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Pigments No.2

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Pigments No.2

Which are the best colors for permanent painting?

Important note

This page is devoted to the choice of a palette, as far as the best permanency is concerned. In Pigments No.3), the same problem will be examined on another point of view: the best depiction of colors. This explains some differences in the choice of the pigments.

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A rule of thumb for permanent painting

Always utilise the most permanent pigments possible. It is unwise to make browns and ochres by mixing less permanent pigments, as there exist absolutely lightfast earth pigments of the same shades.

Mixing complementary colors for making colored grays is a good school exercise, but it’s absurd from the viewpoint of permanence. It’s safer to mix any color of your choice with an absolutely permanent neutral gray (these are mixtures of black and white, sometimes with a little Yellow Ochre or another earth pigment).

Never forget this basic rule:

The less numerous pigments you will employ, the better you will know them and the more you will be able to obtain with them the best results.

There are lots of pigments I don’t recommand for various reasons. Either their shade varies from one manufacturer to the next, or they are somewhat difficult to handle, or in most cases they are unnecessary for good painting, or their lightfastness is not good enough for being used otherwise than in last glazes on a more permanent color of nearly the same hue, or they are only sold by one manufacturer.

Two examples:

  • Terre Verte: a) shade and permanence varying among manufacturers; b) often somewhat difficult to handle; c) seldom necessary.
  • Very bright red pigments like Scarlet Lake are not absolutely permanent; they have to be used for glazes over a safe bright red, but only if you absolutely need their particular shade. Nevertheless, id advise you to avoid them as far as possible, because, even so, some day this particular shade will end up disappearing.

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The best palette for oil painting

Obviously, the best palette contains only permanent pigments. We have to take into account the possible chemical interactions between pigments and between pigments and mediums (see “Chemical Interactions”).

So I do not recommand French Ultramarine and the Umbers for basic work with oils. Raw Umber is not necessary. Burnt Umber is easily replaced with mixtures of Burnt Sienna with Black or Indanthrene Blue. A semi-transparent pigment like Raw Sienna is to be reserved for final glazes.

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An absolutely safe palette*) **)

*) The colors of the tables are approximate.

**) Perfectly seen with Netscape 6.2, NeoPlanet 5.2, Opera 6.0, or Internet Explorer 6.0. Some older browsers don’t show the colors of these tables correctly (or even don’t show them at all).

Here are 19 absolutely safe colors for oil painting:


  • ¶¶+: Absolutely permanent pigments;
  • ¶¶: Extremely permanent pigments;
  • ¶+: Very permanent pigments;
  • ¶: Permanent pigments.

¶¶ Titanium White PW6  
¶¶ Nickel Titanium Yellow PY53  
¶+ Cadmium Yellow Light (= Pale) or Medium 1 PY35  
¶+ Cadmium Yellow Deep PY35  
¶+ Cadmium Red Medium PR108  
Quinacridone Rose PV19  
Quinacridone Magenta PV19  
¶¶ Mineral (= Manganese) Violet PV16  
¶+ Indanthrene Blue (= Indian Blue) PB60  
¶+ Phthalocyanine Blue 2  PB15  
¶¶ Cobalt Blue PB28  
¶¶ Cerulean Blue PB35  
¶¶ Opaque Oxide of Chromium PG17  
¶¶ Viridian PG18 (hydrated oxide of chromium)  
¶+ Phthalocyanine Green 3  PG7  
¶¶+ Yellow Ochre Light 4  PY43  
¶¶+ Mars Yellow 4  PY42 (sometimes sold as “Yellow Ochre Deep”)  
¶¶+ Burnt Sienna 4  PBr7  
¶¶+ Light (or English) Red 4, 5  PR101 or PR102  
¶¶+ Mars Black 6  PBk11  


  1. Cadmium Yellow Pale, Light, and Medium don’t have the same shade in various brands. Your palette don’t need all these shades at the same time. Two of them are enough:
    • the most orange shade: Cadmium Yellow Deep, and
    • the “yellowest” of these three ones: Cadmium Yellow Pale or Light or Medium (i.e. the one just in the middle between Nickel-Titanium and Cadmium Yellow Deep). (Back to “6 or 7 Primaries Palette”.)

  2. Phthalocyanine Blue is often sold under different brand names, such as Thalo Blue, Winsor Blue, Monestial Blue, Monastral Blue, Blockx Blue, Hortensia Blue, Schevening Blue, etc. Some brands give the choice between Phthalo Blue Green or Red Shade. When possible, choose “Normal” Phthalo Blue PB15 or Phthalo Blue Red Shade PB15:1. I have no personal experience with PB15:3, PB15:4, PB15:6 or even PB16.

