Oil Paint Colors and Pigments

Oil paint colors are made with a pigment (colored substance in powderform), and linseed oil. For really understanding colors, it's important to understand the difference between light colors, and colored matter. Pure colors, like the rainbow, are made of light - but oil paint colors are made with a pigment. Color really is a light phenomenon, and in oil painting techniques, you bring it deep into matter. Colors and pigments are a vast area to learn about.

Colors of light, colors of matter

Basically, there are two kinds of colors: prismatic colors, and earth colors. Prismatic colors are the colors of the rainbow: light-colors. They are made of light, they're immaterial by nature. Colors like that are only available as oil paint colors (pigments), because they're created and imitated by chemical procedures. But in ancient times, rainbow-colored pigments (like Lapis Lazuli blue) were hard to find and very expensive.

Earth colors are the colors of matter and nature: lots of brown, green, and more dull shades. Earth pigments actually consist of ground earth. So, there’s colored light, and colored matter. On the bottom of this page you'll find more on that.

Earth colors and prismatic colors

Earth colors and prismatic colors

On the left you see prismatic colors, and on the right, there's the main earth colors. Click here for the list of earth color names, and here for the prismatic color names.

Earth colors have a different function in oil painting, than prismatic colors. In classical painting techniques, earth colors were used to give a painting its material basis, and prismatic colors (if they were available at all), were applied as a glaze, or top layer. Prismatic colors were available, but at considerable costs. Sky-blue was made by grinding the gemstone lapis lazuli to bits.

After 1900, abstract painting styles developed, and with it a demand for strong prismatic oil paint colors. Prismatic colors take you to a sphere of pure idea - painters had a great time with them, and the old earth tones were considered dull and boring. Chemical science delivered many new bright oil paint colors. These colors were much stronger and brighter, but also more cold and stingy than the colors of the old times. Funny enough, at the same time color wasn't the most important issue in painting, because science dictated that color doesn't really exist. Colors were often used to create disharmonic effects (a 'shock-and-awe' tactic).

Hue and color

Prismatic hues each have their own lightness. When you squint your eyes and look through your eyelashes, you can see that this prismatic turquoise is lighter than the prismatic violet.

Cobalt blue


Cobalt blue



Prussian blue

But pigments can break this "rule". For example: Prussian blue is a very dark blue, but when you look at the hue, it's actually a dark turquoise. This 'oddness' gives it an unnatural and a bit hostile look, that shows in the color name: at the time of its discovery, France and Germany were at war. In Germany, this pigment was called "Parisian ('french') blue, and in France it was called Prussian (meaning: german) blue.

On the other hand, if you paint only with prismatic hues, it's very hard to make things look natural. They're light colors, and natural colors are toned in all kinds of ways. Painting solid objects in prismatic hues almost looks like a lie. So, it's good to have different kinds of pigment colors at hand.

colors and pigments for good mixing

Colors and pigments can also be designed for their good use in mixing. These colors have pigments, that are very close to the shades of prismatic colors. Having exact primary colors (magenta, cyan and pure yellow) can be extremely handy - and good for learning some basic oil painting techniques (click here for a list of acrylic and oil paint colors). With magenta, you can make orange, red, pink, and all the kinds of violet – depending if you add blue (cyan) or yellow to it. A brown can't do that.

Color can be both light and matter

And color itself is light nor matter: it's active in between. In German mythology, the bridge to the gods was a rainbow (and named something like "hovering platform".) Color is an immaterial sensory perception. It has a connection to electro-magnetic energy - colors represent a small section of the total bandwidth of electromagnetic wave, that are visible to our eyes. But in the artistic aspects of oil painting techniques, you deal most with the psychological aspect of sensory perception. As such, color has its own, objective laws.

But in the material aspects of oil paint colors, we’re dealing with stuff, goo, substances that were ground to powder, and then glued back together again with a transparant medium (oil, acrylic binder, casein, or eggyolk.) A pigment is a substance, giving its color to the light.

Pigments in oil paint colors

The color names of oil paint colors often mention the pigments - especially when this pigment has an outspoken character. There's no yellow like cadmium yellow: very strong, cold, with a strong hiding capacity. Indian yellow is almost opposite to that: warm, transparant. Red gold lake, by Old Holland paints, is a great option too for yellow. If you paint it thin, it's yellow - and if you paint it thick, its red!

