with various flavors of azurite, malachite, lapis lazuli and hematite.

As of June 2009, the Kremer web site lists purpurite and green fuchsite, along with duplications of most of the Sinopia listings; new pigments are listed at both sources. Some of these are manufactured by Dr. Hans Kremer, but others are provided by small scale mining operations or mineral synthesizers (especially in Japan) that provide mineral colorants for artisanal and conservator applications.

Consider too that gem quality turquoise is now very rare, and nearly all genuine turquoise jewelry commercially offered today is goosed up with oils or resins to improve its appearance and structural cohesion. Thus it is highly improbable that geologically extracted, gem quality turquoise stone has been pulverized to make paint.

With the exception of azurite (PB30), all the PrimaTek paints are packaged without a generic color index name ("N/A" is used instead). The SDC (London) has informed me that these new pigments are outside the existing SDC codes simply because the pigment manufacturers have not requested they be listed. This omission is consistent with a complex and naturally extracted pigment, and with sole source (niche or proprietary) manufacture that does not need to market its product through the SDC database and does not require the CI name to communicate the pigment attributes to its customers.

One the one hand I am intrigued that substantially all the mineral colors available in the PrimaTek line are available as commercial pigment powders or synthetic minerals from a variety of wholesale sources; on the other hand I am curious why the Daniel Smith "mining story" focuses only on one, significantly coarse and impure mineral pigment (lapis lazuli), and omits some manufacturing steps necessary to turn crushed rock into color pure, finely divided pigment grade mineral powders. A video that documents the mining and processing of Daniel Smith's turquoise, amazonite or rhodonite pigments would be much more informative.

Paint Color Appearance. What do these pigments look like when they are applied as watercolors? If we disregard (at our own risk) the characteristic pigment texture and minute color variations, then we can assign each paint an average color appearance on the colormaking attributes of lightness, hue and chroma.

Using a GretagMacbeth Spectrolino spectrophotometer, I measured the pigment tristimulus (XYZ) values at near masstone concentration; these were converted to CIECAM lightness (J), opponent hue content (a and b) and chroma (C) using the D50 illuminant at 380 lumens with a middle gray background. The table below lists these values, and notes any generic watercolor pigments that are within a CIECAM unit distance of 10 or less on a Euclidean distance metric.

daniel smith primatek paints
mineral nameCIECAMnearest pigment match (E<10)
amazonite41-42-244= PG7
mummy bauxite31151320= PBr7 (b. umber)
bloodstone29749= PBr6, PBr33
blue turquoise47-32-1543= PB36
cote d'azur violet46161321= PBr7 (r. umber)
green fuchsite69-20723[+ mica]
green turquoise41-36638
hematite28112= PBr6, PBk11
hematite scarlet32251732= PR101, PBr41
hematite violet3411613= PBr33, PBk11
jadeite24-416= PBk31
kyanite52-4-611[+ mica]
lapis lazuli36-5-2230
piemontite2813716= PBr33
pipestone41342342= PR101, PBr25
purpurite2713-215= PBr33
red fuchsite51271231= PR233 [+ mica]
rhodonite4453762= PV32
"sedona" (hematite)40292639= PBr41, PBr25
tiger's eye3151112
tiger's eye burnt30131218= PBr33, PBr7
yavapaiite38152325= PBr7 (r. umber)
zoisite30-6710= PBk31 [+ mica]

These are obviously very dull and dark paints. The average masstone lightness value (J) is 38, about the same as phthalo blue (PB15) or perylene maroon (PR179). Half of the paints have a chroma of 20 or less, and only 4 have a chroma greater than 40. This makes them close color neighbors of benzamida brown (PBr25), zinc iron chromite brown (PBr33), disazo condensation brown (PBr41), perylene black (PBk31) or ferrosoferric oxide (synthetic "magnetic" iron oxide black, which occurs as the mineral magnetite, PBk11), as well as many flavors of "natural" raw umber (PBr7) or burnt umber (PBr7). The brightest paints, rhodonite genuine and amazonite genuine, are near matches to benzamida violet (PV32) and phthalo green BS (PG7) respectively.

