You were so proud of your watercolor painting of some roses. You had achieved a good drawing as a base for the painting. You loved the composition and how it spanned the image plane. The light spread across the roses giving you the effect you were looking for by balancing the shadows from very dark to beautiful bright red highlights. It was one of your best pieces to date. In fact, it sold out really fast and that made you even happier.

But a couple of months later, the buyer contacts you. Something had changed in the painting. The buyer said it has lost some of its shine. You agree to look at the painting and you are surprised by what you find. It seems a lot less vibrant to you. Some of the red areas that were rich in color now have a dull, watery appearance. You cannot believe what you are seeing. What happened?

Runaway colors — that’s what happened. The artist did not read the labels of the paints she used and did not really understand the permanence of the colors she had chosen. Maybe it was the first time that I chose those colors. I had no idea that some of them were “runaway” colors. In this article, we’ll briefly review what runaway colors mean and how to read paint labels to better understand what you’re buying, whether it’s oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache, or other paints.

A fugitive color is a paint that has a pigment that can change over time. Most of the time the changes are due to exposure to strong light, especially sunlight. Every better paint manufacturer places a rating on the tube from the American Society for Testing of Materials (ASTM). You will also find this rating on better colored pencil brands. They rate the fastness to light, the ability of the pigment to resist exposure to light, on a scale from I to IV, with I being Excellent and IV Fugitive. Look for that number on your paint tubes. It can look like this: ASTM IV or ASTM II. The higher the number, the more fugitive the color will be. Always try to use the ones marked I or II no matter how much you like the color. Especially if it will sell the job. Customers are unhappy when their paintings change over time!

Reds are the most runaway colors, hence the rose painting example above. Historically, crimson alizarin has been on the run, but now you should look for reformulations like “permanent crimson alizarin”. Runaway color reformulations are much more stable and can also be called “new” like some yellows. With runaway colors like gamboge, again look for “New Gamboge” as it is a reformulation. Any color with the name “crazy” is also fugitive, like Rose Madder.

Try to become familiar with the way different brands mark their tubes. At Winsor & Newton, for example, you will see permanence marked AA for extremely permanent, A for permanent, and B for moderately permanent. They also show a serial number that is related to price, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. And finally, the resistance to light marked I, II, III or IV.

Each manufacturer provides the same information in different ways. So, read your tubes and have fun with the colors that you like the most. But be careful if you want to stay at your job.

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