Viridian green is the strongest prismatic green, cold and transparant. If you paint it without white on a brown underground, you get an intruiging black. Viridian green has great mixing options. Most earth colored oil paints are named after their pigment (yellow ochre, burnt umber etc). Some paints however got just a name, and you'll have to check the pigment number on the tube to see what's in it. When the color is has the addition "hue' to the name, it's a cheaper or more lightfast imitation of an original pigment.

Each pigment has its own features. Apart from the hue (the color itself) it has an certain degree of opacity (“hide”), a character (warm or cold), an inner structure (especially if you make your own oilpaints) and a tonal range and value (darkness). A color is never just it's own hue: it has subtle upper- and undertones, defining its character. If paint color only has one hue and no upper tones, it looks stingy, cheap and mechanical, just like a cheap computer sound. New chemical pigments can be that way.

What's in the tubes?

When you buy oil paint colors, its important to look at the pigments. Are they natural, or chemical? If a color has the addition “hue” to the name, it means that the color of the original natural pigment is imitated, using chemical pigments. Green earth pigment is literally made of green earth, but ‘green earth hue’ is an imitation of the color. Which might be either cheaper, or more lightfast – but in either way, synthetic.

In the end, every pigment has its own official code. PB 79 means ‘pigment blue number 79', which is defined as Aluminum Chlorophthalocyanine. Also known as phtalocyanine, or by a dozen of other names as well... The pigment number is the only way to check your pigments. There's a great book on oil painting techniques (Ralph Mayer's "the artist's handbook of materials and techniques"), where you find every single pigment described in its features. You can order this book at Blick Art Materials. They also provide information on the pigment numbers, in their oil paint ordering pages.

Pigments also have their own drying and texture features. This is especially important for white oil paint. Whites are mixed all through your work. Lead white is a fast dryer, but titanium and zinc white are much more brilliant.

Toned and natural colors

Traditional oil paint colors (like earth colors), have a good harmonic balance. The new, chemical ones can sometimes feel disharmonic, cold, or even bad and aggressive. It has to do with the toning: natural colors have harmonic sets of upper- and undertones, and chemical colors are usually much more onesided. You see: color really is an abstraction, that needs to be brought to life - either by the Creator, or by an artist. Especially when you use highly chemical colors and have to bring in the element of nature by yourself. But: all colors can be brought back into natural harmony, even the most chemical ones.

A good artist (or colorist) can use outspoken pigment features to create his or her own bouquet, or even take the most disharmonic chemical colors back into a natural harmony. You do that by using the laws of light and darkness, contrast and interval. Using color is a vast item in oil painting techniques. It’s like music with disharmonic tones in it: if used well, music can be made more interesting by disharmonic intervals.

toned and pure colors

House paints of a good brand are also made with pigments, but they’re carefully toned. Several pigments were put together, they’re designed like a perfume, with additions to add upper- and undertones. You can fill a whole wall with them, and they’re still bearable to the eye. You really can’t do that with any artist’s paint, straight out of the tube. They are single-pigmented, onesided colors - a whole wall of that would give you a headache. Cheap house paints are also a bit like that.
Oil paint colors are raw ingredients, they enable you to create your own colors and tones, or to create an interesting balance by using contrast and interval.

Lapis Lazuli stones

Lapis Lazuli stones

Some extra pondering

A funny thing: rainbow-colored pigments used to be the most rare and expensive ones, but now they come in bulk out of the petrochemical industry. Their root ingredient is crude oil.
Before 1900, strong colors had to come from far away countries, or were made of expensive gemstones, ground to bits. Maria’s cape was traditionally painted with ground Lapis Lazuli, a gemstone that cost a fortune. But since we drill up oil, pigments and colors come in bulk out of the chemical factories. Everyone can have a painted rainbow, it’s just sometimes an awkward, off harmony-rainbow. But: natural pure colors (like lapis lazuli, or malachite) are today just as expensive as before.

If you’re in real need of purity, try watercolors (not on your canvas). There you'll find the purest and finest colors and pigments. Try Schmincke and Winsor and Newton. Rose Madder Genuine by Winsor and Newton actually smells like roses! It’s a beautiful and natural magenta, the only magenta I know that hasn't this highly chemical feeling

In oils, more chemical sturdyness is needed. You can’t rub a flower into oil, and expect its color to come out. But they try, for us. Elements like Cadmium, Mangane, Quinacridone and Iron need some chemical treatment, but then give very acceptable colors, in terms of natural harmony. Old Holland oilpaint has good colors. Putting the earth colors to use can also help, adding some balance to the stingy chemical ones. And sometimes, one can take very good advantage of the onesidedness of a pigment. It depends on the recipe.

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