Learn about watercolour pigments – speed date your paints – 7 things to look for

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get to know how your paints are going to behave, without just having to experiment and try them out? Could you find out what pigments are in them and instead of getting to know them over time you could see if you are compatible right from the beginning. Sort of speed-dating your paint, rather than going out a few times and then realising your are just not right for each other (I know I might be stretching the dating analogy a little here).

Well, of course you can, if you just read and understand the information the manufacturer puts in teeny tiny writing on the tube. I will help decipher it and let you understand why the name is utterly irrelevant, what the difference between Student and Artist paints is (and why you shouldn’t be sniffy about Student paints), are single pigment paints better than multiple ones….? We also explore lightfastness, transparency, staining and lifting properties. And we look at what those pigment codes mean and how you can use them.

Of course you might have pans, or the label could have fallen off the tube, so we go through how you can experiment and find out the properties of your paints yourself (and how the manufacturers sometimes get it wrong).

Let’s take a look at the tube or pan:

The paint name

different paint, same name

The name on the tube is pretty irrelevant. Just because it says Peacock Blue, it doesn’t have peacocks in it!! And just because two manufacturers call the paint the same name it does not mean it will be the same colour…. Look at these two Gamboges….


You will sometimes see Hue written after the name. This is when the chemists have mixed pigments to visually match the original colour. Perhaps because it is no longer available or too expensive to use. Hue does not mean a poor quality product and may occur in Student and Artist ranges.

Artist vs Student paints

Look at your tube or pan. If it is labelled Student, it doesn’t mean it is bad quality, it is just that the manufacturer may have used a less expensive pigment or less of it. Cotman is the student quality from Winsor and Newton, Aquafine is the student version of Daler Rowney. A good student paint might be better than a poor Artist paint, but in general Artist quality use the best pigments, which are lightfast and finely ground. They tend to be consistent and lively on the paper.


This merely refers to the price. Some pigments are more expensive than others, so they are grouped together in price bands, and these are referred to as the Series.

Pigment number

Somewhere on the tube there will be some numbers to indicate what the paint contains. Above two tubes of Sap Green have totally different pigments. P stands for pigment, Y for yellow, G for green and R for red O is for orange, V is for violet etc etc. So the sap green on the right has a little red in it, which is why it is more muted than the one on the left. Only by comparing pigments can you know if you have the same thing. BUT just because you have the same pigments it will not mean the paints are identical. The manufacturer may have mixed in other things. See the violets below. All have PV23 in them, yet the two on the right (artist quality) are not as bright and clear as the three on the left. The one in the middle is Student paint and is nicer than the two Artist ones on the right.

Just because they have the same pigment, it doesn’t mean they will behave the same way


Somewhere on the tube (yes, each manufacturer varies – very annoyingly), there should be an indication of lightfastness. If the pigment fades in UV light it is called fugitive. Avoid fugitive colours unless you are doing illustrations which will be reproduced and not displayed. There are often alternatives to fugitive colours for example Alizarin. You can now get permanent Alizarin, so your paintings will not fade with time. Try and use the most lightfast pigments you can lay your hands on. While you can test your own paints by exposing half to light and covering half to see if they fade, manufacturers can emulate 100 years of uv in a very short time. However, some manufacturers are economical with the truth about their paints. If you suspect a paint will fade, check it out and buy a different one!

Opacity and Staining

Somewhere on the tube, you may see symbols like these:

Opaque, semi opaque, transparent. Staining, semi staining, lifting

A square or circle usually indicates opacity. All watercolour is transparent, but some are more transparent than others. Opaque ones might veil a line in line and wash, or cover the underlying layers if glazed over the top. A transparent one, might not be able to cover much or might just slightly enhance an earlier layer. Each has its uses, but you need to know which you are using to be able to get the best out of them.

The triangle might refer to the staining/lifting nature of the pigment/paint. Once dry, is it possible to remove colour from the paper with a damp brush? If you get back to the white of the paper (or near it), then the colour is called a lifting colour. If the colour sinks into the paper and cannot be removed easily it is called a staining colour. This is a really important property to understand. Correcting watercolours is tricky, and if you use staining colours it is even harder. But if you are working on a hard surface, you may wish to use staining colours to help in the glazing process.

Testing your own pigments and paints

If any of this info is missing you can test much yourself (or look it up on the colour chart or website). Simply draw a thick black waterproof line. Now paint over it. If the colour is visible over the line it is opaque. Let it dry and scrub with a damp brush. What is left behind? If you can see colour, then that paint is a staining paint and if not, it is a lifting one.

Here, the Burnt Umber is opaque and staining, while the Lemon Yellow is opaque and lifting. The Transparent Orange is staining and semi opaque, not transparent

If you want to see more about pigment, please take a look at my Youtube film:

I do a film about watercolour each week on a Sunday

If you want to find out more about colour mixing, please take a look here: https://youtu.be/Hol2wEetWzg
If you want to find out about granulation please look here: https://youtu.be/hx6L-CkEZdM

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