black, gray & white
Key to the Paint Ratings

PBk1+PBk6aniline black + soot from lamp burned petroleum or wax (antiquity)peach blackHolbein13723781327,7
Aniline black PBk1 is an impermanent azine pigment, available from about 6 pigment manufacturers worldwide. Holbein peach black, the only commercial source, contains the pigment in mixture with carbon black, which must be the dominant ingredient as the paint is quite lightfast; it produces subtle and active textural effects wet in wet, and has the darkest masstone value of any black paint. Because of the azine pigment, this paint should perhaps not be used in tints or diluted.
PBk6soot from lamp burned petroleum, gas or wax (antiquity)lamp blackDaniel Smith02804731418,8
PBk6blue black
[discontinued in 2005]
Winsor & Newton03414720208,8
carbon black + phthalocyanine blue + beta quinacridoneneutral tintWinsor & Newton03204740348,8
PBk6+PB29soot from lamp burned petroleum or wax + ultramarine bluepayne's gray [hue]M. Graham1282375032265-58,8
PBk6+PBk7soot from lamp burned petroleum or wax + soot from furnace burned petroleum or waxlamp blackWinsor & Newton33724730228,8
phthalocyanine blue + lamp burned petroleum or wax + quinacridone violetpayne's gray [hue]Winsor & Newton4651470021275-458,8
 Lamp black PBk6 is a very lightfast, very opaque, heavily staining black pigment, available from 6 pigment manufacturers worldwide. The ASTM (1999) rates its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I). This is typically the darkest valued, most opaque black in a watercolor line (ivory or bone black is usually offered as a slightly less intense, warmer alternative). Because it is so dark, it shows a large proportional drying shift increasing in lightness by 180%.

Note that all watercolor black paints applied to white paper have a value range of 75 or less — that is, a CIE lightness of about 20, which makes them all dark grays. These paints require a light valued surround to appear really "black"; combined with other dark pigments they will instead appear dark gray.

Daniel Smith lamp black shows some granulation in wet applications; the Winsor & Newton blue black (now discontinued) was very finely divided. All carbon blacks stain heavily, as the particle size is very small and dispersants are often added during milling to completely wet the pigment.

The watercolorists' four traditional shadow or foundation colors were neutral tint, payne's gray, indigo (see these indigo convenience mixtures) and sepia (see the convenience mixtures under PBr7). Today these are all imitated by convenience mixtures based on carbon black.

• Neutral tint was developed by 18th century English watercolorists as a mixture of light red (red iron oxide) and indigo (or iron blue) with a touch of yellow, such as gamboge or yellow ochre. It was preferred to sepia ink as a neutralizing (desaturating) mixer or a foundation tint because it did not dull either warm or cool paints. Most artists today use a neutral tint in preference to a pure carbon black. Winsor & Newton neutral tint mixes lamp black with a dark blue (PB15) and red violet (PV19) to give the color a slight but noticeable violet bias. The mixture is typically used to dull and darken paints, and to provide a shadow color, without changing the apparent hue of mixtures; it also makes an effective stormy sky color, modulated by added blue or violet.

• Payne's gray was developed by William Payne as a mixture of iron blue (PB27), yellow ochre and a crimson lake, used as a dark violet shadow color. Shown here are the M. Graham and Winsor & Newton versions. The paints typically have a very dull, dark bluish cast, closer to a neutral dark gray than an indigo convenience mixture.

Either of these near black paints is excellent for monochrome value paintings, though for that purpose I prefer convenience mixtures such as indigo or sepia that develop a more pronounced hue as they are diluted into tints.

The common complaint against any carbon black paint is that the dullness of the finished pigment contrasts unpleasantly with the other paints around it, even other dark paints. This is because carbon pigments are totally opaque, and therefore the light scattering from the surface of the pigment is enhanced after the paint dries, adding a distinct whitish veil to the finished color. There are two solutions to this problem. One is to glaze the black areas with one or more coats of a moderately diluted gum arabic solution, which reduces the surface scattering and so darkens and enriches the color. The other is to mix carbon black paints with a small amount of a strongly tinting dark paint — a clean burnt umber, phthalo blue or dioxazine violet, for example — which seems to reduce the fading effect. But use with extreme caution: if applied in a painting where its deep value is not harmonious with the rest of the picture, black passages can stand out unnaturally. See also the section on natural organic pigments.  

