Painting & drawing blog

CHOOSING YOUR COLOURS FOR OIL PAINTING

Some advice for beginners

Oil paints

When you are starting out with oil painting and need to choose your first colours, the number available to choose between will depend on whether you are using beginner-level, ‘student’ grade paints or more expensive ‘artist’ grade ones. This is because the better quality ranges will usually contain many more colour options.

If you are new to painting the smaller range of colours of a beginner-level paint brand might seem like a relief because it can be hard to choose from a huge number of colours when some of them seem so similar to each other! In a cheaper range like this there also will be less variation in price between different colours, whereas in a professional grade paint range there will be huge variation.

Why do different oil paint ranges and the different individual colours vary in price and should you always just go for the cheapest option?  I’ll examine the factors that you might want to take into account when deciding on the particular oil paint range. Note, there are no paid links in this post! Just my own opinions.

Michael Harding paint set

Whether you decide from either a ‘student’ or ‘artist’ grade paint range, many beginners will start by buying a small boxed set of colours. This gives you a basic colour palette for less than you’d spend if you purchased them individually, and if you don’t have very clear ideas about which colours you want to use yet and just want a general selection to start with then a set can be a good idea. However there will likely come a point as your painting develops when you’ll want to add to this selection. I’ll look at various considerations you’ll want to take into account when choosing which colours to buy.

Price differences and understanding colour names

What makes one colour so much more expensive than another even when it’s part of the same paint range by the same manufacturer? This price difference will always be due to the particular paint pigment that has been used to make the colour. We should make the important point here that the ‘marketing name’ of the colour does not usually tell you which actual pigment (or pigments) the colour has been created with. Therefore for example an oil paint colour labelled as ‘Indigo’ may be created using one particular combination of pigments by one manufacturer, but from quite a different combination when it is produced by someone else.

Similarly, an identical pigment can be sold under quite different names by different manufacturers who choose a marketing name for it that they think will be appealing. For example the pigment pthalocyanine blue may be sold as ‘Pthalo Blue’, but is also sometimes called ‘Winsor Blue’. It should also be noted that different paints made from the same pigment can have a considerably different shades depending on the production methods used to prepare it.

‘Series’ numbers

Pigments may be made from organic or synthetic sources, and depending on how rare they are, how difficult to extract or mine or how complex to manufacture chemically, they will vary wildly in price. Paints are divided between four price brackets and given a ‘Series’ number to identify them which will be printed on the front of the tube. Series 1 paints are the least expensive whilst series 4 is the most expensive price band, and may be many times more expensive. Within a student grade range you’ll find the least variation in prices and are unlikely to come across any series 3 or 4 colours.

Paint tube 'series number'

Is a more expensive colour always better than one made with a cheaper pigment? The answer is not necessarily, because some perfectly good pigments may simply be quite cheap either to manufacture. In a better range of oil paints however you’ll get find colours priced within all four series. If a range has no higher series colours this tells you that the manufacturer has used entirely cheap pigments where better ones might have been substituted.

‘Convenience’ and ‘hue’ colours

One difference between cheap and more expensive paints is that the better ranges will offer many more colours which are made with a single pigment. A single pigment colour will usually give you a more vibrant shade than one made up from a number of different pigments, which can go a bit ‘muddy’ when mixed with further colours and lose its clarity. Often manufacturers will create a ‘convenience’ colour made from  several pigments because no single pigment gives the shade that they want to offer. Many green colours are convenience mixtures and you could usually mix the shade up yourself using a combination of single pigment paints if you wanted to.

Often a convenience mixture is produced in order to offer a shade that is similar to one traditionally made from a single much more expensive pigment, or one which is now harder to obtain, environmentally unfriendly or potentially toxic. This kind of mixture is called a ‘hue’ colour and typically blends several cheaper pigments together. ‘Cadmium Red Hue’, for example is the hue alternative to expensive pure red cadmium.

Oil paint hue colours

Hue colours may be a fairly close match to the original colour, but often they don’t resemble it very well. Student grade paint ranges will be full of hue colours, whereas artist quality ranges will have small numbers of hues and may restrict them to single pigment alternatives. For example good oil ranges will commonly offer a ‘Manganese Hue’ made from a pigment from the phthalocyanine family as an alternative to the original manganese pigment which is now obsolete due to cost and environmental concern.

Although it’s considered best practice for paint manufacturers to always use the word ‘hue’ in the names of appropriate colours, in fact not all will do so. There are also some famous colour ‘names’ which are approximations of a colour made a long time ago with pigments which are now no longer used and should strictly speaking be called ‘hues’. ‘Vandyke Brown’ is one example – hardly any manufacturers use the original Lignite pigment that was mined to produce this well known shade, and all of their various versions of Vandyke Brown are really hue imitations. Generally however aside from various anomalies most reputable paint companies will use hue descriptions appropriately.