The chart (below) shows the PrimaTek pigment locations on the CIECAM aCbC plane (the CIECAM color space defined on a chroma metric); the color of the pigment icon matches as closely as possible the measured paint color. (These pigment locations differ from those in the Daniel Smith CIELAB color map; see the Daniel Smith 2006-2007 Reference Catalogue, pp. 22-23.) Included are the locations of the most saturated watercolor pigments around the hue circle, to define the chroma limits of a contemporary watercolor paint gamut.

the primatek pigments

A general caution: artists should be wary of any image or description of the color or texture of PrimaTek paints in Daniel Smith marketing materials. It is difficult to control color matching across print or electronic media, and the Daniel Smith marketing literature mentions color changes due to new "batches" of the mineral pigment — there is natural variation in the pigments.

I found many instances where the Daniel Smith paint images are brighter and more attractive than the actual paintouts I was able to produce; and I found several where the paint images were duller and less attractive than my paint samples. Several paint colors described as "three dimensional" or "dramatic" seemed to me two dimensional and drab instead.

Paint Handling Attributes. The next point to consider is the attributes of these mineral pigments as compounded into watercolor paints.

Attributes Common to the Line. The PrimaTek paints as a group share the following attributes:

• The raw paint right out of the tube typically has the normal watercolor consistency of toothpaste or hand lotion. There is some variation from a gelatinous to syrupy consistency, but none of the paints are runny or excessively stiff ("short").

• The vehicle density is very high and remains thick even when the paints are substantially diluted, most likely because of high carbohydrate (gum, glycerin and/or sugar or honey) and low water content. As it is brushed out the paint has a slightly viscous consistency, even when diluted to a fluid concentration.

• The gum concentration inhibits any "watery" effects so that the paints show no diffusion or backruns, even at very high dilution, although these effects may appear if the PrimaTek paints are diluted and mixed with "active" pigments (such as iron blue).

• Most of the paints show pronounced pigment textures, either as pigment granulation, flocculation wet in wet, or texture interactions with the paper finish. However the textures vary from a grainless consistency resembling transparent iron oxides (Rhodonite Genuine, Amazonite Genuine) to a powdery, dense consistency resembling chromium oxide green (Blue Apatite Genuine, Sodalite Genuine) to a coarse, gritty consistency resembling cobalt violet or "magnetic" manganese ferrite (Hematite, Piemontite Genuine, Lapis Lazuli Genuine, Azurite Genuine). Most of the paints have approximately the same raw consistency and dried pigment texture as a "natural" burnt sienna (PBr7).

• With a few exceptions (Apatite Genuine, Serpentine Genuine, Sodalite Genuine), the tinting strength is weak.

• With few exceptions (Hematite Burnt Scarlet, Serpentine Genuine, Malachite Genuine), there is very little hue shift from masstone to undertone.

• With a few exceptions (Bloodstone Genuine, Hematite, Serpentine Genuine, Zoisite Genuine), the paints will lift completely from paper, like a conventional cobalt violet (PV14).

• The paints do not produce even wash areas: in concentrated solution, the thick vehicle preserves brushmarks on the paper; in diluted solution the pigment particles drop to the paper along the wash bead to form an edge of pigment deposit.

• With a few exceptions (côte d'azur violet), the paints redissolve readily after they have dried in the paint wells.

• About 1 in 8 tubes that I sampled contained sizeable air pockets, and about 1 in 3 of the paints extruded (sometimes forcefully) from the nozzle when the cap was first taken off — either because the pigment continued to hydrate after the paint was packaged, or the tubes were overcrimped.  

Individual Paint Attributes. Below I provide comments on the individual pigments, alphabetically by the paint marketing name. The paint price point is indicated by one to five dollar signs ("$"), and I note any discrepanices between the color of my samples and the paintout images shown on the Daniel Smith web site.

• Amazonite Genuine $ - Thick consistency out of the tube, gummy consistency, very fine (powdery) granulation; saturated blue green with no trace of whiteness, transparent in tints; my sample was more saturated than the Daniel Smith online image.

• Blue Apatite Genuine $$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, slightly flocculating, particulate texture; very dark, dull blue (similar to indanthrone blue or iron blue) with some diffusion wet in wet.

• Genuine Azurite $$$$$ - Stiff consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; dense paint texture and complex granulation wet in wet; both texture and dull blue color similar to (but less saturated than) a red shade of cerulean blue and duller than the Daniel Smith online image. Shipped with this invoice disclaimer: This mineral pigment is suspended in a thick honeylike binder. Sometimes you must squeeze the paint out and premix on your palette. Mineral pigments have unique and wonderful properties but are not like standard watercolor. Enjoy their unique qualities and textural effects.