  3. Like Phthalocyanine Blue, Phthalocyanine Green is also sold under different brand names (Thalo, Winsor, Monestial Green, etc.). When you have the choice between Blue or Yellow Shade, always choose “Normal” Phthalo Green  PG7 (it’s the Blue Shade). From experience, I find Phthalo Green Yellow Shade PG36 less useful.

  4. There is some kind of confusion between most natural earth pigments and synthetic iron oxides. For example, PY42 designates all the yellow synthetic iron oxides, while PY43 is used for the natural yellow earths. So both pigments can be sold under various names and shades, e.g. “Yellow Ochre”, “Yellow Ochre light”, “Yellow Ochre Deep”, “Gold Ochre”, “Raw Sienna”, etc. PBr7 refers at several natural earth pigments: “Raw Sienna”, “Burnt Sienna”, “Raw Umber” and “Burnt Umber”!

    PBr6 is used for brownnish shades of synthetic iron oxide, generally sold as “Mars Brown”.

    Light Red (= English Red) can represent PR101 (synthetic pigment) or PR102 (natural earth), but PR101 can be “Light Red”, “Indian Red”, “Venetian red”, “Burnt Sienna”, “Mars Violet” or “Caput Mortuum”, with different shades. In any case, don’t bother about it: all these pigments are perfectly lightfast.

    Only natural Umbers are a problem for painting in oils. You can find some words about the limitations of the Umbers below (see next page: “The problem of the Browns”).

      In fact, synthetic iron oxydes are gradually replacing natural earth pigments (the chemical composition of which is based on the same iron oxides, but frequently with other minerals too). These synthetic iron pigments are purer and more concentrated than the natural ones. They are thus safer for artistic purposes. (For a more complete explanation, see the page on The Iron Oxides).

  5. Light Red is sometimes called “English Red”, “Mars Red”, “Light Red Oxide”, “Red Ochre”, “Flesh Ochre”, “Pompeian Red”, etc.

  6. When painting in oils, Mars Black is to be preferred to other blacks, because the latter lack in siccativity.

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The complementary palette: 8 colors

The above palette is enough for most of your works. But from time to time, you will need either a brighter color, or a specific shade, or a transparent pigment for a glaze. Then the following colors could be useful.

¶¶+ Raw Sienna PY42 or PY43  
Transparent (Chromophytal) Yellow PY128  
¶+ Cadmium Orange PO20  
¶+ Cadmium Red Deep PR108  
¶¶ Cobalt Violet (= Cobalt Violet Light) PV14  
¶¶ Cobalt Violet Dark PV14  
¶+ French Ultramarine PB29  

Generally, only one of these two pigments will be sufficient:

(¶) Permanent Crimson Alizarin PR177  
(¶) Permanent Madder Deep PR264  

Always remember to use some of these pigments with the greatest caution in relation with their particular properties and their possible lack of lightfastness, compared with the colors of the preceding table.

You will seldom need these seven pigments:

¶+ Cadmium Lemon PY35  
¶¶ Cobalt Green (Light) PG19  
¶¶+ Gold Ochre PY42 or PY43  
¶¶+ Brown Ochre PY42 or PY43  
¶¶+ Mars Brown PBr6 (light shade)  
¶¶+ Indian Red (Venetian Red) PR101 or PR102  
¶+ Ultramarine Violet PV15  

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Transparent and opaque pigments

Some pigments are more or less opaque, some other ones more or less transparent. It’s very difficult to make a correct classement, because the opacity of a given pigment can vary among manufacturers. Consequently, I only can give you general rules.

An interesting physical phenomenon. Flake white (Lead White) is opaque, but gradually it becomes transparent in the course of years. The reason is that linseed oil gradually becomes harder and its refractive index higher (see “Chemical Interactions, Refractive Index”). That’s why you can see so many horses with 5 legs in the old paintings! The artist had changed the position of one leg, and perfectly covered the old leg by a mixture with Lead White, but gradually this mixture has become transparent with the centuries!

