Pigment Particulars

Q. Being a novice artist, I’m having a little trouble finding an explanation of natural pigments vs. synthetic pigments. What’s the difference between the two in terms of tinting strength, drying qualities and visual appearance?
Lorenzo T. James
Wewahitchka, FL

A. Natural pigments might be considered the first pigments used by humans—red and yellow clays, white chalk dug from the ground and charred wood or bones for the color black. The earliest cave paintings have these naturally occurring colors in them, and they can be used with little alteration from their natural state beyond sifting and washing.

Synthetic pigments, on the other hand, are produced by a controlled chemical process, and they probably date from the time someone discovered that exposing lead to the acidity of vinegar produces a white precipitate that enabled the production of carbonated lead—also known as “flake white,” “lead white” and “Cremnitz white,” among others names—which could be called the first synthesized inorganic color.

Today we generally consider the synthetic pigments to be those produced entirely in a laboratory, as opposed to being processed variations of natural materials. But this distinction can get obscured. For example, carmine is sometimes called a synthetic pigment because of its extraction process from the dried, crushed bodies of insects, but really it’s no more than a processed natural material. Alizarin crimson, on the other hand, is considered the first synthetic duplicate of a natural organic color (rose madder) and is produced in a laboratory by chemical process.

You’re probably wondering what this all means to you as you’re standing before the paint selection at the art supply store, and sometimes it’s hard to tell. The differences between synthetic and natural pigments in terms of tinting strength, drying qualities and visual appearance (I assume you mean in an oil vehicle) range all over the place. Until a few years ago, it was safe to assume that synthetics were generally high in tinting strength, relatively slow driers (in linseed oil) and uniformly transparent. But recent developments in synthetic pigments, driven by regulatory restrictions on the use of heavy metals (lead, cobalt, cadmium and so on), have produced organic synthetic alternatives that appear to duplicate almost the entire range of physical and color effects that you’ll see in natural pigments.

To some artists, the question of which pigments are better is a matter of tradition. Many who take a long view are suspicious of how hastily technology finds its way into the art world. And even if the newer synthetics are exact duplicates of original pigments, many artists place a high value on the uniqueness of naturally occurring materials, along with the very fact that they’re naturally occurring. Conservators, too, for both historical and technical reasons, find natural materials to be essential.

Finally, whatever your personal preferences, remember that there are both good and bad natural pigments (alizarin crimson is not very lightfast, for instance) and good and bad synthetics, too (witness the Mark Rothko murals at Harvard University, which have turned from violet to blue). Study the attributes of the various pigments you’re using, such as their transparency or opacity, and buy paints that are properly labeled according to the quality and performance standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Get to know your paint a little better and it just might make you a better painter, too.

Jane M. Mason is an award-winning artist and art teacher who specializes in watercolor. “Painting for me is like canoeing on an endless river,” says Mason. “It’s always enthralling and at times I’m in control. But, before you know it, the painting takes me for the ride of my life. Every day brings new challenges, enlightenment and rewards.” She can be contacted at JMM2Paint@aol.com; her Web site is www.watchingpaintdry.com.

You may also like these articles: