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Sorry, Wrong Umber…..Part I

43 thoughts on “Sorry, Wrong Umber…..Part I”

  1. Thank you for your meticulous attention to this issue…I’m an old dog just new to painting (acrylics), but in classes I’ve taken I’ve actually been rebuffed for persistence in championing single pigment colors instead of the ones preferred by the instructor…one of my joys is mixing shades of secondaries, etc. from my quite limited basic palette! I rarely have good results when using colors that are already mixtures! I don’t mind being called a control freak because, hey, I don’t have all that much time and money left to mess around and end up wasting paint from failed combinations that have turned muddy!
    Again, thanks for confirming my novice suspicions!

    Reply
    • Hi Roberta –

      Thank you so much for the positive feedback and glad that the article was able to confirm your suspicions. And if there is ever anything else we can do to make your exploration of painting easier, just let us know!

      Reply
    • What a fantastic post. Here I am trying to find the chemicals to use to refinish some old wood (mahogany), thinking I could take some raw umber, sienna, etc, mush them together…

      but, eh… I’m an artist, so I’ll always test my colors, I think, because I think all raw umbers are the same.

      I’ve just learned differently. Thank you for this post. It reminds me to always “test” my colors.

      Reply
  2. Thank you very much for your work on this issue. As an artist with a serious concern about the longevity and predictability of art materials, I have always read the labels for the pigment content and am distressed that the ASTM standards are not being respected. Is there no oversight mechanism that can fine those who flout the rules? Concerned…

    Reply
    • Hi Michèle –

      Thank you for your reply and it is great to know that you are so passionate about this issue. That alone goes a long way to helping in the fight against the erosion of these naming conventions. Unfortunately ASTM Standards are completely voluntary, with no compliance enforcement mechanism, so as long as one is not claiming to conform to a specific ASTM Labeling Standard, they really are free to name it whatever they want. Which is all the more reason why we think the best and only hope to get companies to recommit to following a set of naming conventions is for customers to voice their concerns. But also rest assured, this is being discussed by members of ASTM and we will continue to see what we can do to educate the field. And stay tuned for our eventual Part II, where we will take more time to unpack the system and standards that dictate how pigments are classified and named.

      Reply
  3. Dear Sarah,
    What an outstanding article! Thanks so much for raising the RED FLAG ! It is very much appreciated! I had no idea this was happening and will check my watercolor and acrylic tubes and pay attention before I buy. And if I find any offending manufacturers I will send them an email and inform the art supply store!

    Reply
    • Thanks Linda! We truly appreciate the feedback! And its great to let companies and art stores know what you value. We truly think customers have the best chance of changing the labeling practices. As we pointed out, at least everyone discloses the pigments they use, so its less about calling them out for doing something wrong and more about sharing what you would like to see. Let us know how things go and if we can help in any way.

      Reply
  4. In this town there are plenty of artists, but only one other pigment geek like me. We speak of colors by their color index numbers as often or more as when we speak of them using the sometimes fanciful manufacturers’ names.

    We like single pigment colors as well as blends, but we are very aware of what is in those blends. When we purchase paints, or when we are asked which paints to purchase, we go for and suggest colors based on their actual contents. In this way, I think we at least try to promote awareness of paint quality, thereby assuring we get the best product from the manufacturer that our sometimes limited budgets can afford.

    Many of our listeners or students just cover their ears and go “la la la”, but they are missing out on high quality materials. Others pay attention, and with our and their purchasing power we can weed out flawed product and force manufacturers to straighten up their act.

    Reply
    • Hi Marcao – Thanks for the comment. You are probably not alone in finding yourself as a stranded pigment geek, but how encouraging that so many painters are at least aware of the pigment numbers and use that as a guide. Just starting from there is already being far, far ahead of the game. As for the others….well, shall we say they simply live in ‘la la land’.

      🙂

      Reply
  5. Thank you for this information. I’ll be looking at labels more closely now. Since each paintmaker can create their own standard, Unless there is a list somewhere of best ingredients, I guess I’m going to have to learn more about chemistry.