• Bloodstone Genuine $ - Stiff consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; very fine and finely granulating texture wet in wet; blackish (iron oxide) color with a hint of pink in tints.

• Burnt Tiger's Eye Genuine $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; coarse granulation wet in wet similar to hematite; dull brown similar to burnt umber, my sample lacked much of the red of the Daniel Smith online image.

• Côte d'Azur Violet $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, extremely gummy vehicle and weakly tinting pigment; medium granulation wet in wet, but very difficult to apply without leaving brush marks; paint very difficult to redissolve once it has dried; my sample was a brownish gray that almost disappeared in tints.

• [Green] Fuchsite Genuine $ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, normal vehicle; very fine pigment texture that diffuses smoothly; mica flakes in a pale bluish green, not as blue as the online image.

• Hematite $$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; very coarse pigment texture wet in wet; my sample was a pure black color, with none of the brown tint shown in the online image.

• Hematite Burnt Scarlet $$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; subtle flocculating texture; my sample was a bright orangish brown color similar to a mixture of quinacridone orange (PO48) and iron black (PBk11), and much brighter than the Daniel Smith online image.

• Hematite Violet $$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; medium flocculating texture wet in wet; color similar to a mixture of venetian red and iron black (PBk11).

• Jadeite Genuine $$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, normal vehicle; dense, fine pigment texture that easily brushed out; very dark, smooth middle green color, similar to perylene green (PBk31) or a dark hooker's green.

• Kyanite Genuine $$$$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, normal vehicle; very slight pigment texture that is easily brushed out; mica flakes in homogeneous blue gray color.

• Lapis Lazuli Genuine $$$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; subtle pigment texture that is fairly easily brushed out; dark, dull reddish blue that is much less saturated than the online image — yes, it still appears like a grayed blue to me. Shipped with the same invoice disclaimer as Genuine Azurite.

• Malachite Genuine $$$ - Thick consistency out of the tube, normal vehicle; very slight pigment texture with subtle flocculation (with duotone, green/brown color separation) wet in wet, yellower and darker than the Daniel Smith online image.

• Minnesota Pipestone $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, normal vehicle; moderate granulating texture wet in wet; deep dull red similar to venetian red, but duller in tints, though brighter than the online image.

• Mummy Bauxite - Thick consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; powdery texture similar to a synthetic iron oxide (burnt sienna); deep reddish orange similar to a saturated burnt umber, duller than the online image.

• Piemontite Genuine $$$ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; slight granulating texture; very dark saturated red, almost a red violet, with interesting duotone mixture with near black granulation wet in wet; the Daniel Smith online image is fairly accurate.

• Purpurite Genuine $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; dense, fine pigment texture that flocculates wet in wet; dark, dull purple color, darker than the online image.

• Red Fuchsite Genuine $$ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; very fine, powdery pigment texture that is easily brushed out wet in wet; mica flakes with dull, cool reddish color similar to indian red, lighter and much less purple than the online image.

• Rhodonite Genuine $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; very fine, powdery pigment texture that diffuses smoothly wet in wet; intense red violet color lightening to a bright, cool pink in tints (the online image is quite accurate).

• Sedona Genuine $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; medium pigment texture that flocculates slightly wet in wet; unremarkable dull red orange color very similar to terre ercolano, redder than the Daniel Smith online image.

• Serpentine Genuine $$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, normal vehicle; very fine pigment texture that diffuses smoothly; dull, dark yellow green in masstone that separates into a dramatic reddish brown flocculation over a bright yellow green background, much more saturated than the online image.

• Sodalite Genuine $$$ - Medium consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; very fine pigment texture that flocculates wet in wet; very dark, royal blue color with striking pigment texture in tints, lacking the purple cast in the online image.

• Tiger's Eye Genuine $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, slightly gummy vehicle; medium pigment texture that produces striking flocculation wet in wet; dark, dull yellow similar to a typical raw umber (there is absolutely no "glowing" gem characteristic in the color) and with more green than the online image.

