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Colour in the 21st Century: Artists have never had it so good!

Barrels of pigment at Schmincke’s factory near Dusseldorf, Germany.

There has never been a time of such abundant colour. We have an incredible selection of colours to choose from, with paint ranges commonly offering over 100 hues, and up to 160 in the Williamsburg Oilcolours! 

While before the 19th Century painters had to work with a limited number of naturally-occurring and often highly toxic pigments, today we have dozens of brilliant and safe synthetic colours in addition to important traditional colours, with more coming every year. Having such choice gives us the ability to make an almost infinite amount of variations, so we can be subtle or bold, we can mimic or invent, be restrained or profuse with our colour palettes.

Of course, colour costs, and student paint made solely for a price-point are made with lesser amounts of commonly available pigments (at Gordon Harris we make sure to choose the best of these for you). For many recreational painters and discerning professionals, however, colour is king (and queen!) and Artist Quality paints contain the best pigments in the highest concentrations, mixed in the strongest, clearest binders.

The most brilliant, pure colours are made from just a single pigment. These “single pigment colours” mix together cleanly and offer the most versatility to the painter. To produce extensive paint ranges where up to 70% of their colours are single pigment, Schmincke, for example, must use around 250 different pigments!

Pigments come from many sources, such as minerals from the earth, metal alloys, chemical combinations, and carbon. The price (Series) of your paint varies depending on how rare the pigment is. While Titanium White comes from plentiful titanium ore so is “Series One”, genuine Cobalt colours are made from a rare mineral, and accordingly occupy higher Series numbers.

As a rule of thumb, mixing more than four pigments together quickly turns the colour muddy. This is why mixing from student paints is often unsuccessful – many individual student colours are already mixtures of 2 – 4 pigments. Pigments are indicated by a Colour Index: PY for Yellow, PO for Orange, PR for Red, PV for Violet, PB for Blue, PG for Green, PBr for Brown, PBk for Black, and PW for White.

Let’s have a look at some of the single pigment colours only found in Artist Quality ranges.


Cobalt blues, violet, and greens provide rich, soft, mostly opaque colours that counterpoint beautifully with modern pigments.

Cobalt is a mineral first used extensively in the 19th Century. The first colours to use cobalt were opaque greens, Cobalt Green (also called Oriental Green PG19), Cobalt Green Dark (also called Turmaline PG26), and Cobalt Turquoise Green (PB36). Most popular today are the semi-opaque blue tones: Cobalt Blue Light (PB28), Cobalt Blue Deep (PB74), Cobalt Cerulean (also called Cerulean Blue Chromium PB35), and Cobalt Turquoise (or Cobalt Teal PG50). There is also a stunning but very expensive Cobalt Violet!


The genuine Cobalt Cerulean and Cobalt Blue are softer colours, especially in tints with white, than the Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Blue Hue, which are made from less expensive pigments. While all are artist quality and the substitute hues are good colours, genuine Cobalt offers greater subtlety, and more recessive colour spaces.

Cobalt colours are rich, soft and highly lightfast. Their gentle tones become most apparent when mixed with white, producing a beautiful softness that is impossible to achieve with modern pigments. Cobalt colours are especially useful in landscape painting, with Cobalt Cerulean Blue (Chromium) highly prized in the 19th Century for use in skies, often tinted with a speck of Ivory Black. Cobalt Green Deep offers a dark, cool forest green, and Cobalt Turquoise is perfect for lagoon blues.


Cadmium produces an evenly stepped progression from Golden Cadmium Yellow Primrose to Williamsburg Cadmium Purple, but what’s with Williamsburg Cadmium Green..? Not a pure cadmium, this colour is made from mixing Cadmium Yellow with Chromium Green.

Cadmium was also first used in artists colours in the 19th Century. The range of bright, opaque tones from pale yellows through to deep reds was hugely popular with Post-Impressionists, with Vincent van Gogh absolutely enamoured with Cadmium Yellow.

Cadmiums are still an important part of the painter’s palette, providing solid and brilliant colours yet to be replaced by more modern pigments. They are strongest used pure, becoming quite muted in mixtures due to their density. They are very effectively used as a base for translucent glazes, and their opacity acts brilliantly over dark areas. Various yellows are made with PY35, orange and reds with PO62, and red tones with PR108.

Recently, there has been concern about the health issues of using cadmium, a heavy metal. While there is very little risk from painting in an expected manner with them, cadmium dust should not be inhaled, so don’t spray apply and care should be taken if sanding back layers of dried paint. Reputable manufacturers such as Golden and Schmincke use non-soluble cadmium, which is harder for the body to absorb, to further reduce risk. Some manufacturers promote “Cadmium-Free” colours, and there are certainly plenty of other gorgeous yellows and reds to choose from if you prefer, such as Vanadium and Pyrrole colours.


