Pigments in artists' colours

Anyone who paints uses colours, whether water colour, acrylic or oil paint, no colours without pigments. Depending on the type of paint, binders are also used. Obviously water colours, acrylic colours and oil colours are not the same, but the basic principle is that pigments and binding agents are used. I will speak about the binders later as there are various types, depending on the quality of the paint. Of course, the amount of pigment in paint determines the price; less pigment and more binder will drive the price down, a lot of pigment will drive the price up. Manufacturers of paints are obliged by the EU to indicate which pigment(s) is (are) in the paint. The percentage of pigments is, of course, a well-kept secret that you as an individual will never be able to see.


Pigments are divided into organic and inorganic pigments.


Organic pigments contain carbon compounds and were originally derived from animals or plants. With the advent of the chemical industry (since about 1950) they have been made synthetically. Well-known examples of organic pigments are sepia (animal) and madder (vegetable). Well-known examples of synthetic organic pigments are: alizarin, azo pigments (the yellow, orange and red colour range), phthalocyanine (blue and green colour range) and quinacridone (a light fast red-violet pigment).


Inorganic pigments were originally extracted from minerals. These pigments usually consist of oxides of metals. Well-known examples of mineral-based inorganic pigments are umber, red ochre and raw sienna. Another pigment is cadmium sulphide or cadmium yellow, which belongs to the cadmium pigments with colours ranging from yellow, orange and red to maroon. Cobalt blue, or a mixture of cobalt (II) oxide and aluminium oxide, also exists. Titanium white, or titanium (IV) oxide, is also known, as is zinc white, or zinc oxide. Nowadays, inorganic pigments are mostly produced synthetically.


A great many toxic pigments have disappeared over the years, for example white lead, orpiment (arsenic compound), vermilion (mercury compound)...certain pigments are now also on the vanishing list, for example cadmium, cobalt, nickel pigments are under discussion and attempts are being made to approach the colour with imitations, although this is not always successful. Certain manufacturers have already adjusted their product range and certain original colours have irrevocably disappeared. Still other manufacturers boast that their imitations (usually referred to as Hue) are slightly truer and deeper than the original colours.


The painter expects the colours made from pigments to be light fast. Thanks to chemical progress this is the case with many colours, although there are still colours that are not, or only moderately, light fast. Fortunately, most suppliers of good quality mention the light fastness on their packaging. These statements have actually been tested against specific programmes for that purpose.

Every pigment has its own specific properties and this is translated into the way the colours behave, from very transparent to opaque. This too is well stated on the packaging when you buy quality paint.


With water colours, it is even the case that certain colours behave specifically when mixed with water. Daniel Smith's range of 250 colours includes many of these special tints. In contrast to the past, paint manufacturers want to bring a wide range of colours on to the market, and I personally like that very much because you can add certain nuances to your work without having to mix colours every time. So there are many colours on the market and there is a catch. Not all colours consist of one pigment (mono pigment), so there are colours that consist of two or more pigments and when mixing these particular colours this can produce strange effects. The mixed colour may look muddy because the colours are already a mixture of different pigments. For this reason, it is recommended that you only mix with mono pigments, but you can, of course, experiment on your own. It can lead to strange colours, and that is always a voyage of discovery...


Pigments are subdivided into colour groups and each has its own specific number that is used worldwide (Colour Index). There are numerous websites where you can consult these lists, many of which are in English, but that does not spoil the fun. Here you can see how the colours are classified according to pigment, with an example colour for each.


I used as an example Sennelier l'aquarelle mono pigments


PW - White pigments (PW4 - Zinc white) Zinc oxide

PY - Yellow pigments (PY3 - Real cadmium yellow lemon) Cadmium- Zinc sulphide.

PO - Orange pigments (PO73 - Sennelier Orange) Pyrol orange

PR - Red pigments (PR209 - Quinacridone red) Stable red quinacridone

PV - Violet pigments Purple pigments (PV23 - Dioxaxin purple) Dioxazine

PB - Blue pigments (PB72 - Cobalt blue dark) Cobalt zinc aluminate

PG - Green pigments (PG17 - Chromium oxide green) Chromium oxide

PBr - Brown pigments (PBr7 - Burnt umber) Ferrosoferric oxide produced from ores containing 25% manganese dioxide

PBk - Black pigments Black pigments (Pbk9 - Ivory black) Amorphous carbonized bone carbon


The button below will take you to a web page that I often consult to look up pigments
to look up pigments.






By clicking on the buttons below you will get the list of colours and pigments of the relevant brand. You can print it out or download it for free. The names of the pigments are for the time being only in Dutch