    Reply
    • Hi Jennie – Its all a matter of baby steps, and just being more aware of labeling and the variations that you see can be helpful. Unfortunately it is true that many paint manufacturers will make there own set of rules, but ASTM does have labeling guidelines which is what we follow. We will continue to write articles on this topic, so stay tuned as there is a lot to learn and just Paint is a great place to find resources for exploring. Or feel free to throw questions our way about anything made by anybody! Truly! Just email help@goldenpaints.com and usually an answer will appear on your end by the next day (or two at most).

      Reply
  6. Hi Sarah,

    As always you are great and very helpful. I quit paying attention to “names” and paint with pigments, mainly choosing single pigment creations. The light frequencies absorbed, and those reflected, in a single pigment create a signature. When multiple pigments are combined it seems to muddy the signature.

    My favorite site is the one Bruce MacEvoy created at http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/water.html. I wish there was more detailed information like that in a current site. He wasn’t part of a company so was free to share his opinions.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Ernest – Thanks for the warm feedback – that always means a lot to me. And we totally agree about the value of Bruce MacEvoy’s site. What a gift to all of as and a true labor of love. Another site i stand in amazement of is Artist Creation and their pigment database tracked across manufacturers;

      http://www.artiscreation.com/

      As much as we can tell, just a person’s passion given freely to all. There are times that examples like these gives one hope and shows the power of the internet as a storehouse of knowledge.

      Reply
  7. Thank you for the enlightening and thorough information. I have recently been confused re the labeling of ultramarine blue and French ultramarine blue. I have always believed that French ultramarine was more red. Each tube is labeled PB 29. The two tubes are from two different manufacturers.

    I’ve been surprised the sap green I buy seems to change rather often. Your article answers many questions. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Hi Linda – Thanks for the comment and glad you found the article valuable. French Ultramarine is indeed traditionally more red. However all shades of ultramarine blue, from ones that lean green to ones that are quite warm, have PB 29 as the pigment designation. Unfortunately Color Index Names, which is what those are, are good for tracking the major aspects of a pigment but not always its specific color. Cadmiums are similar – all cadmium reds are PR 108’s but obviously they cover a range from light warm reds to dark cool ones. Anyway, long story short the world of pigments can be confusing but we are always here to help, so don’e hesitate to send us any questions to help@goldenpaints.com. We are almost always able to get a reply sent back within 8 business hours. At least that is what we aim for. In the meantime, you might find this article that we wrote on the topic of how pigments and color are described and designated by different systems helpful:

      https://justpaint.org/the-nomenclature-of-color/

      Reply
  8. I wish Golden would make water mixable oils – a medium that I recently switched to from acrylics. I love the medium, but the problem you’ve written about occurs in all the brands I’ve looked into to a fairly large degree. These crazy “not what they are called” pigment combinations can sure make for some unpleasant surprises when mixing colors! I miss the wonderful single-pigment, correctly named Golden acrylic colors in my new medium!

    Reply
    • Hi Sharon – We will certainly add your vote for water-miscible oils to our list of product ideas. And we hear you – it can get frustrating. The blends you are finding might be more prevalent in water-miscible oils because they tend to appeal to a wider range of artists beyond the more traditional oil painters – but not really sure. If nothing else, let them know. And just to be sure, have you ever given OPEN Acrylics a try? If not they could be an interesting as they provide a wonderfully long working time. But, just to be honest, still not as long as oils, and with less opacity. So always some trade-offs. Anyway, if not, we would be happy to send along some samples. And if we can help with anything else, just let us know.

      Reply
  9. What an appalling trend, and so unnecesssary. I’ve known for a long time that commercial paint names mean very little and that one must read labels scrupulously, especially in regard to so called cadmiums, cobalts etc which are so often nothing of the kind…. but this trend for falsifying (that’s the only word that fits, IMO) earth colours is a new low. Thanks for publicing this, Sarah!

    Reply
    • Hi Jenny – Thanks for the comment. it is a bit shocking, which is why it caught our eye. Especially some of the blends which seem so unnecessarily complex. But at least you are scrupulous about reading labels. That alone puts you well ahead of the curve. And keep an eye out for our follow-up to this piece which will be a deeper dive into some similar issues.