Hot 21st Century Pyrrole pigments provide an incremental shift from orange to deep red.

Pyrrole is a very modern pigment that gives us a range of oranges and reds that are very brilliant and opaque, with the exception of Transparent Orange (also called Poppy Red, PO71). Pyrrole Orange (PO70), Pyrrole Red Light (PR255), Pyrrole Red (PR254), and Pyrrole Red Dark (PR264) are often used for modern Vermillion (made in olden times from mercury sulphide!) and as excellent stand-ins for cadmium colours. While they don’t have the density of a metal like cadmium, they have a much higher brilliance.

Transparent Orange, called Poppy Red in Norma Professional Oilcolours, is an important mixing colour for creating landscape greens when mixed with Phthalo Green, and darkening blues all the way through to black.

There are nine Quinacridone colours in Horadam forming a unique set of reds and violets perfectly suited for everything from floral to abstract painting.

Quinacridone pigments are bright, translucent and highly lightfast, and when first introduced to painters in the 1980s, these brilliant, manmade reds and violets quickly became important building blocks for an entirely new set of colour possibilities.

The concept of the fiery fuchsia of Quinacridone Magenta (PR122) as a primary mixing red was shocking to artists in the 1980s who were used to Cadmium Red, but made perfect sense to those familiar with the CMYK printing system. It combines with yellow to produce oranges and warm reds, with blue makes for a wide range of violets, and with green for cool greys. Bright, clean, translucent Quinacridone colours make for brilliant mixtures, and if too shocking, they can always be tamed with a touch of green.

Quinacridone Magenta is a very versatile primary mixing red, combining with any other colour to produce clean hues right around the colour wheel.

Several new Quinacridone pigments have been added to the range this century, with the latest, Quinacridone Purple (PV55) appearing in Schmincke Horadam Watercolours in 2017. They make up delicate pinkish reds through to deep violets, and are an essential part of a modern painter’s palette.


When one beautiful blue is not enough...! Schmincke offer five Ultramarine Blues in Horadam Water

By the beginning of the 19th Century, Ultramarine Blue (PB29) had become prohibitively expensive. It was made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan, in a complicated process that had provided painters with one of their most important colours since the Renaissance. Following the offer of a substantial reward by the French government, Ultramarine was successfully synthesized in 1828 and the price tumbled.

Today, Ultramarine is commonly found in all paint categories, but there are differences in quality between student and professional, and in varieties. Synthetic Ultramarine is much stronger than the original lapis lazuli recipe, and in artist quality colours is often available in Dark (reddish) and Light (greenish) hues. A by-product of the production results in Ultramarine Violet (PV15), a weak tinting-strength pigment that produces lovely lavenders.

Golden Acrylic Phthalo Green (Blue shade) and Phthalo Green (Yellow Shade) have different relationships to three yellows - the former producing cooler versions of green to the latter. 

Phthalocyanine pigments were a hugely important discovery in the 1930s, providing high tinting-strength greens and blues at a cheap price. While Phthalo Green and Phthalo Blue are readily available in student ranges and commonly used in pre-mixed landscape colours, both are only half the offer. Phthalo Green (Blue Shade PG7) is generally available, yet Phthalo Green (Yellow Shade PG36) is more exclusive. Likewise, Phthalo Blue (Green Shade PB15:3) is common and Phthalo Blue (Red Shade PB15:6) is only found in artist quality ranges, along with Phthalo Turquoise (PB16). These variations of the Phthalo hues make for subtle but important differences in mixing.

Phthalo colours are transparent and have a very high tinting strength (their relative strength in a mixture with another colour).

Precious natural earth pigments are used in there Horadam Watercolours to provide more complex hues than the more common synthetic iron oxides. 


Special artist’s colours needn’t be from precious minerals or modern chemistry – genuine earth pigments have been used for millennia, yet are rare enough to only be found in Artist Quality paints. Traditional names such as Umber and Sienna are used to denote colours made in the past from earth taken from these Italian districts. While the original sources have been long depleted, high quality earth pigments (PBr7 & PY42/43) from around the world are used to make colours prized for their particular quality. They have a more complex character than the iron oxides used to produce more common Sienna and Umber hues – denser, modulated, and just downright earthier!

There are plenty of other special colours to be discovered in artist quality paint ranges: perylene reds and greens, Benzimidazolone and Vanadium yellows, indanthrene blue, manganese violet, and more being regularly discovered, such as Yin Min Blue in 2009.

There are not only more colours available in artist quality paints, but much more information. Both on the labelling and in colour charts, you can find out about pigmentation, lightfastness, opacity and transparency, tinting strength, historical backgrounds, and more – all important guides for your painting practice.

At Gordon Harris, we pride ourselves in offering you the best colours from around the world, so that you can explore the ever expanding universe of artist paints!

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