How to read water colour labels

When you go into an art shop the number and variety of different makes of water colour paint can be very confusing and very daunting. There is a lot of information on the labels of the tubes, but what does it mean exactly…let us show you how to read these lables.

There are four important things to look for on labels. The pigment number and how transparent the paint is, how lightfast it is and how does the paint stain the paper. Deciphering the labels, can be a bit tricky, but when you get used to the terminology, it’s very useful. Sometimes you find other information on the labels, but the four above mentioned points are the most important. If you can’t find the information on the label, look up the website of the manufacturer.

The colour index is a standard international list, which is recognised by all manufacturers. It is a trustworthy way to identify colours. It’s a very simple way of identifying a pigment. Pigment letters and numbers tell you exactly which pigment was used to make the paint. The codes are as follows:

Y is for Yellow
O is for Orange
R is for Red
V is for Violet
B is for Blues
G is for Green
BR is for Brown
Bk is for Black
W is for White

The pigment numbers, which are also included in the information, are also necessary. Sometimes there is more than one pigment used in the mixture, this is to reduce costs for the manufacturer and eventually for the consumer. A tube of Winsor and Newton Professional Quality water colour paint for instance, Winsor Orange, is made from P (pigment) O (for orange) 62. The 62 refers to the 62nd colour pigment in the colour listing. The pigment used is Benzimidazole. This paint is series 1 and has an A rating.

Other information included on the label is the permanence rating. AA: is extremely permanent, A: is permanent and B: moderately permanent. Quantity tells you how much paint is in the tube. Finally the colour name is mentioned. This is often the same name that is used by different manufacturers, but the colour may vary.

There are also transparent, semi-transparent, semi opaque and also opaque paints. This may sound confusing, but with the help of learning how to read the labels, information and knowledge of pigment becomes more “transparent”!

You will read and hear the words transparency, opaque, lightfastness, staining properties and granulation, this is an explanation of what they mean. Transparency, means what is says, you can actually see through the dried paint. Using multiple layers of transparent colour, one on top of the other to achieve this effect. This produces a brilliant jewel like effect. If you use a layer of opaque paint in between, the effect is lost. Gum Arabic added to your transparent mixture, can increase the colours transparency.

Opaque Paint however, is a much denser paint. This does not let any light through it and dries to a matt finish.

Lightfastness is also shown with an ASTM rating. ASTM stands for the American Society for Testing. This is an organisation which makes sure that all raw materials used are safe to use. This also denotes how lightfast a paint is rated. There are five grades, both one and two are rated permanent and five is the lowest and most fugitive.

Granulation is where the paint particles tend to separate from each other. Winsor and Newton have seventeen colours that will granulate.

Staining Properties
Staining paints, which soak into the paper, are necessary when, for instance you are glazing. This means that the under lying layers of dried paint will not lift off when re-wet and mix with other layers of glazes.

Not all  manufacturers use the same recipe, so the colour, transparency and opacity can vary. Below is a list of transparent and opaque colours from the brand, Winsor and Newton.

Transparent Colours
These are very useful for glazing and produce very bright, clean colours.
Winsor Lemon, Winsor Yellow, Aureolin, Transparent Yellow, New Gamboge, Winsor Yellow Deep, Indian Yellow, Scarlet lake, Winsor Red, Rose Doré, Quinacridone Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Carmine, Permanent Rose, Rose Madder Genuine, Opera Rose, Quinacridone Magenta, Permanent Magenta, Cobalt Violet, Permanent Mauve, Ultramarine Violet, Winsor Violet, Indanthrene Blue, Cobalt Blue Deep, French Ultramarine, Ultramarine green shade, Cobalt Blue, Winson Blue red shade, Antwerp Blue, Prussian Blue, Winsor Blue green shade, Phthalo Turquoise, Winson Green blue shade, Viridian, Winsor Green yellow shade, Perylene Green, Hooker’s Green, Permanent Sap Green, Green Gold, Raw Sienna, Gold Ochre, Quinacridone Gold, Burnt Sienna, Brown Mader, Perylene, Maroon, Perylene Violet, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber.

Opaque Colours
Lemon Yellow, Bismuth Yellow, Cadmium Lemon, Lemon Yellow Deep, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Turner’s Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Orange, Winsor Orange, Winsor Orange red shade, Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Red Deep, Winsor Red Deep, Cerulean Blue red shade, Cerulean Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Cobalt Turquoise Light, Cobalt Turquoise, Cobalt Green, Oxide of Chromium, Naples Yellow, Naples Yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre Light, Yellow Ochre, Magnesium Brown, Light Red, Venetian Red, Indian Red, Sepia, Indigo.

Quality of water colour paint
There are two kinds of water colour paint, student quality and professional quality. Each of these have a different price tag. This is because the student quality contains more binder that the professional quality and therefore uses less pigment. It’s still very strong but not as strong as the professional quality that uses more pigment, hence the price difference.

Water colour also comes in either tubes or pans and they each have their advantages and disadvantages. Tubes are slightly less expensive than pans, it helps once you start to use them, to smear the neck in with vacciline so that the caps can be easily removed. Also dried up water colour tubes, can be opened up and used as pans, so you don’t have to throw them away. You also need a palette to mix your paint on, which can be bulky to carry if you paint outside. Pans however, usually have a ready-made palette in the tin that they come in. If you need a lot of paint say for instance a sky, much rubbing of the paint pan has to take place before you get the right strength. Also contamination of colours in the pan box, is very easy when you forget to clean your brush.

Whichever kind of water colour you buy, I hope you enjoy it, remember art doesn’t have to cost a fortune!