Incidentally, a rich, transparent, extremely lightfast and flexible alternative to all carbon black and convenience dark neutral paints (indigo, sepia, neutral tint, payne's gray, etc.) is the generic mixture I call synthetic black. I originally developed this mixture using the additive (RGB) primaries indanthrone blue (PB60), benzimida brown (PBr25) and phthalocyanine green (PG7), roughly in the proportions 8:6:1, although any transparent, dull and/or dark red orange, green and blue or violet paint mixture will work fine. The reasons for using the additive primaries are that (1) they enhance the light canceling effects of subtractive mixture more than a mixture of the subtractive (CYM) primaries, and (2) the paint proportions can be varied slightly to shift the "black" mixture toward any hue of dark shade (as demonstrated in this painting).

However, if a potent, achromatic dark gray is the goal, then it is more efficient to use two mixing complements. The darkest and most efficient mixture along the red/green contrast consists of perylene maroon (PR179) and phthalocyanine green BS (PG7), roughly in the proportions 5:1; along the orange/blue contrast the darkest mixture is quinacridone orange (PO48) and iron blue (PB27) in roughly 4:1 proportions. (Exact recipes depend on paint brands; alternative mixtures are listed in the page on watercolor mixing complements.) Daniel Smith, M. Graham, and Da Vinci offer all four paints; Winsor & Newton, Rowney Artists and MaimeriBlu make a quinacridone maroon (PR206) that you can substitute for the perylene maroon and quinacridone orange.

In the correct proportions, either the three paint or two paint mixtures give an extremely dark, dead on black color; tweaking the proportions of the paints will shift the hue to mimic any commercial dark shade paint (sepia, perylene black, indigo, neutral tint, payne's gray), as well as dark shades that are magenta, turquoise or deep yellow. In masstone applications these mixtures are actually darker valued than most lamp or ivory blacks (PBk9). They create a velvety luster, rather than the usual carbon black dullness, that harmonizes well with other dark valued paints; they can be used to produce shades of any paint, and when applied wet in wet or used in diluted glazes, color separation among the pigments will produce subtle and shimmering color effects.