• Turquoise – Kingman Green $$$$ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle; very fine (powdery) granulation that diffuses evenly wet in wet; saturated bluish to middle green with no trace of whiteness, more saturated than the online image.

• Turquoise – Sleeping Beauty Blue $$$$ - Medium consistency out of the tube, gummy vehicle, very fine (powdery) granulation that diffuses evenly wet in wet; saturated greenish blue with no trace of whiteness, much greener than the Daniel Smith online image.

• Vivianite – Blue Ochre $$$$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; moderate pigment texture that is difficult to brush out smoothly; dark bluish gray with blackish granulation.

• Yavapaii Genuine $ - Medium consistency out of the tube, very gummy vehicle; very fine pigment texture that diffuses smoothly wet in wet; fawn color similar to a warm raw umber, much duller than the online image.

• Zoisite Genuine $$$ - Creamy consistency out of the tube, slightly gummy vehicle; medium pigment texture that tends to show brush marks; very dark, charcoal green with a whitish cast in masstone, and much less green in tints than the Daniel Smith online image.  

Reducing the Vehicle Concentration. The amount of gum and other carbohydrates necessary to disperse heavy and/or coarsely divided mineral pigments, and hold them suspended in a metal tube during their long inventory hibernation, is typically much greater than the concentration of vehicle necessary to bind the pigment particles to the cellulose fibers of paper.

Once the paint is out of the tube, some painters may find there is more gum in these paints than desirable for their painting technique or choice of paper. For that reason it is useful to know a simple method to leach out some of the gum binder, as well as remove the smallest (dullest) pigment particles:

1. Squeeze out some of the paint into a small ceramic dish or paint well.

2. Cover the raw paint with plenty of water, and set aside to soak for three or four days. Do not stir or dissolve the paint.

3. After soaking, the saturated paint has collapsed into a flattened disk and the vehicle has released much of its gum into the surrounding water, which will appear cloudy and brownish (image, right above).

4. Slowly pour off the water and with it the dissolved gum. The remaining paint is covered with a thin film of gum and the smallest, dullest (whitened) pigment particles (image, right below). The gum and dull pigment film should be gently rinsed off, for example by wetting the paint with a spray bottle while holding the dish at an angle; or by letting the paint dry completely, then using a moistened synthetic flat brush to wipe away the surface residue.

5. One some of the gum is removed, the pigment can be purified further. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the dish, completely stir up the paint sediment, and set the solution aside to settle for two or three days; then slowly pour off the liquid as before. This draws off more of the binder and smallest pigment particles.

By leaching out the vehicle, the paint gets a somewhat brighter color and wash areas do not have the subtle brownish color of thick vehicle; but the leached paint drops out of the brush onto the paper more readily, producing denser pigment deposits, and the pigment produces more complex textures wet in wet.

leaching gum from Daniel Smith lapis lazuli paint

(left) paint with packaged vehicle; (right) paint leached of gum binder & gray pigment

The leaching works because the vehicle carbohydrates (binder, plasticizer and humectant) are strongly hydrophilic, and the solute concentration is very high in the raw paint. When pure water is poured over it, the gum dissolves and migrates into the water to reduce the solute imbalance.

Using the PrimaTek Paints. It's imprudent for painters to rely on manufacturer product descriptions, because these aim to motivate purchase rather than inform practice. Instead, artists should scrutinze paints with basic paint tests and by making paintings. I have explored the ingredients of the PrimaTek paints and used them in over a dozen paintings. I enjoyed the opportunity to do so, and was generally satisfied with the results.

Paintouts. I always start by making test swatches of the paints, to assess their handling characteristics and color. The samples below were grouped into color families and show the diffusion of the pigment when brushed with clear water.

primatek paint swatches

Winsor & Newton CP 300gsm, Daniel Smith PrimaTek paints

This is clearly a muted palette, and because most of the paints are relatively dark, the paints must be examined across the full range of dilution from masstone to tints— for handling attributes and for finished color appearance.

The color range of this restricted gamut is most objectionable in the yellow and purple hues. None of the blue paints mixes a clean purple with the Rhodonite Genuine paint. The Yavapaii Genuine approximates the yellow possible with a raw umber; an iron oxide yellow (raw sienna or gold ochre) is necessary to get a balanced range of warm mixtures.