      Reply
  10. I’m aware that some manufacturers use such wierd mixtures instead of real earth pigment. However, I wonder why they actually do this.

    I understand, that one might decide to use a substitute for genuine cinnabar/vermilion (PR106, mercuric sulfide), as the real thing is somewhat toxic (although I suppose no one eats his paint), has questionable lightfastness according to some sources and of course is very expensive.
    But why earths? I made few oil paints based on genuine earths myself and majority of pigments I used was really cheap, like 3,70 Euro per 100 grams.

    Reply
    • Hi Ivan –

      We totally agree and besides perhaps some advantage in controlling color variations, it does feel like taking something that is simple and inexpensive and making it into something more costly and complex. it will remain one of those enduring mysteries for now, but hopefully just making people aware that this is happening will help.

      Reply
  11. Hi Sarah –

    Thanks for such an amazing article and thanks for caring so much about this subject. I started with the cheap paints and quickly realized that the savings weren’t at all worth the sacrifice in quality… and have been with Golden ever since. This article is so helpful for those of who aren’t chemists but want good paint.

    Reply
    • Hi Anne! Thanks so much, both for the warm feedback but also for your support of our products and belief in what we do. That means the world to us and we never ever take it for granted. And if there is ever anything else we can do, just ask!

      Reply
  12. A couple of questions Sarah..

    Bruce MacEvoy has said on his website regarding natural earths:

    “NOTE: The manufacture of most iron oxide artists’ paints, including those with traditional names such as “earth”, “sienna”, “umber” or “ochre”, has changed from the use of natural iron oxide clays — designated by the generic color index names PBr7 or PY43 — to the use of synthetic iron oxide powders. Small supplies of artists’ grade natural iron oxides continue to flow from mines in Europe and the Middle East, but by 2002 there were no longer any suppliers of natural iron oxide pigments registered with the Society of Dyer’s and Colourists’ (UK) Colour Index.

    Many watercolors now labeled PBr7 or PY43 are actually made of mixed synthetic iron oxide pigments, not natural ores. In fact, iron oxides used in watercolor paints today include pigments formulated for use in wood or leather stains, or as plastic, ceramic or masonry colors, and are available in a very broad range of colors and grades. See for example the page “earth tones dry pigments” at the web site of Kama Art Materials (Montréal, Québec), the mineral and iron oxide pigments available at Sinopia Pigments (San Francisco, CA) or Kremer Pigments (New York, NY), and the pigment information pages at Société des ocres de France or their USA distributor, The Earth Pigments Company (Tucson, AZ).

    The use of natural oxides has dwindled so much that in 2001 the SDC considered eliminating the color index names PBr7, PR102 and PY43 from the Colour Index, and reassigning these pigments to the color index names for synthetic brown (PBr6), red (PR101) or yellow (PY42) iron oxides. However, manufacturers lobbied to retain these color index names as convenient “color” designations and desirable marketing labels. In 2007, the SDC reaffirmed to me that they were still deliberating on the issue.”

    Second question: I have also heard (though I also don’t know if this is true) that some pigment supplies of PR102 or PY43 have some level of synthetic versions mixed in to ensure less colour variety between batches (as the impurities are what causes more colour differences in the natural versions).

    Can you comment at all on these questions?

    Reply
    • Hi Richard – We plan to address a lot of these questions in our follow-up to this article. We purposely separated out these issues because they quickly get complicated and involve a lot of untangling of the various roles of the Color Index, pigment manufacturers, ASTM, and artist paint manufacturers when it comes to how these pigments get categorized and labeled. Certainly there appears to be some credence to the issues Bruce McEvoy raises, but in our experience it is not nearly that universal, especially among the larger natural iron oxide suppliers. The fact that none of these are registered with the Color Index means little – simply that they do not see registering with them of any business value. The Color Index, after all, does not hold the same prominence as a trade association as it did in the past. We also have not found that larger suppliers have needed to blend synthetic iron oxides with natural ones for color consistency. Rather this can be managed simply by the controlled blending of multiple lots of naturally mined earths. That said, there is definitely a market that is pursued where this is the case – such as the need for a broad palette for coloring cement or grouts, for example – but these are largely separate offerings and clearly marked. Anyway, the main thing is that yes, Bruce raises good points and it is an area that manufacturers and artists who care about this are going to need to keep tabs on, and advocate for, but at least from our perspective true natural iron oxides continue to be readily available.