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The most opaque pigments
¶¶+ Light Red (= English Red) PR101  
¶¶+ Venetian Red PR101  
¶¶+ Indian Red PR101  
¶¶+ Mars Violet (= Caput Mortuum) PR101  
¶¶ Opaque Oxide of Chromium PG17  

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More or less opaque or semi-opaque pigments
¶¶ Titanium White PW6  
¶+ Flake White (= White Lead) PW1  
¶¶ Nickel Titanium Yellow PY53  
¶+ Cadmium Lemon PY35  
¶+ Cadmium Yellow Light (or Pale) PY35  
¶+ Cadmium Yellow Medium PY35  
(¶) Arylide yellow 5GX PY74  
¶+ Cadmium Yellow Deep PY35  
¶+ Cadmium Orange PO20  
¶+ Cadmium Red Medium PR108  
¶+ Cadmium Red Deep PR108  
¶¶+ Yellow Ochre PY43  
¶¶+ Mars Yellow PY42  
¶¶+ Yellow Ochre Deep PY43  
¶¶+ Mars Brown PBr6 (light shade)  
¶¶+ Mars Black PBk11  
¶¶+ Lamp Black PBk6  
¶¶+ Ivory Black PBk9  

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Semi-opaque or semi-transparent pigments
¶¶ Cerulean Blue PB35  
¶¶ Cobalt Green PG19  
¶¶+ Raw Sienna PY43  
¶¶+ Burnt Sienna PBr7  
¶¶+ Raw Umber PBr7  
¶¶+ Burnt Umber PBr7  

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Semi-transparent pigments

The safest semi-transparent pigments are:

¶¶ Zinc White PW4  
(¶) Arylide yellow GX PY73  
¶+ Anthranthrone Red PR168  
(¶) Permanent Crimson Alizarin PR177  
(¶) Permanent Madder Deep PR264  
¶¶ Cobalt Violet (Light) PV14  
Permanent Magenta (Quinacridone) PV19  
¶¶ Mineral (= Manganese) Violet PV16  
¶¶ Cobalt Violet Dark PV14  
¶¶ Cobalt Blue PB28  

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Unsafe semi-transparent pigments are:

ØØ Arylide Yellow 10G (Arylamid Yellow) PY3  
ØØØ Dioxazine Purple (or Violet) PV23  
??? Terre Verte (Genuine) 1  PG23  

  1. The lightfastness of Genuine Terre Verte varies with its origin. At the present time, most manufacturers don’t sell it any longer but various mixtures of pigments, the lightfastness of which depends on the components, going from ¶¶ to ¶. In any case, this “historical” pigment has nearly lost any utility in the 21th century.

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Semi-transparent or transparent pigments
Permanent Rose (Quinacridone) PV19  
¶+ Ultramarine Violet PV15  
¶+ Indanthrene Blue PB60  
¶+ French Ultramarine PB29  
¶¶ Viridian (hydrated oxide of chromium) PG18  

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Transparent pigments

The safest most transparent pigments are:

Chromophytal (Transparent) Yellow PY128  
(¶) Transparent Quinacridone Red PR207  
¶¶+ Transparent Red Oxide PR101  
¶¶+ Transparent Brown Oxide PR101  
¶¶+ Transparent Yellow Oxide PY42  
¶+ Phthalocyanine Green 1  PG7  
¶+ Phthalocyanine Blue 1  PB15  

  1. It goes without saying that the other Phthalocyanines (e.g. PB15:3, PB15:4, PB15:6, PG36) are safe transparent pigments too.

Some years ago, when the painter needed a bright yellow or a bright red semi-transparent or transparent pigment, he had only unsafe pigments like:

ØØ Cobalt Yellow (Aureolin) PY40  
ØØØØ Crimson Alizarin PR83  

You have to make your own trials. So you’ll see things that are impossible to precise in these tables, for example that both Cobalt Violets PV14 don’t have exactly the same degree of transparency as Mineral Violet PV16 or Permanent Magenta PV19.

Linseed oil turns dark with age. This phenomenon is called “yellowing”, although the naturally yellow oil turns brown when “yellowing”. This is much more visible with transparent pigments than with opaque ones, and particularly with light colors. This is the reason why you can read in the books that Raw Sienna darkens with age. It is not true. In fact, this semi-transparent pigment is absolutely permanent and its color does not change at all, but it is the oily medium which darkens and turns browner.

On the other hand, for glazes, the painter needs transparent or semi-transparent pigments. He only has to choose a not very yellowing medium. (See Trials: Some Oil Mediums.)

Some brands sell other very valuable and lightfast transparent pigments. I do not pretend to be complete. Every day, new pigments appear. I only speak on the basis of my own experience and my personal lightfastness trials.

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