Pigments Painting Grounds Paint Brushes Painting Oils Glazes

Choosing the Right Pigments

Rather than grapple with the vast range of pigments available today, particularly through art supplies online, painters will generally make better headway by getting to know a small number of pigments that meet most requirements. Ideally, the selection should be based on:

1. Properties of the pigment concerned: hue, mixing properties, drying time, paint strength, permanence, transparency/covering power

2. Adverse effects of mixing certain pigments: some mixtures discolor

3. Cost

Some General Advice


Titanium white dries fast, and is the most opaque.

Boris Kustodiev

Flake white is the quickest drying, but discolors if not protected by oil. Zinc white gives the purest color mixes but is only half opaque, dries slowly and will crack if applied too thickly.

Dead coloring

For blocking out large areas of a canvas prior to more detailed painting, the following are colour-fast, generally cheap (except the cadmiums), and have good covering power: ivory black, flake white, Indian red, yellow ochre, Naples yellow light, cadmium light red and yellow, emerald green and Sevres blue.


Pigments in glazes need to be colour-fast and transparent. Dutch vermilion, Rembrandt rose, ultramarine deep, Rembrandt blue, gold ochre, raw sienna, lemon yellow, terre verte, burnt umber, raw umber and Rembrandt green are the traditional favorites. Many have been replaced by pigments listed below. Dutch vermilion, lemon yellow and zinc white are only half transparent.

Paint Strength Grouped by Drying Times

Bazzi (see below) provided this grouping:


Umbers: tough & flexible.

Aureolin: hard & erratic.

Burnt sienna: hard & fairly strong.

Flake white hard & flexible


Cerulean fairly flexible

Raw sienna: tough & fairly strong.

Cobalt blue: hard & fairly brittle.

Cobalt violet: rather brittle.

Red iron oxide: strong

Chromium oxide: flexible & fairly hard.

Viridian: flexible & fairly hard.

Naples yellow: strong.

Quinacridones (permanent rose & magenta, rose doré) hard & fairly flexible


Green earth: soft & flexible.

Cerulean: soft & non-elastic.

Yellow ochre: fairly strong.

Alizarin: soft.

Ivory black soft & brittle

Cadmiums hard & fairly flexible

Titanium white brittle

Very Slow

Ivory black: soft

Zinc oxide: hard & brittle.

Lamp black: soft.


Testing by Wilcox (see below) has suggested that many watercolor (and by extension oil) paints may be unsatisfactory — fugitive, badly blended, with poor spreading and transparency.

Exceptions — pigments that are worth selecting from art supplies online — include the following. (T is Talens, R is Rowney and WN is Windsor and Newton. Unless otherwise indicated, all are first artists's quality. The order does not matter, though Wilcox prefers WN to the more oily T.) Grouped by transparency, the recommended pigments are:

Transparent Colors

Aureolin (R and WN)

Permanent rose (WN and R)

Permanent magenta (WN)

Scarlet lake (WN)

Cobalt blue (R and WN)

Ultramarine (WN and T and R and Georgian)

Viridian (R and T)

Light red (WN and R and T)

Gold ochre (T)

Burnt sienna (WN and R and T)

Burnt umber (Georgian and T and WN)

Opaque Colors

Naples yellow (R and WN and T)

Cadmium yellow Light (R and T and WN)

Cadmium yellow (WN and R and T)

Cadmium orange (R - I have WN now)

Cadmium red (R and T and WN)

Cadmium red Deep (WN)

Cerulean blue (R and WN and T)

Chromium oxide Green (WN)

Indian red (WN and R)

Yellow ochre (Georgian and WN and R)

Raw umber (Cotman and WN and R and Reeves)

Ivory black (R and WN and Cotman Georgian)


Bazzi warns that discoloration occurs with these mixtures:

Cerulean with Indian red or ivory black.

Light cadmium yellow with red earths or cobalt violet.

Medium cadmium yellow with raw & burnt earths, also cobalt violet.

Cadmium orange with burnt sienna.

Ultramarine with aureolin.

Ultramarine with zinc white (fades).

Grounds with red or brown earths, especially with oils, absorb mid-shades of overlying paint and darken.

Viridian and cadmium yellow are stable only in zinc white.

Naples yellow and cobalt violet are discolored by a metal spatula.


Pigments vary greatly in price, as a glance at the colorman's or art supplies online catalogue will show.

Further Reading

The republication of artists's reference works has become quite an industry, and these books are certainly essential to the art restorer. Nonetheless, no professional oil painter should be without one of the first three. Wilcox has useful information on color permanence, equally disturbing to the oil painter.

1. 'The Artists's Handbook of Materials and Techniques 'by Ralph Mayer. 5th Edition. Viking Press. 1991.

2. 'What Every Artist Needs to Know About' by David Pyle. Krause Publications. 2000.

3. 'Formulas for Painters' by Robert Massey. Watson-Gupthill. 1980.

4. 'The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting' by Max Doerner. Harvest Books. 1984

5. 'The Artist's Methods and Materials'. M. Bazzi. John Murray. 1960.

6. 'Guide to the Finest Watercolor Paints'. Wilcox. Artways. 1991.

7. 'Artist's Pigments: A Handbook of their History and Characteristics' edited by Elizabeth Fitzhugh. National Gallery of Art Publication. 1997.

8. 'Methods and Materials of the Painting of the Great Schools and their Masters: Two Volumes Bound as One' by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake. Dover Publications 2002. Reprint of classic 1847 text.

And, repeated from our art supplies page, is a short list of online art materials suppliers:

9. BigHorn Art Supply Directory. Maintain a directory of fine art supplies worldwide. Excellent coverage : email them for a list of your country's suppliers.

10. Rex Art. Long-established art supplier in Florida with a good range of merchandise.

11. Windsor and Newton. Leading supplier, with products listings and technical notes.

12. Dick Blick. Excellent range of products from a well-promoted supplier.

13. Mister Art. Very large online discount art and craft supply store.

14. Earth Pigments. Supplier, with introductory notes on preparing oil paints.

15. Utrecht Online Art Store. Sell their own paints but otherwise a good range of art materials.

16. Lawrence. Leading UK supplier, with 4000+ products, useful advice and downloadable fact sheets.

17. Graphigro. Leading French art materials suppliers with 18000 product line.

18. Art Navigator. Lists art materials suppliers (and much else) in Germany and Austria.

19. Bondi Road Art Supplies. Australian supplier of an exceptionally wide range of pigments: catalogue in pdf format.

20. Art Spectrum. Australian art supplies manufacturer: useful color guide on site.

21. Art Supplies Online. A New Zealand supplier: good range of products and some helpful painting tips.

22. How to Choose a Brand of Oil Paint. Good comparison of brands.

23. Oil Paint Brand Reviews. Personal but in-depth recommendations.

24. Oil Paint and Brand Reviews. Another personal listing, but again based on long experience.

25. Rachel Shirley Paintings. Aimed at the beginner but with much useful advice.


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'Merchant's Wife' by Boris Kustodiev. 1915. The State Russian Museum. St. Petersburg. A rather decorative painting, just about held together by the repeated shapes and uniform (high) key.