My post about rules on Wednesday elicited the following comment from a reader: “I’m still learning my way with media and pigments. I suspect it’s a never-ending process.” It really doesn’t have to be, if you follow some simple rules in buying paint.
Use only titanium white.
Titanium is a lightfast, semi-opaque, very cool white. Avoid the allure of expensive flake or Cremnitz (lead) whites and their copies. While it’s romantically appealing to “paint like the masters,” lead turns orange or black when in contact with certain pigments or substrates. The copies are generally mixes of titanium and zinc white, often with something warm thrown in to cut the coolness of titanium.
Zinc white is the same pigment that is used in Chinese white for watercolor, where it works just fine. Some oil painters like it because it’s warmer than titanium white. But it’s brittle when it dries, is unable to stand up to the rigors of impasto, and is not nearly as lightfast as titanium.
Many paint names are lies.
Manufacturers love labeling convenience mixes with historic names. Consider Naples Yellow, used from the 18th to the 20th century. The genuine pigment is toxic. Most paints labeled “Naples yellow” are made with a mix of modern pigments. The colors and paint handling characteristics vary considerably across brands.
Pigments are listed on the tubes of all major paint makers in the form of CI numbers. These are managed through an international index. If the first letter is a “P,” that’s a pigment; if it’s an “N,” that’s a ‘lake’ of a naturally-occurring substance like cochineal. The second letter tells you the general color family. The third tells you the actual pigment used. If there is more than one CI number in the tube, you’re actually buying a hue (see below).
Almost always, using a single-pigment paint gives you the most flexibility in mixing.
Many paint manufacturers sell hues of expensive pigments, such as the cadmiums and cerulean blue. They’re not consistent across brands, and they never have the handling characteristics of their more expensive brethren.
Furthermore, they may shift over time. Even if the main pigment is lightfast, its partner may not be.
If you’ve been happily painting with a hue, check its label and research its constituent parts. It may be that you already have analogous colors on your palette and can mix up your own hue. For example, I almost never use red or green in landscape painting, because I can mix them quickly with other things on my palette.
Buy the best paint you can afford.
Student grade paints have less pigment and rely more on hues than professional-grade paints. They are very useful in the early stages of oil painting, but when you’ve sold your first painting, it’s time to consider yourself a professional and buy better paints.
That doesn’t mean that pricey is always better. I use RGH Paints because they’re a small shop with great responsiveness, the paint is made in tiny Colonie, NY, and the product is excellent.