Do you find it difficult to get your head around the overwhelming number of paint tubes and pans you see in the shops? Why are there so many colors, and why do many of them seem the same? How many different paints do I need as a beginner? How do I know this is the right paint for me? Paint labels contain a lot of information and describe different characteristics of paints. This post will show you how to read paint labels on your gouache and watercolors.
Have a look at the diagram below. This is a tube of Winsor & Newton's Designer's gouache. What information does it contain? Color name and quantity are pretty much self-explanatory, although you should bear in mind that the name of the color is more of a marketing name than an indicator of what the color will look like. The color swatch on the front of the tube gives you a much better idea. The series number and the permanence rating, however, require an explanation.
1. SERIES NUMBER
The Series Number is typically found on the front of the paint tube. It refers to the relative price of this paint: the higher the series number, the more expensive the paint. Thus, series 1 paints will be the cheapest; series 5 will be the most expensive, sometimes double the price of series 1.
While you can, obviously, look the price up online, the series number instantly gives you an idea of the quality of the paint. The quality of your paints (and the price) depends on the quality of the pigments used. Some pigments are just cheaper than others, so the low series number does not always equal inferior quality.
Here's a watercolor tube with the same information types on it:
2. PERMANENCE RATING
Permanence refers to the paint's ability to resist UV light and atmospheric conditions and includes the chemical stability of the paint's ingredients (binder and pigment). It is a somewhat vague characteristic. Permanence is represented as one of the following:
AA -- Extremely Permanent
A -- Permanent
B -- Moderately Durable
C -- Fugitive
These are letter codes used by Winsor & Newton. Other brands may have a different rating (for example, stars) or omit this characteristic altogether, as it is not very clearly defined.
Should you look for AA-rated paints? Not really. This rating is given only to very stable paints, such as black or cobalt, and does not seem to reflect the quality of the paint. You can find AA- and A-rated paints both in the professional and student-grade ranges. So if you buy paints from an established brand like Winsor & Newton, you can safely ignore this characteristic.
The back of the tube contains additional information:
3. LIGHTFASTNESS/ASTM RATING
Unlike permanence, lightfastness (also known as ASTM rating) is a much more informative rating. It refers to the paint's ability to resist fading due to exposure to UV light. You will typically find this on the back of the tube, represented as one of the following:
I -- Excellent lightfastness
II -- Very good lightfastness
III-V -- Low lightfastness
In the photo above, the lightfastness rating is I (see the orange circle around it).
If you are buying paints for artwork you want to put on display or keep for a long time, then lightfastness is an important characteristic you should look out for. However, you can use paints with a lower rating for learning purposes.
This is where things get really interesting! Opacity is a fun characteristic to play with. This rating refers to how transparent the paint is. This characteristic is usually indicated with a little square box, which can be:
completely white = transparent
white with a diagonal line = semi-transparent
half-white and half-black (divided diagonally) = semi-opaque
completely black = opaque
Winsor & Newton paints use this system; other manufacturers might use the actual words 'opaque' or 'transparent', or some other symbols. As this is such an important characteristic, it's worth taking your time to read the label and also test the paint on some draft paper before using it in your art project. If you are planning to paint water, you may need a more transparent watercolor, for example. Some watercolors are opaque and you need to use a different technique with them. Opacity deserves a separate blog post (coming soon!).
5. AP SYMBOL
AP stands for 'Approved Product" and means that the paint is certified as non-toxic and safe both for adults and children. The alternative to AP labeling is CL, which stands for 'Cautionary Labelling,' which means that the paint might pose certain health risks and should be kept out of reach of children and used with caution.
You can see the same labeling on paints in pans, not just tubes:
6. PIGMENT NUMBER
Pigment number is a combination of letters and numbers. Some paints contain just one pigment, others are made up of two or more pigments. They will all be listed on the paint label.
Why is this important? If you are a beginning artist, don't worry about pigment numbers when buying paints. Buy the basic colors (like these ones, for gouache) and start painting. However, if you are an experienced artist, you can explore it a little. The pigment numbers tell you the ingredients of your paint, which can be interesting on its own, without any practical application. If you want to dig deeper, you might notice that to achieve one and the same tone, a few different pigment combinations can be used. Different brands may have different ingredients for the 'same' color. This, in turn, affects the resulting color, when you mix two different paints.
Anyway, deciphering the letter combinations is fairly easy. The first letter is P, which stands for 'pigment'. The second letter refers to a big color category: Y stands for yellow, R stands for red, V stands for violet. Br and Bk mean brown and black accordingly. G means green. Well, you get the idea. The numbers represent individual pigments within that color category.
7. COLOR NUMBER
Another important piece of information is the color number. It can be helpful when you want to make sure that you are buying the exact same color that you want. I often get questions about which colors I use for my artwork. I can actually say something like "Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache number 532", and you put it in a search box of your preferred online store and have the exact same color. Numbers provide an easy way to identify colors.
Winsor & Newton have color charts for all their gouache, watercolor and acrylic paints. As you can see in the photo above, the information for each color includes the following:
color number, permanence rating, series number, opacity and lightfastness, plus the marketing name of the color in three languages. You can find the color charts on Winsor & Newton's website.
Winsor & Newton offer a great way to test the whole range of their professional watercolors. It is a handy color chart which is called a 'dot card'. It consists of boxes with a dot of paint in each one. By applying a wet brush, you can fill the box with the color and see what it looks like. The chart contains all the necessary information for each color. Other brands have similar charts, too.
I never get tired of saying this: experimenting is an important part of being an artist. Taking the time to get to know your paints, testing different paints on different types of paper, mixing colors and creating your own color chart are great ways to improve your artwork, give you more flexibility and a more predictable result. Experiment is a path to freedom.
It is my mission and my joy to help artists work on their sketching skills, make progress and enjoy the learning process. If you would like to learn from me, join one of my Skillshare classes. Here are a couple of classes for gouache and watercolors.
If you are not on Skillshare yet, use my referral link to get your first month free.