PBk7carbon black mixed with lamp black (antiquity)carbon blackMaimeriBlu53714731348,8
PBk7lamp blackDaniel Smith00332740348,8
PBk7lamp blackRowney Artists03532730348,8
PBk7charcoal graySchmincke78632670348,8
PBk7+PB29lamp black + sodium aluminum sulfosilicatepayne's gray [hue]Rowney Artists06532740342708,8
Furnace black PBk7 is another amorphous carbon black pigment, produced by burning coal wastes or natural gas in enclosed furnaces, available from about 40 registered pigment manufacturers worldwide for use in printing inks, construction and decorative applications. The ASTM (1999) and my own tests rate its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I). Across most brands, this pigment is very lightfast, opaque, staining, and very active in wet applications. — MaimeriBlu carbon black is a darker black than the Schmincke paint, and produces warmer colored tints. See also the section on natural organic pigments.
PBk8wood charcoal (antiquity)vine blackOld Holland367326224265+108,8
wood charcoal + natural iron manganese oxide + soot from furnace burned petroleum or waxcharcoal grey
[discontinued in 2005]
Winsor & Newton010237212065+108,8
 Charcoal black PBk8 is a very lightfast, semitransparent, moderately staining, subtly textured, very dark valued black pigment, available from only one registered manufacturer worldwide (W. Hawley & Son, UK). The ASTM (1999) and my own tests rate its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I). It is traditionally a pure wood charcoal made from carbonized willow stems, which must be ground into pigment; this produces coarser pigment particles than amorphous or soot blacks, giving charcoal blacks a subtle texture. — Old Holland vine black is very textural in nearly all applications, making it most suitable for light application or very romantic textural effects in stormy skies or desert landscapes. The gum vehicle can cause noticeable lifting, splotching or bronzing if paint layers are laid over it. The Winsor & Newton, now discontinued, was much darker and easier to work with, creating a lovely deep powdery black when rewetted. See also the section on natural organic pigments.
PBk9soot from burned animal bone (antiquity)ivory blackM. Graham110347211165+108,8
PBk9ivory blackWinsor & Newton026346411170+58,8
PBk9ivory blackDaniel Smith048237122270+58,8
PBk9ivory blackRowney Artists034237022260+58,8
PBk9ivory blackMaimeriBlu53533691248,8
TOP 40 PIGMENT   Bone or ivory black PBk9 is the third of the three major black pigments, available from 3 pigment manufacturers worldwide. Like the other carbon blacks, it is very lightfast, semitransparent, staining, slightly textured, and active in wet applicatons. The ASTM (1999) and my own tests rate its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I). The apparent drying shift is less than for other black pigments (a mere 85% increase in lightness), because the color is slightly lighter to begin with. The traditional method of manufacture was to place ivory shavings in iron casks that were heated in ceramic ovens until entirely carbonized; modern pigments are made from bone. Many artists prefer ivory black because it harmonizes better with other watercolor pigments. — M. Graham ivory black and Rowney Artists ivory black are semitransparent, staining and among the darkest ivory blacks available; both take on a beautiful slate color in tints. Winsor & Newton ivory black is lighter but an equally neutral and finely milled paint; it is the "warm" black to complement the "cool" and slightly darker lamp black (PBk6). Daniel Smith ivory black is more coarsely milled, producing ultramarine-like textural effects in wet applications. The MaimeriBlu bone black is a thinly concentrated cool gray, less suitable for very dark passages. See also the section on natural organic pigments.
PBk10powdered graphitegraphite grayDaniel Smith01004551208,8
Graphite gray PBk10 is a very lightfast, very opaque, heavily staining, dark valued gray pigment, available from only 2 pigment manufacturers worldwide. Daniel Smith graphite gray is the only commercial source. It has the natural graphite luster, and harmonizes very well with pencil drawings. It should probably be used as a luminescent paint rather than a transparent watercolor, as its graphite shimmer will stand out from other pigments.
PBk11ferrosoferric oxide(c.1980)lunar blackDaniel Smith02123723428,8
PBk11mars blackWinsor & Newton38614751228,8
PBk11mars blackM. Graham115paint introduced after my last pigment tests
Magnetic black or iron oxide black PBk11 is a very lightfast, semiopaque, staining, very dark valued black pigment, offered by over 20 pigment manufacturers worldwide, for use in paints, cosmetics, construction materials and to provide machine readable magnetic printing on bank checks. Unrated by the ASTM, my lightfastness tests put it solidly in the "excellent" (I) category. — Daniel Smith lunar black produces an extraordinary etched granulation from the mangetization of the iron particles; the capillary movement of water in blossoming cuts veins of pure white against pure black. Excellent for unusual textural effects, but these will stand out unless you know the pigment well. The Winsor & Newton mars black has a smoother consistency with less assertive texturing, but it provides a more intense "black" (dark gray) color than some carbon blacks.

CAUTION. The more I use this paint, the less comfortable I am with it. The texture is very difficult to control, and the paint acquires a kind of gouache flatness in tints. It is a very unsatisfactory shadow color, and so far has only proven useful to represent black stained work or black wool sweaters. However, a small amount added to an earth yellow or red can produce interesting and manageable mineral textures. See also the section on iron pigments.

black chalk + zinc oxide + carbon blackdavy's gray [hue]Winsor & Newton0191339031110-105,5
Davy's gray was originally a slate pigment developed by Winsor & Newton for an 18th century English drawing master (known for his use of the paint); it is now replicated through compounds made with black chalk (carbonaceous hydrated aluminum silicate, PBk19). The ASTM (1999) rates its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I). However, in my tests the Winsor & Newton davy's gray, an opaque, staining, mid valued gray convenience mixture with a slight greenish cast, was impermanent. It lightened and became more opaque after 6 weeks of sunlight exposure (BWS 6), apparently due to the admixture of chinese white (see the caution under PW4). It is a very pretty pigment that is especially good for very light gray passages, as its coverage remains smooth at those values (many blacks will look blotchy or granulate at that dilution).