There are several very good darks in the line, in particular Sodalite Genuine, Jadeite Genuine, Piemontite Genuine and Hematite (or Bloodstone Genuine). These provide the substantial value contrasts necessary for effective images; but they can appear whitish if they are repeatedly brushed or glazed with other paints. For best results the darks should be reserved for the late steps of a painting, and when possible applied in a single pass on unpainted paper.

Overall these paints, on appearance and handling attributes, seem to divide into four groups:

• More "earth" oxides. In one group are pigments that (vehicle consistency aside) look and feel like ordinary iron oxide pigments: Sedona Genuine, Yavapaii Genuine, Mummy Bauxite, Pipestone Genuine.

• Blackened iron oxides. The second group consists of paints that look and feel like a mineral pigment mixed with a black iron oxide (e.g., PBk11): Hematite, Hematite Burnt Orange, Hematite Violet, Tiger's Eye Genuine, Piemontite Genuine, Purpurite Genuine.

• Mineral looking minerals. The third group consists of pigments whose low chroma and complex texture seems like a for real crushed up natural mineral: Azurite Genuine, Lapis Lazuli Genuine, Malachite Genuine, Vivianite - Blue Ochre, Sodalite Genuine, Zoisite Genuine. Note that this third group includes the most expensive paints.

• "Brightened" minerals. The last group consists of pigments that don't fit my mineral preconceptions — too saturated, too pure, too clean — and may contain the generic mineral "adjusted" with small quantities of one or more natural or synthetic colorants: Kingman Green Turquoise, Sleeping Beauty Blue Turquoise, Amazonite Genuine, Rhodonite Genuine, Serpentine Genuine, Jadeite Genuine, Fuchsite Genuine, Red Fuchsite Genuine, Kyanite Genuine.

In this last group, I am especially intrigued by the rhodonite paint, which is as saturated as a quinacridone pigment and, despite a mineral specific gravity of 3.6, never sediments out of solution; by the amazonite paint, which has the color and lack of sediment typical of a phthalocyanine green BS; and by the serpentine paint, which throws off a brilliant yellow green residue when leached. My perplexity is ... these paints have transparent bright color and very fine particle sizes (lack of sedimentation), but smaller particle sizes almost always make mineral pigments less saturated and more opaque.

The most expensive blue paints — Azurite Genuine, Vivianite - Blue Ochre and Lapis Lazuli Genuine — are disappointing pigments and difficult paints to use; the "bright" lapis lazuli is actually duller than prussian (iron) blue (PB27).

Painting Examples. The best way to learn about art materials is to do art with them; I made a dozen or more paintings with the PrimaTek paints.

My positive reaction to these paints is due to their restrained color gamut and brushable textures. If you work within the color limitations of these paints then a distinctive and very pleasing color harmony is possible, as one example (below) may suggest. (Other painting examples were posted on my blog in October, 2007.)


30" x 22", Winsor & Newton CP 300gsm, Daniel Smith PrimaTek paints

I've also chosen this image because some of the difficulties I encountered with these paints are clearly visible. Daniel Smith typically lauds the appearance of the paints in granulating washes, so attempting a full value range uncovered several unexpected challenges. I emphasize that these are not in my view flaws or quality lapses, but important differences from the expected handling attributes of a watercolor paint.

• The paints generally have a low tinting strength and very dense vehicle, which creates a painting dilemma: dilute the paints enough to break up the gummy consistency and the color is often weak; use the color at a robust strength, and the thick vehicle limits how the paints can be applied.

• The gum gives the paints a "dry" consistency in the brush: the paint bead is exhausted more quickly because the gum impedes liquid flow between the tuft hairs, and release is even stingier with a synthetic fiber brush. I found myself exerting more pressure to coax paint onto the paper; smaller brushes are necessary to get a desired lightness or detail in the brushstroke; "feathering" and pinholing are much easier to produce as a texture effect.

• Again because of the gum density in comparison to conventional watercolors, in concentrated solutions the paints dry quickly (because the gum binds to the water, like the adhesive on a licked envelope flap), but in dilute solutions the paints dry more slowly (because the gum impedes evaporation, like sugar in a soft drink).

• Because these paints lift easily, it is treacherous to paint into areas that have not completely dried, or to overwork a glazed or overlaid paint layer after it has been applied. Either step will dissolve and lift the layers below all the way down to the paper.

