Friday, March 19, 2010

Tips and Tricks #3: How to Buy Paint! A Guide for the Perplexed

Are you one of those folks who stands in front of those huge racks full of different paint colors and has no idea how to go about choosing the right ones? Fear not, you are not alone! Many customers at BINDERS have come to us with an equally confused expression, so in this post we'll start to delve into the nature of paint and hopefully reach an understanding of how color is organized in the store.

One of the most frequent questions that comes up is: "Why are some paint colors more expensive than others?" To which the answer is: "It's all about the pigment!"

Pigment and Binders
The pigment is the particles of matter that actually carry the color itself and these pigments come from many different sources. The pigments are carried in a binder, which is the more or less fluid substance that adheres the pigment particles to the canvas/paper/etc., examples being linseed oil for oil paint, gum arabic for watercolors, or polymer emulsion for acrylic paint. The cost of a tube of paint has very little to do with the binder, which is to say that the gum arabic used in watercolors is pretty much the same from color to color and from brand to brand, the same goes for oil and acrylic paints as well. So what you are paying for is the pigment, or the color itself.

Grading Pigments With Series
The standard system in place for most paint manufacturers to grade their pigments is a Series number and you will typically see on the face of any tube of paint that there will be spot where it says Series 1, Series 2, Series 3, etc. The paint rack will usually have a price listing that tells you how much a tube of paint costs within a particular Series number and that price will apply to any color within the particular series. Usually there are many different colors in each series, for example Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber and Titanium White are all typically Series 1 colors which would all cost the same amount. So, check the label on the paint tube to find out what series it is, then check the price chart to find out the cost of that series. Easy!

Series and Cost
The reason why some colors are Series 1 (affordable) and others may be Series 9 (expensive) is because of the nature of the pigment itself. Some pigments are very easy to come by, while others are more rare, or require a lot of processing before they can be used in paint. The least expensive pigments are the Natural Earth Colors - Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, etc. - which are essentially colored dirt, so the only processing required is to dig it up out of the ground and wash it off. Synthetic Earth Colors - Yellow Oxide, Red Oxide, etc. - have a similar appearance to their natural counterparts, but they are manufactured products created from rusted iron that is processed in various ways to get specific hues and so they can be slightly more expensive (although they are often still found in the Series 1 category). On the other end of the spectrum, pigments manufactured from rare heavy metals like cobalt and cadmium, which are slightly radioactive, require a complex process to make them safe to use for painting and then even more processing to obtain the luminous shades of blue, green, violet, red and yellow that these pigments are famous for. In between the two extremes is a wide range of intermediately priced colors, made up primarily of synthetic mineral colors - Alizarin Crimson, Viridian, etc. - and synthetic organic colors - Pthalocyanine Blue, Naphthol Red, etc. The synthetic organics are the most modern colors and are manufactured primarily from petroleum products.

Another thing to keep an eye out for is when a paint color is listed with the word "Hue" after its name, as in Cobalt Blue Hue or Cadmium Yellow Hue. These colors are actually imitations of the pigments they are named after, created by mixing less expensive pigments together to form a rough approximation of the original. So a Cobalt Blue Hue is most likely an Ultramarine Blue or a Pthalo Blue mixed with white to make it more opaque. In most cases these "Hues" will work fine for color mixing, however they will lack the richness and depth of color of the real thing. There is, after all, a reason why people are willing to pay such a high price for cobalts and cadmiums - they look really, really beautiful! That said, for beginners or for preparatory sketches, the "Hues" will be just fine and would provide a decent approximation of what a finished piece would look like with the true colors.

Finally, it is important to distinguish between "Professional" or "Artist" Grade paints and their much less costly counterparts, the "Student" Grade paints. The difference is, once again, all about the pigments, in this case about how much pigment the paint contains and whether or not there are any fillers. Student Grade paints - like Winton oil paints, Grumbacher Academy oils and watercolors, or Liquitex Basics acrylic paints - are intended to be an affordable way to learn painting techniques and they can be useful even for professional artists for doing sketches or underpaintings.

Anything designated as Student Grade will have considerably less pigment in it than a comparable Artist Grade, with an opaque filler material (like calcium carbonate) being added to maintain the opacity of the paint. Student Grade paints will also lean heavily on the "Hues" mentioned above, in order to keep the pigment costs down.

Artist Grade paints, on the other hand, will pride themselves on having as much pigment as the binder can reasonably hold to allow for the richest color possible. Each brand, such as Gamblin oil paints, Winsor and Newton Artist Watercolors, or Golden acrylic paints, will have their own particular variations on the manufacturing process, which means that a Cerulean Blue made by M. Graham & Co. might have a slightly different shade than the same color from Rembrandt, so the choices abound! Most artists don't stay loyal to a particular brand of Artist Grade paint, instead experimenting with different brands and picking out the variations on the standard hues that suit their individual tastes. One could say that the beginning of a great painting comes before the brush hits the canvas and it actually happens when the artist is in the store deciding which colors to buy.

You can find out more about this and get recommendations from the staff at BINDERS. Come on in or visit BINDERS website to see our wide selection of both Student and Artist Grade paints!

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