Spotting how many of the other type of ‘convenience’ mixtures there are in any given range and how many single pigment colours is more difficult. The only way to tell which pigment a paint contains is usually to look on the back of the tube (or on the manufacturer’s or retailer’s websites) for a tiny code beginning with ‘P’. This relates to an internationally recognized ‘Colour Index’ which identifies colours first with the letter P followed by one of ten colour categories: R for red, O for orange, Y for yellow, G for Green, V for violet, Br for brown, Bk for black, W for white and M for metallic. The final part of the code is a number that corresponds to the listing for that individual pigment in the index.

Pigment number on the back of a paint tube
If you want to know exactly which colour your paint contains you can look it up here. This is something that you’re likely to want to do more and more as you get more experienced as many professional artists will buy colours depending on the pigments they contain, as much as the manufacturer who makes them. If you’re a beginner however it’s just useful to know that the more ‘P’ codes on the back of your tube, the more pigments have been blended to make the colour. If you are happy to use a paint colour straight from the tube then buying a convenience colour is fine if you like the shade and find it vibrant enough, but if you mix a convenience colour with a number of other colours then you might find your mixture getting muddy and dull.

Artist grade or student grade?

Before we move on to individual colours, lets look more about the difference between student and artists’ grade oil paints that you might want to take into consideration when deciding on a paint range to buy. How can you tell what is a student range? The price is pretty much always going to be the giveaway, although sometimes the name will include something like ‘Graduate’, ‘Studio’ or ‘Akademie’ which will tell you that it’s marketed at beginners. Be aware that many manufacturers produce both an artist’s grade and a student grade range and so you’ll need to choose not only between a company but also their different products.

A top grade paint will give you a much more intense colour than a cheap paint because not only will it use better pigments but it will include way more pigment in each tube: as much as 80% mixed simply with an oil such as linseed or safflower to bind it and just a small amount of additives to stop the pigments clumping together. The pigments will be ground to an optimum size to produce the maximum radiance obtainable for each. Some modern, synthetic organic pigments that have a very high ‘tinting strength’ such as the phthalocyanines may require some additional bulking agents to temper their strength, but these are not added simply to save money (tinting means mixing a colour with some white in order to lighten it)

In contrast cheaper oil paints will contain as little as 23% pigment derived from less expensive sources, a similar ratio of oil, and tons of fillers used to extend the paint just in order fill up the tube. The pigments will be ground uniformly and often not as finely, and various additives will be included to ensure that all the colours within the range have the same viscous feeling and dry at similar rates. This consistency of texture and drying times across a range is not considered important in a professional quality paint range where you’ll find that your colours feel different depending on the pigments they contain and will dry at different speeds. All the additives and fillers in a cheaper range can give the paint a dull and even slightly chalky appearance.

Should you buy ‘student’ or ‘beginner’ grade paints when you are starting out with oil painting? Obviously everyone has to set their own budget as oil paints are not cheap, but I’d encourage you to buy the best that you can afford because you’ll get nicer results with them and will probably enjoy using them more. Having a smaller range of better quality colours and doing more mixing might be better than having a larger collection of cheaper tubes. You’ll get more intense and pure colours, a much nicer and more buttery texture, and a paint that mixes better, tints without losing its strength and goes further.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN SELECTING INDIVIDUAL COLOURS

Pigments vary in a large number of ways. Some will dry much faster than others. They will have different degrees of transparency, lightfastness (how well they withstand fading caused by UV light) and general chemical stability. In terms of choosing a basic palette of colours it’s hard to offer any prescription because it depends so much on what style of painting you are doing and what your subject matter is.

However it’s very useful to learn to read a few of the mysterious icons on the reverse of a paint tube in order to check the individual qualities of the paint colour you are considering, and there are certainly a number of pigments I’d suggest avoiding altogether if the longevity of your work is a concern.

Lightfast colours

A paint colour’s resistance to fading is difficult to assess, despite the presence on every tube of a ‘lightfastness’ value that ought to be an indicator as to how quickly the pigments within it may fade. This value is typically given as a rating of between either I and III, or I and IV, depending on the paint range. It’s often surprising to beginners that paint manufacturers continue to sell paints made with highly ‘fugitive’ pigments and therefore it’s always worth checking the tube to see which rating they have given to a colour.

In fact these lightfastness ratings are very problematic because rather than test their own paints manufacturers frequently rely on ratings awarded by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or by testing done by the pigment manufacturers themselves and these tests may be lacking in specificity and sensitivity.

Anne Dashwood by Sir Joseph Reynolds 1764

Part of  Anne Dashwood (1743–1830), Later Countess of Galloway by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1764

Photo credit: Metropolitan museum of art (public domain)

In an ideal world every paint colour produced by a manufacturer would be tested individually because its lightfastness will also be influenced by how the pigment has been milled and which additives it has been mixed with. People often ask how quickly oil colours can potentially fade and this is a different question to answer because it’s so variable. This work by Joseph Reynolds that demonstrates how a pigment (in this case carmine) can appear to vanish altogether, especially when used within a ‘tint’ to create a skin colour.