• The paints are almost completely inert in wet in wet applications. The smallest pigment particles will flow but not diffuse in dilute applications; in heavier concentrations a stroke of wet paint can be laid onto a wet paint edge with very little bleeding or mixing of the two colors; paint that is dropped into a wet color area sits where it is put. Some colors will diffuse into clear water applied along a freshly painted edge, but more often you have to go into the painted area and actually drag the color out with a brush if you want to diffuse or soften the edge.

• Watermarks (backruns, diffusion) rarely appear, and when they do it is at dilute concentrations and on certain kinds of papers.

• At most dilutions the paints brush out well across small areas, and in larger areas the brush textures can be subdued by using a flat (bright or wash) natural hair brush; rounds tend to leave a drag mark. After paint is applied, brush marks or irregularities in the pigment texture can be smoothed out by lightly stroking the color area with a moist, clean flat brush.

• Dried paints lift and sculpt beautifully with a moist brush, and can be scumbled by prewetting with a water spray and then blotting or gently rubbing with a paper towel. I found a small acrylic flat brush was ideal to blend, feather, clean or define edges, cut highlights, and smooth out blemishes.

• Even when the paints are diluted or leached of gum, I found it was difficult to get control of wash applications, which I regretted most in skies. I suggest working with the two step wash: lay the paper perfectly flat, premoisten the surface, apply paint quickly and liberally, and drain off the excess liquid to smooth out the texture. (Daniel Smith claims their test artists have had no trouble using the paints in wash applications, but the company has not put me in communication with the artists to explain how they did it.)

• The gaps between the mineral particles and the heavier gum binder of the PrimaTek paints can wick conventional watercolor paints applied along the edges or inside areas painted with the PrimaTek paints, pulling moisture into the PrimaTek color area and spreading color outside the painted edge. (This happens in conventional watercolors with color applied over a thick layer of cobalt pigments.)

• Some of the PrimaTek paints are relatively expensive, and the low tinting strength and thick vehicle cause some paints to deplete fairly quickly. On mileage alone, in comparison to traditional paints, the PrimaTek line is hard to justify for routine use.

• The paper attributes matter a lot. To harmonize with the paint texture I suggest using a cold pressed or rough (CP or R) finish in any moderately sized (moderately absorbent), heavy paper (up to 600 gsm if possible) because you will probably want to use lots of moisture to manage the brush and pigment textures. (Note that you can happily paint into moist paper without fear of backruns.) Thinner papers should probably be stretched, although cockling is less of an issue because of the thicker paint consistency. "Soft" papers such as Lanaquarelle or Fabriano Artistico won't hold up to aggressive reworking and may get in the way of lifting or shaping the paints. Hot pressed (HP) or heavily sized papers (including Yupo printable plastic sheets) are fine for displaying the pigment textures, but they exaggerate color irregularities and the whitening effect of several paint layers.

Application Metaphors. It's helpful to summarize art materials in a metaphor. In my view the PrimaTek paints are best thought of as fresco watercolors. The pigments in many cases are identical to those sold by raw pigment retailers for fresco applications (see above); the muted greens, blues, pinks and browns mimic to a remarkable degree the palette of many Baroque frescos; the brushed appearance in concentrated colors resembles the color texture of painted plaster; the uniformity of pigment textures resembles the grainy texture of a stucco substrate. Try copying a Tiepolo with these paints!

leaching the gum binder from primatek lapis lazuli paint

(top) paint after four days of soaking; (bottom) gummy water poured off leaving a residue of gray pigment particles — The Daniel Smith marketing says: "There is not a hint of gray in this paint."

The paints can also be thought of as brushable pastels. Like pastels, the paints can be easily removed from paper: the smallest particles may leave a faint stain, but in general paint can be simply brushed away. Like pastels, colors must be blended through hatching or "stumping" rather than glazing. Like pastels, the color texture is very easy to redistribute, shape, lift or deepen after the pigment has been applied. Like pastels, backruns, pigment diffusion or pigment separation almost never appear, even in very diluted mixtures: there are no "wet in wet" effects other than granulation in diluted mixtures applied with a juicy brush. Like pastels, a concentrated application shows the stroke mark, and the marks have a rather dry, powdery appearance, like chalk strokes rather than ink strokes. It is intriguing to pursue subtle pastel texturing effects — crosshatching, stippling, braceleting, physical blending, feathering — that do not rely on the water partnership found in traditional watercolors.