lightfastness test sample
unexposed (top); exposed 800+ hours (bottom)

PBk31perylene black (1948)perylene greenWinsor & Newton386paint introduced after my last pigment tests
perylene black + carbon blackshadow greenHolbein2793368041150-37,8
TOP 40 PIGMENT Perylene black PBk31 is a very lightfast, semitransparent, staining, very dark valued dark shade pigment (yellow green hue), manufactured by BASF as Paliogen Black. Unrated by the ASTM, my lightfastness tests put it in the "excellent" (I) category, with slight fading in the tint after 800+ hours of sunlight exposure. It has a greenish black color, approximately the same hue as chromium oxide green (PG17), that becomes more apparent in tints. The average CIECAM J,a,b values for perylene green (PBk31) are: 21, -8, 8, with chroma of 11 (estimated hue purity of 13) and a hue angle of 133.

Winsor & Newton perylene green is the only commercial source of the pure pigment in watercolors, and after I had tried this paint I did not know how I had gotten along without it. In concentrated form the paint produces a very dark near neutral hue, almost indistinguishable from a true black, with a relatively small drying shift; mixed with an unadulterated dioxazine violet, quinacridone violet or perylene violet (PV29) it creates a darker and more stable black than most carbon based paints. (Note that additives used to adulterate these expensive pigments or adjust the vehicle may cause an unexpected whitening of the dried color. If you don't get a deep black, try another brand of paints.) In tints it creates a dull, light valued sap green or hooker's green, often ideal for distant landscape foliage. It is very effective for darkening all foliage greens and as a shadow color for botanicals and landscapes, but also (in very dilute glazes) as a shadow tint for portraits and figure paintings; excellent for desaturating and darkening warm paints, and for mixing dull, dark greens with yellow, green or blue paints. See also the section on perylene pigments.

PW4zinc oxide (1782; 1834)chinese whiteWinsor & Newton01112102185+58,8
PW4chinese whiteDaniel Smith01112102185+58,8
PW4chinese whiteMaimeriBlu2161210218508,8
PW4permanent chinese whiteSchmincke1021210219008,8
PW4chinese whiteRembrandt0111210219008,8
PW4+PW6zinc oxide + titanium oxidechinese whiteRowney Artists00112102185+58,8
 Chinese white (or zinc white) PW4 is a very lightfast, opaque, moderately staining white pigment, available from 4 pigment manufacturers worldwide. The ASTM (1999) rates its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I), but I discovered in my 2004 tests that the pigment becomes somewhat brighter and noticeably more opaque after 4 to 6 weeks of sunlight exposure (BWS 6). The standard paint lightfastness tests do not catch changes in paint transparency, so this effect goes unnoticed in the paint lightfastness ratings.

Known since antiquity as a byproduct of copper smelting, zinc oxide was first adopted as an artists' pigment in the 18th century (in part to replace the toxic lead whites, in use since Roman times). It commonly goes by the name chinese white, the proprietary name given to a particularly dense formulation developed by Winsor & Newton in 1834. Zinc oxide is a slightly warm shade of white that completely absorbs ultraviolet radiation at wavelengths below 370nm. Like a good cadmium pigment, it changes reflectivity with viewing angle: appearing as a pure white from a perpendicular view, but slightly grayed (less reflective) from the side.

White pigments show almost no drying shift, although they become much less opaque: a completely hiding coat of wet paint will appear translucent when it dries. Chinese white is usually deemed the "transparent" white in comparison to "opaque" titanium white (PW6) because zinc white has a lower refractive index, although this difference is rather subtle in watercolors and easily shifted one way or the other by paint dilution or pigment load. (In my tests, chinese whites were slightly though consistently more opaque than titanium whites.)

Most brands of zinc oxide are indistinguishable, except for slight variations in milling additives, pigment load or vehicle formulation. The pigment itself is extremely cheap, and when watercolor manufacturers offer a single white paint, this is typically the pigment they carry. Winsor & Newton chinese white is very opaque and fairly inert in wet applications. It covers reasonably well and mixes smoothly as a bodycolor with other paints. Zinc oxide is slightly warm, appearing to have a vague pink or brown cast in masstone, and this harmonizes well with the ivory tone of most watercolor papers. However, it can appear bluish in tints, especially when glazed over other colors.