      Hope that helps, but also look for our follow-up Part II to this article for a fuller picture.

      Reply
        • Hi Richard –

          I want to amend my earlier response as I unfortunately misrepresented some information. Indeed, it does appear that larger suppliers use synthetic iron oxides in small percentages to adjust color while still labeling their pigments with the Color Index Numbers for natural earths: PBr7, PY43, and PR102. These additions, from our understanding, can comprise up to 10% of the blend and do not significantly alter the qualities of the pigment since they are chemically identical to the main components. This practice has been true for quite some time and is not a recent development.

          There is more to unpack here, which we plan to do in the next installment to the article. It is also one of the reasons we wanted to set aside and discuss the issue of natural and synthetic iron oxides separately. In the meantime I just wanted to correct the record.

          Reply
  13. Hi Sarah! This is Carol McIntyre, we met recently at the conference in Boston. Thank you for your clarity and info. BTW, I speak a little to this subject in my forthcoming book “I Just Want to Paint: Mixing the Colors You Want!” Great to see it reinforced here by you, the expert.

    Reply
    • Hi Carol! Great to touch base again since the conference in Boston. It was such a wonderful opportunity to meet people concerned with these types of questions. And there can never be too many voices raising these concerns! Maybe collectively we can all move the needle ever so slightly. or if nothing else, at least raise the level of awareness.

      Reply
  14. As some who prefers “earth colors” over the more vivid Cadmium and Quinacridones for landscapes and marine-scapes, the lack of clarity in pigmentation is fustrating in evaluation paints without purchasing them first. The [PBr7] paint-class is all over the map…so to speak. As you point out, most “earths” today are hues, not straight pigments. Plus the refinement of many pigments can skew their final hue-value-chroma, as well as their behavior when mixed with othe colors on the palette as the constiuent pigments interact. Even if their masstones are similar, their undertones can vary wildly. At least many manufacturers provide some info on their “transparency”.

    Fortunately Golden, Gamblin and a few others make the Munsell notation accessible for their paints. I just wish more manufacturers did-so.

    Reply
    • Hi Ted – We completely understand your frustration. And having the names of natural earths starting to be used for all sorts of blends is only adding to the problems that you mention, some of which are inherent to the system we have for indexing pigments and specifying colors. As you point out, even among PBr7 pigments, assuming no adulteration, you will still get a wide variation in color depending on source, processing, particle size, etc. Some of that has always been true, and the index name – Pbr7 – only speaks to the chemical composition and general color space but does not really specify a specific range of hues, much less undertones, that a PBr7 color needs to meet. Those types of specifications are done more at the level of specific industries or companies. The best advice, for now, is to try and stick to the brand or brands you rely on the most as they hopefully will be fairly consistent from batch to batch. And in the meantime, thanks for your support and appreciation. If we can do anything else to help, just ask!

      Reply
  15. Isn’t the root cause of this change due to factors like the rariety, expense, foreign sourcing or environmental costs of mining earth pigments?
    Maybe we shouldn’t use the cliche “Cheap As Dirt” anymore!

    Reply
    • Certainly there are costs to mining natural earths, including environmental ones that are likely hard to quantify and compare to the industrial costs of producing synthetic materials. However, in terms of basic price, the synthetic iron oxides are still more expensive pound for pound; although you often need less if you chief measure is tint strength. But your points are well taken that scarcity, shipping, and environmental costs should be factored in.

      Reply
  16. Wow very interesting! I personally like some of the synthetic iron oxides and would buy them just for their own sake. But I see the need to label them differently so that we know what we’re getting.