Final Comments. Daniel Smith seems unsure how to market its PrimaTek paints. Happy face or hard facts? Amateur product, or something for the pros? When the pigments were first introduced, Daniel Smith used appeals to myth and fable that would target primarily novice painters. More recently, the marketing emphasis seems to have shifted to the descriptive and informational — the same professional tone the company uses to market its oil paints or printing inks. Compare for example the item information for Amazonite Genuine or Sleeping Beauty Turquoise with that of Fuchsite Genuine or Tiger's Eye Genuine.

The marketing also suggests painting techniques that in my view don't do the paints credit. For example, the artist is urged to use the Fuchsite Genuine paint in several glazed layers — but these paints dissolve and lift easily, so multiple glazes are difficult to do; and I found that multiple paint layers tend to whiten (dull) the color.

Recent Daniel Smith marketing materials have also been more forthcoming about pigment sourcing, claiming for example that Rhodonite Genuine is "made from jewelry quality stone". Product upgrade comments, such as "our latest supply [of Azurite Genuine] is the brightest and purest we have offered" or "we have recently reformulated [Malachite Genuine] with purer, brighter pigment", admit the sourcing or pigment variability that would be expected in these kinds of minerals, and perhaps a response to early adopter dissatisfaction as well.

The point is that I was completely unprepared by Daniel Smith marketing for my experience using the PrimaTek paints. Product definition and consumer expectations would be clarified if the presentation were rethought from fundamentals.

I have always been an advocate of pigment "personality" and have emphasized the physical nature of color. I dislike the general art industry trend toward watercolor paints that all look and feel the same — bright, homogeneous color and smooth, homogeneous pigment. (See for example my contrarian proposal for a muted, granulating "earth palette" first posted many years ago.) In this respect the PrimaTek line is worth several lusty huzzahs. The more variety in art materials, the better.  

But the very fine milling of many of these pigments (for example, the amazonite and rhodonite paints) effaces their color complexity and mineral nature. It's really the muted, balanced gamut (provided a gold ochre or raw sienna is added) and the complex pigment and brush textures associated with the thick vehicle that make these paints distinctive.

In fact, the granulating, complex color characteristics of mineral paints can be easily and handsomely mimicked — and in my view often surpassed — by canny mixtures of conventional watercolor paints. I invite the reader to try mixtures of ultramarine blue or any cobalt, manganese, chromium or "transparent" iron oxide (PR101 or PY42) pigments with any synthetic organic pigment (especially a quinacridone or phthalocyanine), or with titanate or "magnetic" brown (PBr11) or black (PBk11) pigments. Using these "modern" pigment mixtures permits a variety of water texturing effects, much better control in washes, and a much larger color gamut.

As a final caution, Daniel Smith states the "ASTM Lightfastness" for these minerals is "excellent". To my knowledge the ASTM has never tested these pigments, and Daniel Smith oddly does not use its normal disclosure wording — "Excellent - Not yet rated by ASTM - Rating based on Daniel Smith's independent testing" — to describe the lightfastness of these pigments. Daniel Smith recently assured me that they have in fact tested all these pigments for lightfastness. In any case, there is little reason to expect lightfastness problems, except that queer things do happen when minerals are divided to very small particle sizes or unacknowledged additives have slipped in.

Overall, novices will probably find the color appearance of these paints disappointing, especially if fable and romance ("prepare to be captivated!") have motivated the purchase decision; but their brushable, waterblind character may seem like fun. Experienced painters will discover intriguing media effects and a lovely muted color world, and most will enjoy the challenge that comes with letting go of old skills and habits and using new materials to their own best effect.

To my taste, out of all the paints reviewed here, the blue apatite, hematite burnt orange, jadeite, piemontite, purpurite, rhodonite, serpentine and sodalite seem to me distinctive, versatile and value priced enough to be useful. (If the rhodonite really is a completely lightfast pure mineral, then we will finally have solved the centuries old problem of finding a light, bright, transparent and permanent pigment in a magenta hue.) The rest of the PrimaTek paints are either readily duplicated by existing pigments or pigment mixtures, or they are not value priced given their muted colorant properties and the number of paintings these weakly tinting and thickly bound pigments will yield.