The Pigment Database...

The Pigment Database and What I’ve learned about Hues

The more I paint and buy new paint tubes, bottles, and jars the more I have pushed to learn about paint as a whole. A number of years ago I was exploring the binders of each paint, and understanding the key differences between oils, acrylics, and watercolors. However, in recent years I have pushed to understand pigments in a more complex manner. One thing that many artists are aware of is the difference between a pure pigment paint and a “hue.” Hues are a single or multiple pigment used to replicate another pigment (such as sap green, cerulean blue, or alizarin crimson). Many hue colors, especially in acrylics, are designed to replicate a historical pigment without having the drawbacks of fugitive (or non-lightfast) colors. Artists want their paints to last and not fade over time in most cases. There are also parts of the world where certain colors are simply unavailable as they use heavy metals in their formula, the cadmiums and the cobalts are to blame here. Needless to say though many artists will chase after single pigment paints for their superior mixing capabilities and consistency across brands. It is in this brand to brand difference that learning exactly which pigments are in use in your paint becomes both cost effective for the artist as well as vital to the process when you start crossing viscosities and color lines.

So, in learning to research my colors more effectively I came across “The Pigment Database,” an online tool for cross referencing pigments, with color names, and common brands. Since discovering the database it has easily become one of my biggest companions in my weekly studio use as well as a shopping guide for future purchases.

Aside from its use in my purchases, it has also allowed me to slowly become familiar with reading the pigment codes on not just paint tubes, but on ink, markers, pastels, and a variety of other supplies. Being able to recognize color across brands, materials, and specific names I’m able to more accurately and effectively utilize color in creating different types of art.  Of course I do relate every pigment back to my acrylic colors as that is the medium I’m most familiar with, but even in doing so my understanding of each color and how it changes between medium has deepened immensely.

For a long time I also viewed a “hue” color to be inferior to a pure pigment color, and it wasn’t until the pigment database came into my workflow that I really started to change that opinion. Many artists (and I think very falsely so) see mixed pigment paints as lesser, when really it’s about the usage and skill level of each individual artist. Many hues are used in low end student grade colors which use not only a mix of pigments, but less pigment in general. These lesser paints will often have varying consistency levels, and leave paint mixes on your canvas to seem dull or washed out. However, professional tools don’t have this problem and this includes hue colors in these high end lines. Golden Acrylics’ historical colors are a great example of this. I’ve added a number of these colors to my palette in the past few years including Indian Yellow Hue and Smalt Hue. The original versions of these colors (at that time in oil paints) were not only single pigment colors, but known to be fugitive (colors that fade over time). Many of the modern mixed pigment substitutes  are much better than many artists think. While yes a color (like alizarin crimson) might mix a little different than it’s traditional counterpart, it will have a great color retention in the extended short term exposure in a gallery setting.

The one exception I’ve found to the hues would be the cadmium substitutes. These colors often have a drastically different mixing capability and are often only used by artists on a budget. However this also is in the process of changing. Liquitex recently announced a line of “cadmium free” substitutes for artists that retain the brilliant color of the regular cadmium colors without the need for the more toxic heavy metal pigment. In blind studies it has been running circles around the traditional colors, however I personally am more skeptical. For obvious reasons they are keeping their formulation under a hat for now, which leaves artists like me at an impasse. For an artist like myself who understands not just paint names but also pigments, I find it exceedingly frustrating to not be able to see the pigment codes for these paints. For a professional line of paint to not show the pigments used I feel isn’t useful to me at all. For some regions where cadmium pigments are unavailable the colors certainly have a lot to offer, but not knowing in advance if they are simple rebranded single pigments, or new hue variants I can say that waiting to try the colors would be in any artist’s best interest. I by no means want to criminalize Liquitex. I love their products, but I feel the omission of the pigment information is a misstep.

Ok, so ranting about brands aside let’s get back to the point. The Pigment Database is a wonderful resource for artists of any level. It has taught me a ton about paint, color, and where to draw the line with certain names. There’s still a lot to learn as well. As I continue to grow as an artist I’ll keep referencing the database to expand my color palette and push the limits of just what I can do with color!


What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you been to the pigment database? If not, will you and how will you use it in your own process?