CAUTION. Many convenience paints formulated with zinc white, such as the typical naples yellow or Winsor & Newton's winsor emerald, fade markedly after a month of direct sunlight exposure. It is also common painter's lore that some dark pigments, such as iron blue (PB27) or dixoazine violet (PV23) become significantly less lightfast if mixed with a white paint. I have not tested zinc white used as a foundation layer to whiten paper, as a top glaze to veil and lighten color, or when mixed directly with other paints, but I ask you to send me any observations you may have made and suggest you test paints mixed in this way through your own lightfastness tests. See also the section on zinc pigments.

PW6titanium dioxide (1791)titanium white (opaque white)Winsor & Newton2062200229008,8
PW6titanium whiteRowney Artists00922002290-58,8
PW6titanium-opaque whiteSchmincke1011200219008,8
PW6chinese white [hue]Holbein7151200219008,8
PW6titanium white (opaque)Holbein2032200229008,8
PW6buff titanium whiteDaniel Smith015201503275+87,6
TOP 40 PIGMENT   Titanium white PW6 (titanium dioxide) is a very lightfast, semiopaque, lightly staining white pigment, available from about 30 pigment manufacturers worldwide. The ASTM (1999) and all manufacturers rate its lightfastness in watercolors as "excellent" (I). White pigment watercolors show almost no drying shift, although they become much less opaque as they dry: a totally hiding wet coat of paint will appear translucent when it dries. The economic importance of titanium dioxide cannot be overstated: it represents more than 60% of the world's total pigment production, and provides the highly hiding (opaque), white base for nearly all oil, latex and acrylic paints sold for home and architectural uses and as a whitening additive to paper. (The primary alternative has been somewhat grayer lithopone, a calcined coprecipitate of zinc sulfide and barium sulfate.) Titanium white is a brighter (more reflective) and more perfectly neutral white than any other pigment; it is also one of the most opaque. In first appears in artists' (oil) paints around the turn of the 19th century, but has been widely available only since the 1950's.

Winsor & Newton titanium white is a slightly brighter, cleaner white than chinese white; in most watercolor applications it will appear stiff or artificial unless used very sparingly, or as a bodycolor mixed with more saturated paints. (Note the misleading marketing name adopted by Holbein: their "chinese white" is simply a less opaque and slightly warmer formulation of titanium white.) Daniel Smith buff titanium white is made from titanium pigment heated to high temperatures with a larger pigment particle size; this shifts the color toward a light valued, very dull latte brown, making it a good pigment to lighten and desaturate greens or blues, for example, or to render gray desert foliage. I found that it grayed significantly in masstone after a week or two of direct sunlight exposure, but did not worsen thereafter, causing the final color shift to be comparatively small. Both types of titanium are moderately active in wet applications, which usually also means they will mix well with other pigments. See also the section on titanium pigments.

KEY TO THE PAINT RATINGS. Summarized as numbers: Tr = Transparency: 0 (very opaque) to 4 (transparent) - St = Staining: 0 (nonstaining) to 4 (heavily staining) - VR = Value Range: the value of the masstone color subtracted from the value of white paper, in steps of a 100 step value scale - Gr = Granulation: 0 (liquid texture) to 4 (granular) - Bl = Blossom: 0 (no blossom) to 4 (strong blossom) - Df = Diffusion: 0 (inert) to 4 (very active diffusion) - HA = Hue Angle in degrees of the CIELAB a*b* plane - HS = Hue Shift as the undertone hue angle minus the masstone hue angle, in degrees of the CIELAB a*b* plane - Lf = Lightfastness: 1 (very fugitive) to 8 (very lightfast) for paint in tint,full strength - Mentioned in pigment notes: Chroma: For the masstone paint on white watercolor paper. - Drying Shift: Change in masstone color appearance from a glistening wet to completely dry paint swatch, in units of lightness, chroma and hue angle in CIELAB. For more information see What the Ratings Mean.

Last revised 08.01.2005 • © 2005 Bruce MacEvoy