Would this kind of fading take centuries to happen? I would say no, and that you could easily see quite a degree of fading within only a matter of decades. If you hang a picture onto a wall that gets strong direct sunlight, then it could fade even more quickly than that. In my experience the general wisdom that oil paints fade more slowly than watercolours appears to be true, but even so if you are concerned about your oil paintings enduring perfectly for over 10 years and certainly if you plan on selling them then I’d suggest not using any paint colour with a lightfastness rating of less than ‘I’.

To confuse matters, many manufacturers also show a ‘Permanence’ rating (typically given as a grade between AA and D) which usually takes into account not only the ASTM rating but also the pigment manufacturer’s testing, and the film and chemical stability of the binder. I find permanence ratings rather baffling because you don’t know which criteria have been taken into account and sometimes a paint can be awarded a II for lightfastness and an yet be given an ‘A’ for permanence. You’ll notice that very few colours are awarded an AA, which seems to have been reserved for very stable inorganic pigments such as viridian and titanium. Personally I’d certainly avoid any colour with a permanence rating of B or below.

Watch out for certain colours which are made from pigments which are well known to be lacking in lightfastness. The most infamous is Alizarin Crimson (PR83) which despite being very fugitive is such a popular colour that Winsor & Newton still rather shockingly include it within their paint sets. Companies like W & N have phased out many severely fugitive pigments but still continue to offer one or two such as Rose Madder genuine (NR9) or Opera Rose (PR122). You might also come across Gamboge yellow (NY24) or Aureolin yellow (PY40) which should also be avoided.

This isn’t an exclusive list of fugitive pigments at all, which is why I prefer to stick to those awarded the top lightfastness rating. You’ll come across variants of famously fugitive colours with the words ‘Permanent’ or ‘New’ afterwards, such as ‘Permanent Alizarin Crimson’ or ‘Aureolin New’. These are really hues which utilize completely different pigments to approximate the original colour. Note that there’s no guarantee that a colour that describes itself as ‘permanent’ really is such, in the very long term. But it will certainly be much more lightfast than the colour it is imitating.

Some things to know about white oil paint

Recently, concern has arisen about the stability of zinc white, a very popular pigment that most of us have in our in our collection. Now that traditional white oil paint made from toxic lead is more or less obsolete, all white oil paint you’ll come across in an art store will be made from either titanium pigment, zinc oxide, or from a combination of both. The two pigments are very different because titanium gives a strong and opaque colour whilst zinc is very transparent. Be careful not to use great deal of pure zinc white in any lower layers if you’re concerned for your paintings to last the test of time, because evidence has come to light that when zinc becomes brittle with age it can cause cracking in layers above it.

White oil paints

Zinc dries much faster than titanium and you can buy ‘Underpainting White’ from most oil paint ranges for your lower layers which is formulated with titanium and a suitably low percentage of zinc to speed up the drying a bit. This paint won’t contain enough zinc to cause any problems. In an underpainting white the pigment will be bound with linseed rather than safflower oil despite the former being a little yellowy and not usually used to bind white pigment. This is because linseed dries more quickly than safflower which is preferable in an underlayer.

For tinting your colours (mixing them with white in order to lighten them) a ‘Mixing White’ which is a combination of titanium and zinc is recommended. The zinc content in a mixing white is useful because titanium is extremely opaque and and if you tint with it you can end up with a chalky, pastel shade. Zinc is much more transparent and doesn’t overwhelm the colour that you are lightening. You can compare the effect of tinting with different white pigments here.

Transparent vs opaque colours

Pigments vary greatly in their level of opacity and transparency. Modern, ‘synthetic organic’ phthalocyanine pigments which are used to make blue, violet and purple colours and red hued quinacridone colours tend to be more transparent. So do pigments derived from dyes, such as madders and the infamous alizarin crimson.The most opaque pigments tend to be the inorganic ones which are not based on carbon chemistry but are derived from natural minerals or ores. These include ‘earth’ colours, cadmiums, cobalts, chromes, whites and vermilion.

Does it matter whether your colours are more or less transparent? It depends of course on what you want to paint, and in what sort of style. If you are working in big bold abstract shapes you might want to avoid paints which are very transparent unless you mix them with some white, which will make them lighter. However if you want your painting to have maximum reflexivity then applying transparent or semi-transparent colours over opaque ones will allow light to bounce through them and create depth and glow.

Most manufacturers will indicate the degree of transparency on a tube of paint with a little square icon: a white square indicates an opaque paint, an empty square tells you it’s a translucent one. A half white square stands for semi-opaque whilst an empty square with a diagonal line bisecting it means semi-translucent.

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