Understanding Mineral and Modern Pigments for Painters
Paint companies and chemists divide color pigments, used for making paints, into two distinct categories: mineral (made from natural sources known as inorganics) and modern (made synthetically known as organics). As an artist and teacher, I find it more helpful for painters, to divide pigments and paints into three categories instead of just two, and here’s why.
A long time ago, when our beloved old master painters were painting their masterpieces, the only available paints at that time were made from natural sources. Some were quite pricey and difficult to find and manufacture, like Ultramarine Blue which was made from precious lapis stones.
Around 70 years ago scientists discovered how to synthetically replicate some of these paints, including Ultramarine Blue which is now much more affordable. In fact, I highly doubt any paint manufacturers still make Ultramarine Blue from lapis. Even with this new technology for making paints synthetically, some paint colors (like Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre) are still made today from natural sources, if easier and less expensive then replicating them synthetically.
Let’s take a deeper look at the difference between natural and synthetic pigments. If we were to view the pigments in a microscope we can start to understand how different they really are from each other. Pigments from natural sources will appear like dusty boulders. When added to a binder (ie. oil for oil paint, or polymer for acrylic paint) to create mineral paint colors, these pigments can be highly packed into the paint mixtures, making the paint color very opaque, and therefore offering good covering power. These natural paints (I like to call them “mineral” paints) are brightest in color when seen or used right out of their paint tubes or containers. But this bright quality will get chalky and lose intensity as soon as water is added to dilute it, or white is added to tint or lighten it. Also, mineral paints dry to a matte finish.
Synthetic pigments however, look very different when viewed in a microscope. I like to call them modern paints. Instead of looking like dusty boulders, they appear like pieces of stained glass! When added to their appropriate binder to create modern paints, they don’t pack as tight as mineral pigments can. The resulting paints are more transparent. These colors will brush out looking streaky when used as is – straight out of their tubes or containers. By adding a small amount of white to these paints, you can make them more opaque, and allow them to brush out smoothly. The small amount of white will also bring out their brightest color quality. Apply them thinly for a transparent bright appearance. Apply them thickly for an opaque rich dark color. These modern synthetic paints will dry to a gloss finish instead of matte like the mineral colors.
Because of these differences between mineral and modern paints, paint manufacturers will manipulate the formula when they want to replicate a natural pigment paint but make it synthetically. In other words, they make changes to make sure the modern paint acts like the mineral its trying to replace. These modern replicates of mineral colors, or hybrids as I like to call them, can come close to the originals, but not quite. They will always have traits from both natural and synthetic categories.
When synthetic pigments are used as is — without further manipulating them to act like a mineral paint, their color and tinting powers can be very strong. They are so different I like to put them into their own category, and this is where I divide pigments and paints into three categories instead of the standard two. I call this specific group of modern colors “Frankenstein” colors. These frankensteins are not just new colors — but give us a whole new set of paints that act very differently. These paints are super-powered with intense tinting power, and act as strong mixers. They offer a wide range of color variation because their “mass tone” (color quality when applied thickly) differs greatly from their “undertone” (color quality when applied thinly). By separating the modern paint colors into two groups— modern frankensteins and modern hybrids, and along with the mineral category, we now have three distinct categories.
I think viewing them in these three categories will give painters an advantage, as each one contains paints that will act differently from the others. Paints in each of the three categories need to be handled differently, depending on the painting techniques used, and resulting effects desired. There are not many frankenstein paint colors, as you can see from my chart below, yet painting with these alone (plus some white) offers more options, a fuller range of color, and ability to vary any color’s hue, value and chroma.
If you are working with a limited budget for painting supplies, I suggest just purchasing the frankensteins.
My favorite key frankenstein colors are Phthalo Blue (green shade), Phthalo Blue (red shade), Green Gold, Nickel Azo Yellow, Quinacridone Magenta and Quinacridone Burnt Sienna. And don’t forget to also have the mineral paint Titanium White to mix into these moderns to further manipulate them.
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