Looking at Labels

Q. I want to learn how to paint in oils, but when I went to the store to buy paint I was overwhelmed by all the choices. The feeling only got worse once I started reading the labels and couldn’t figure out whether I was reading them properly or not. Are there specific items on paint labels that I should look out for when trying to buy quality paint?

A. Beginning to learn how to paint with oils is hard enough without also being confused about labeling. You’re right to educate yourself as to the meaning of the terms on a paint tube’s label; it’s the best way for you to make good choices about what paints to purchase. Here’s a look at some terms you’re likely to see.

A pigment is a particle with inherent color that can’t be dissolved. It’s typically found in nature or made in a laboratory, and can be inorganic (like a metal) or organic, as in colored plant matter. In the past, the inorganic pigments were recognized as the most stable, while the organic colors had a reputation for fading or changing color over time. These days, many organic pigments—dyes fixed onto an inert particle so they’re insoluble—are as stable as their inorganic cousins.

A vehicle is the liquid content of a paint. It can be simple or complex: Linseed oil is the vehicle for oil paints, while acrylic dispersion paint vehicles can contain as many as 10 ingredients. The binder, or adhesive liquid responsible for binding the pigment particles together and to the support, is part of the vehicle.

An ASTM lightfastness rating is a relative measure of how well the color of a paint resists change when exposed to a series of tests. Manufacturers of the paints produce samples for testing in accordance with prescribed ASTM methods and either test them in their own laboratories or hire independent testing services. The results are reported to the manufacturer, who labels the paints using ASTM’s labeling requirements for that type of paint. Paints containing pigments with a Lightfastness I rating have excellent lightfastness, and a Lightfastness II rating is very good. Any color with a lightfastness rating of III or higher is vulnerable to light-induced color changes.

I’m biased when it comes to looking for significant information on a paint label: I recommend that you use only those paints that state, on the label, conformance to one of these ASTM quality labeling standards: ASTM D 4302 for oils, alkyd and resin-oil paints; ASTM D 5067 for watercolors; ASTM D 5098 for acrylic dispersion paints, ASTM D 5724 for gouache paints; and ASTM D 6901 for colored pencils.

Steve Smith is senior editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

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