    Reply
    • Hi Leslie – Thanks for the positive feedback and that you found the article interesting. We definitely agree that correct labeling is critical as it forms the foundation of trust between art material manufacturers and customers.

      Reply
  17. Thanks Sarah, for your dedication to color and quality in pigments! I noticed a couple of years ago that I was seeing puzzling issues in my paints.

    For instance, my local scanner-company could not get certain blues (notably indanthrone) to reproduce correctly in giclee prints. The blue areas turned gray when compared to the rich deep chroma of the original artwork.

    Also, a harsh yellow undertone kept emergining in landscape paintings, making pale wheat-colored grasses look like mustard. I discovered that my so-called “Yellow Ochre” (PY42) was actually a synthetic blend. Now I check to be sure the paint tube reads (PY43) “Natural Yellow Ochre,” the colors seen in actual landscapes.

    But the worst offender is when either thalo blue or green is introduced to a color that should not contain it. Cobalt blue HUE, for instance, adds a synthetic toothpaste-aqua quality to skies, water and clouds. It just hurts to see paintings with this color so predominant.

    These artificial mixtures really play havoc when an artist is trying to mix neutrals. Instead of a nice warm gray, one gets an orange or aqua that simply will not be modulated. It always remains harsh and chemical-looking, no matter how much of the complimentary color is added.

    I spend hours researching the paints I buy, trying to balance lightfastness, quality of paint and the ability of pigments to mix well together. I fear that if we artists don’t support manufacturers who provide quality materials (even if we are willing to pay more for them), they will become unavailable.

    Most likely, the popular craft market is driving this trend to substitute cheaper ingredients. I’ve seen art supply stores all over the country go out of business in the past 15 years, to be replaced by “big box” hobby stores. These usually stock only the cheaper brands, because, let’s face it: they are very profitable.

    People who don’t know the difference will say, why spend $13 on a tube of viridian when you can get the same sized thalo green for $5? They see it as a good deal, money saved. But when an artist comes in later to buy viridian, the seller has discontinued it. As much as I want to support my local dealers, I’ve had to start buying online because the local companies won’t carry the items I want to purchase. Even when I beg them to.

    I would also love to see Williamsburg develop a water mixable set. Williamsburg’s rich, handmade colors are delicious, but alas, I’ve become allergic to all solvents, including odorless mineral spirits and turpentine. Water mixable oils have been regarded as a “student-grade” category until recently. I think plein air workshops are fueling the demand for them. Artists can’t carry solvents on airplanes, so they take their water mixable kit. This is a huge market!

    Regarding OPEN: I created a series of over 50 paintings using Golden OPEN acrylics, so I’m quite familiar with the brand. They have their virtues, but simply do not perform like oil paints.

    Keep up your great work! I read your writings eagerly and appreciate your efforts on behalf of the world’s artists.

    Reply
    • Hi Shere – What can I say but thanks – for the positive feedback and support for the things we do, and for such a thorough sharing of your thoughts in this critical area. We agree that there is a sea change happening in the art industry, and those who deeply care about these things are increasingly frustrated. But it is also true that artists like yourself remain central to what we do and we are committed to remaining a champion of quality and research.

      You are not the first person who has encouraged us to look at water-miscible oils as an area for expansion, so certainly know it is on the list that we consider when looking at projects to take up. That said, I know that we currently have nothing on the horizon in this area. But perhaps one day. And we agree that OPEN is not a substitute for oils in the strict sense – especially in feel and density. Our aim was first and foremost to push the boundaries of what acrylics could do and to provide to the acrylic painter some of the working time that oil painters enjoy. But certainly we have been pleased by the number of oil painters that have taken them up – not necessarily as a substitute for oils so much as helping ease the entrance into this other medium and allowing for some of the blending and glazing they are used to. Recently, for example, we were pleased to see that David Hockney had taken to them with obvious enthusiasm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCB-inw3kMk

      Anyway, let us know if we can ever help with anything, and in the meantime keep painting away!

