How Pigments Create Color in Artist Mediums

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Have you ever wondered where the color in your paints actually comes from? For instance, what makes your ultramarine watercolors appear blue, and what makes your crimson pastels appear red? The answer is pigment. The pigments used to create artist mediums (such as paints, colored pencils, pastels, etc) consist of colored powder that is then mixed with various substances to create each specific medium.

The color intensity of each paint, pencil or pastel will depend on the ratio of pigment to filler. Filler is added to most commercial art mediums to “bulk up” the product. Higher quality art supplies will contain more pigment and less filler. Even though the result is a higher-priced medium, the cost is worth it for the better results that are achieved with the higher pigment content.

In addition to pigments, each medium has specific ingredients that give the medium its unique qualities:

  • Watercolors are created from a mixture of pigment and gum arabic (or synthetic glycol), which acts as a binder. Additives are often added to adjust the characteristics of the watercolors, altering qualities such as durability and sheen.
  • Acrylics consist of pigments dispersed in water and bound together with an acrylic medium.
  • Oil paints are made from a combination of pigments ground with an oil, such as linseed oil.
  • Pastels are a blend of pigments and a binder, such as gum tragacanth, gum arabic, or methyl cellulose. Pastels contain a higher percentage of pigment than any other art medium.

Commercially-made art mediums also typically contain preservatives and other ingredients, but you can easily make you own paints and pastels using the materials listed above, adjusting the hue and intensity of each color to your specific liking.

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