12 Sep

Pigments are chemical substances that give colour to things. If we're looking for a more in-depth definition, we can take a look at this one:

"A pigment is an intensely colored molecule that often lends color to other materials, and is either partially or completely insoluble in water. Pigments are different from dyes, because pigments require a binder (or binding agent) to dissolve into liquids."

So a pigment is a molecule that makes things coloured, got it. Pigments can be of any colour: black, white, grey, yellow, orange, red, pink, turquoise... Any colour you can think of can be achieved by mixing or producing pigments. There are pigments for every single hue you can think of: instead of having a single default blue pigment, hundreds of different blue pigments exist.

But how do you tell them apart if there are so many of them? Is there a way to categorise pigments?

Yes! There's a simple way that's internationally used by artists, art restorers, museums and paint manufacturers.

Pigment codes

All pigments are categorised with an alphanumeric code. Many pigments can be referred to with several different names depending on the brand that sells the product, the country where it's been named, etc. For instance, the same shade of yellow is known as Hansa Yellow Light, Hansa Yellow, Lemon Yellow Primary Yellow and Process Yellow (amarillo proceso in Spanish) across different brands and countries. Colour Index International (CII) resolves these conflicting names so that manufacturers and consumers can identify the exact pigment they're looking for; in the case of the aforementioned yellow, it's pigment number is PY3 no matter the name given.

All pigment codes follow this formula: 

P[first letter of colour it refers to][numeric code]

For example, PY3 is a code where the P stands for 'pigment' while the Y stands for 'yellow' and that 3 refers to the molecular structure of the pigment.

Not every colour has a pigment code, there's no such a thing as "PP" for pink pigments as pinks are classified as magentas, part of the red pigment family.

These are the codes you will find:

  1. PW: pigment white. PW4 is commonly referred to as Chinese White.
  2. PBk: pigment black. PBk31 is commonly known as Perylene Green (yup, green).
  3. PBr: pigment brown. PBr7 is also known as Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber.
  4. PG: pigment green. PG7 is known as Phthalo Green, Emerald Green or Viridian Hue.
  5. PB: pigment blue. PB15 is usually referred to as Phthalo Blue, Cyan, Primary Blue or Cerulean Hue.
  6. PV: pigment violet. PV23 is known as Dioxacine Violet.
  7. PR: pigment red. PR101 is the pigment that produces English Red, Indian Red, Venetian Red, Caput Mortuum, Mars Violet and many others.
  8. PO: pigment orange. PO48 is known as Quinacridone Burnt Orange.
  9. PY: pigment yellow. PY43 is used for Yellow Ochre.

Those are the main nomenclatures you'll find on your watercolour and oil paint tubes. Some paint tubes contain a convenience colour premixed with two or more pigments which means you can achieve that exact same hue by mixing the single pigments yourself. For example, many brands sell a convenience turquoise that contains PG7 and PB15:3, if you already own tubes/pans of standalone PG7 and PB15:3, you could save some money.

Know your pigments

We've already established that paying attention to pigment ingredients on paints can help you save money (unless you really want that colour, who am I to stop you). 

What else could be a reason why we should know pigments?

Easy: to avoid disappointment and false advertising. Some watercolour brands (both commercial and artisanal) will advertise as lightfast colours that are made with highly fugitive pigments. 

Kimberly Crick offers for free an exhaustive list of fugitive pigments:

For a general pigment database, go to artiscreation.com where you can find every single pigment known classified into colour families.

* The email will not be published on the website.