      Reply
  18. This is why it is important to find reputable companies such as Golden to do business with, there are only a handfull of other companies I can say this about. It pays to read the labels and know what you want before you hit the store thank you for sharing this valuable information J.B.

    Reply
    • Hi Jennifer. Thanks so much for the warm feedback and support for the work we do. Knowing that our efforts are making a difference makes it all worthwhile.

      Reply
  19. Hi Sarah, Glad you publish this, i totally agree:
    there should be a regulation about these labels & what pigments they refer to.

    In the case of W&N, the Galeria acrylics degraded from mono-pigmentary to multi-pigmentary at the exact time they moved the production to China.

    Yet I thought Natural Iron Oxides were cheapest to produce, so i don’t understand the reason for the substitution. Maybe they work with mixing machines, you give them a sample color & they produce the paint, regardless of the pigments it comprises…

    SURE there should be regulations, but i guess most names have been used historically in a very unscientific way. Under the term PB29 on the site http://www.artiscreation.com, there is a list of about 100 different names, such as “lapis lazuli”, “french ultramarine”, “navy blue” etc…So i guess Brands use this “historical impermeability” to put whatever pigments under a certain label.

    As for Golden Paints…
    Yes i like a lot Golden & am very satisfied by the quality.
    But in my recent purchases of Fluid Acrylics i also had a surprise: i bought “Van Dyke Brown Hue”, yet once at home i noticed it was a mixture of “PR101+PBK7” (iron oxide & Carbon black).
    I don’t get that, i used that pigment at the academy, it was an earth pigment, why they replace it?
    & why do they sell it? I can add some red & black too, i don’t need Golden to do that for me!

    Morale: even with Golden Paints you have to be careful.

    Reply
    • Hello Nicolas,

      Thank you for your comment. Sarah is on sabbatical for the next year, so I’m happy to reply in her absence.

      Yes, some of the blends we’ve seen as replacements for natural earths are quite elaborate and seemingly would be more expensive and time consuming for the manufacturer. We know from our experience that the more complicated the blend, the more difficult it is to consistently match the color, working properties and dry time. That all adds up to more costs and headaches, so not sure why manufacturers would want to do that. When it comes to “Hues” though, it should be expected that the pigments used in those colors are not the same as the color they are named after. In most cases, hues are manufactured because the original pigments used to make that color are either no longer available, have a toxicity risk associated with them, are prohibitively expensive, or in the case of Van Dyke Brown, which is traditionally made with NBr8 Bituminous Earth, cannot be stabilized in an aqueous system – water-based acrylics. Please know that all of our GOLDEN acrylic colors that have the word “Hue” in the name are made from a blend of pigments, none of which are the pigments the color is named after or the pigments traditionally associated with that name. Unlike the LONG list of names associated with PB29, we try not to indulge our creative fancy when naming our GOLDEN Acrylic colors, but stick with the chemical name or the traditional name associated with that pigment or color space.

      We hope this helps. Best wishes in the studio!
      Greg Watson

      Reply
  20. Was part 2 ever written up? I’ve been quite fascinated by this article and its comments but have been unable to find the promised part 2.

    Reply
    • Hi –

      Unfortunately no – best-laid plans and all that, we just never got around to it before I took a year sabbatical in 2019/2020. It might be something I will get back to, but in truth, we led with what we thought were the most critical and important issues to highlight, which was the use of synthetic organics and various strange, complex blends, in “earth” colors where they clearly did not belong. Part II was going to look at the far more subtle issues when talking about naming and color-space within the world of iron oxides – for example, why is Burnt Sienna sometimes listed as PR102 and other times PBr7, or Raw Sienna as PY43 or PBr7, and does it matter. Or the use of synthetic iron oxides in place of or as a way to adjust natural earths. And finally, the relationship between the Color Index, pigment manufacturers, ASTM, and paint companies and how colors acquire their designations. But there was nothing else as egregious as what we laid out in this part. So…perhaps one of these days….maybe. But in meantime, as we said in this article, the good news is that companies do list what pigments are used, so you can easily see what you are getting. And if you have specific questions, just ask!

      Reply

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