What’s In A Label?

With so many different brands and colors on the market today, how often have you bought something which has proved to be disappointing, not what you expected and has left a deep hole in your pocket? How many tubes of paint do you have sitting in your box that you seldom use? How often do you feel overwhelmed looking at a paint chart or display in a shop, trying to decide what colors to buy?

Recently I needed to replace my Cobalt Blue, went into the art shop, got distracted by so many blues on display, bought not one, but two blues [ thought I was budgeting because they were Series 1] which I had never heard of before but looked very similar to Cobalt on the display. I tried them out and although lovely neither of them are Cobalt Blue and are actually quite different to the swatch on display. This is when it becomes good practice to familiarise yourself with the codes on any paint label. Different brands will often have their own codes which might differ slightly from each other , and it would be useful to check beforehand on a particular manufacturer’s website. My favorite brand is Daniel Smith, so I will use them as my example in this instance.

Interpreting labels might seem confusing at first but it’s actually quite simple once you become familiar with it. Knowing what’s in the paint formula will help you choose your paints with confidence. It also helps your color mixing skills when you know which pigments you’re mixing and how many.

The important characteristics to look for on a label are:

A] The series number

B] The pigment number

C]  The transparency rating

 D] The lightfastness

E] The staining property.  

A]. SERIES NUMBER;- The series number tells you how much your paint tube is likely to cost. Manufacturers generally group their colours into five different price brackets or ‘series’. ‘Series 1’ paints will be made from the cheapest pigments and will be the least expensive in the range. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a series 1 paint is not as good as one from a more expensive series – some pigments are just much more easily available and therefore less costly to produce or process. A lot of the Daniel Smith Series 3 and upwards come purely from mineral sources from the earth.

B]. PIGMENT NUMBER;- The pigment is what gives the paint its colour. It will derive either from a ground organic substance, or a synthetic substance that is chemically produced. The paint is the combination of that pigment and a binder such as gum arabic which holds the pigment together and dries into a film when you apply the paint to your paper.

To make pigment identification easier, paints use a code known as the Color Index Name. This is a standardized list which is internationally recognized by all manufacturers, and it provides artists with the most trustworthy way to identify colors used in paint ingredients. It’s a pretty simple code and begins with the letter P (for pigment) followed by some letters to indicate a basic color category:

  • Y for Yellow
  • ​O for Orange
  • ​R for Red
  • V for Violet
  • ​B for Blue
  • G for Green
  • Br for Brown
  • Bk for Black
  • W for White

Pigment numbers tell you exactly which pigment was used in the ingredients. For example PB28 is traditionally used for Cobalt Blue. The “PB” means “pigment, blue”, and “28” means that it’s the 28th blue pigment listing in the color index. You also want to look at the quantity of pigments used in the formula. Paints with more than one pigment are generally known as “convenience” mixtures . The more pigments included in a paint the more complicated it is to mix with other colors. If you are not familiar , or a beginner with color mixing, it is better to choose a paint that has just 1 pigment, or use a multi-pigment paint on its own. If you are a beginner, I would suggest you purchase a limited palette of single pigmented paints to start with.

The generic name of the paint is of least importance and many brands will share the same name, but the pigment content may differ hugely between each one and those paints will behave differently from each other especially in a color mix.

In the example below you can see the obvious differences in brands using the same name, but also the Daniel Smith Hooker’s Green is going to be more complex in a mix than the other two, as it contains more pigments.

Many brands will choose attractive names, for example, “Moonglow”, purely for marketing purposes and which may give no indication to the pigment content and characteristics. 

The Pigment number for “Moonglow” is PG 18, PB 29, PR 177, and therefore it is a convenient mixture. This means it is comprised of 3 pigments, Pigment Green ,no 18, Pigment Blue, no 29 and Pigment Red, no 177. It would not be advisable to use ‘Moonglow’ in a further color mix without losing the sanctity and characteristics of the paint and color. Use it on its own and watch the magic happen as it disperses and dries.

If the paint name has the word ‘Hue’ in it, it means it is normally made up of cheaper pigments to emulate the original. For Example  we know Cobalt Blue is made of PB28, but if there was a ‘Cobalt Blue Hue’, the pigments would be different and may even change all the characteristics of the original. 

To see the Daniel Smith full range of color pigment chart go to Here you will find all the colours and characteristics of the Daniel Smith range. It is also very useful as it describes the content of their ‘convenience’ colors and you can try emulate the original from colors you might have in your palette. For example ‘Moonglow’ is made up of Viridian, Ultramarine Blue and Anthraquinoid Red.

C]. TRANSPARENCY RATING ;- The transparency rating generally ranges from “transparent”,[indicated with a white circle,]  to “semi-transparent”,[ indicated with a circle of which half is in black] to “opaque”,[ black circle]. Different paint formulas can have varying degrees of transparency. Often this characteristic is not indicated on the label itself and one would have to look on the manufacturer’s color chart for the information. For obvious reasons the transparency rating would be relevant if you are doing multiple washes or glazing, and also if you want to keep the luminosity of the white paper.  Glazing, or layering, relies on the idea that the underlying washes of paint remain visible, and this transparency is part of the beauty of watercolors. Similarly, if you paint in layers like this, good staining properties are useful. With staining paints the underlying layers of paint won’t lift and start mixing with each fresh glaze of paint.

D]. STAINING PROPERTY;- This is a characteristic which also may not appear on the label, but the information will be available on the manufacturer’s website. Paints can have lowmoderate, or high staining properties. This is a measure of how well the paint fixes to the paper. For example, a low staining paint will easily “lift off” the paper.   Conversely, a high staining paint remains stubbornly on the surface and is difficult to budge. Knowledge of the staining property of any paint is useful especially if you like doing multi layering washes or glazing and wanting to maintain the security of the original wash. With staining paints the underlying layers of paint won’t lift and start mixing with each fresh glaze of paint.

E]. LIGHTFASTNESS RATING;- Lightfastness is also known as permanency. This is a measure of how well a paint stands up to the strains of time, and whether it is likely to fade after a few years. If you intend to sell your paintings or want them to last several years, this is an important quality. It has taken years for watercolors to attain a good lightfastness rating as historically they had a reputation of fading and being ‘wishy-washy’, but now with the excellent ranges of top quality paints,  a watercolor painting now can have the same longevity projection as any other medium.

Again, different manufacturer’s may use different narratives but generally the grading goes from ;-1= Excellent [100+ years], 2= Very Good [ 100 years], 3=Fair [50-70 years] , and  4=Fugitive [15-20 years].

Knowing a little bit more about the characteristics of any particular paint, although it may be tedious in the beginning, will help you build a palette that particularly works for you, and save you money in the long run. Although every paint has its qualities, artists often find that opaque, low-staining, multiple pigment paint mixes can result in muddy colors . Daniel Smith produces many gorgeous multiple pigment colours, use them on their own, rather than trying to mix them further, and they will add their own magic to your work.

Last but not least, if you are going to the art supply shop to select your paints from the display, be warned, take a magnifying glass, unless you have super bionic eye sight !!!!

Barbi Cunningham
WASA Admin

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