Working as a primarily watercolour artist, I have heard some frequently repeated myths from customers as well as other artists, which I would like to dispell.
The first myth I hear very frequently is “Doesn’t watercolour fade?”.
The short answer is no, my watercolour paintings will not fade. In fact, most watercolour paintings you buy from professional artists should be just as durable as other media, especially if framed behind conservation glass.
Watercolour, like most other artistic paint media such as acrylic paint, oil paint, etc, is composed of pigments held together with a binder. For oil paint, this is a drying oil such as linseed oil or walnut oil, for acrylic this is an acrylic emulsion (a synthetic plastic product that hardens in contact with air).
The primary binder in watercolour is gum arabic, a resin made from acacia sap, and sometimes honey. Gum arabic and honey are no more prone to discolouration or other long term effects than other binders. In fact, oil-based binders have a tendency to yellow over time, as do acrylics (which as a newer media, have not yet stood the test of time).
Pigments are naturally occuring and synthetic colourful chemical compounds, which paint manufacturers mix with binders to create paint. In modern days, we are spoiled with a wide variety of stable pigments, thanks to global shipping and modern chemistry. With a little bit of care, artists in all media can use a palette of extremely lightfast, durable colours which will not fade or change colour under any circumstances.
In the past, artists had very limited choices in some parts of the colour spectrum. For instance, before modern lightfast synthetic rose colours such as Quinacridone Rose (PV19) became available, artists had no choice but to use less reliable pigments such as Alizarin Crimson (PR83 ) or extremely fugitive genuine carmine (NR4).
Lightfastness is a problem across all media, not just watercolour
Poor lightfastness is by no means unique to watercolours. Oil or acrylic paintings made using carmine or other fugitive pigments will also eventually fade. To the left is a portrait of Charles Churchill. It now looks ghostly, but when it was originally painted, the subject’s cheeks were likely rosy, and the coat a deep red, through the extensive use of carmine and other fugitive pigments, long since gone.
However, in oil paint, the thicker paint film provides a small amount of UV protection, so an oil painting using fugitive paints may last a little longer than an unprotected watercolour framed behind clear glass.
Modern artist-grade paints are generally not made with highly fugitive pigments such as carmine anymore. However, some specialty paints (such as neon paints and some common brands of liquid watercolours) as well as cheap scholastic grade paints, are made with fugitive dyes instead of traditional pigments (again, this is equally true in non-watercolour media). In addition, some pigments with limited lightfastness are still used in artist paint lines (for example, alizarin crimson is still a common pigment which many artists use. While more durable than carmine, alizarin still has a significantly lower lightfastness than similar quinacridone-based pigments)
How much do you really care about lightfastness?
Some artists prefer to use impermanent materials for immediate impact, rather than creating artwork that will last centuries. Most popular mixed-media, collages including newspaper clipping or plant matter, resin etc are prime examples of this. Similarly, some painters use neon paints, which are virtually all fugitive.
There’s nothing wrong with buying and displaying art for your enjoyment that won’t last forever. For example, I purchased the beautiful oil painting shown on the right (by my studio mate Carly Leyburne) as a statement piece for my dining room. The hot pink trees are painted with an oil paint that includes a rhodamine dye, which will eventually fade. I am not concerned. It looks fantastic right now. We’ll cross the fading bridge when we get to it. I may be old and senile by then anyway 😉
If you are unsure of the pigments used in your watercolour paintings, and would like to ensure they stay looking bright for years to come, framing your art behind conservation glass (which offers significant UV protection) and not hanging it in direct sunlight can dramatically slow any fading in both watercolour and other media.
How to ensure you are creating lightfast art
I am happy to buy any art that catches my eye, with little concern for archival qualities. However, as a seller, I do feel compelled to stay one step ahead, and ensure that my artwork will continue to look bright and fresh, regardless of how my customers choose to frame or display it.
If you are an artist looking to produce artwork that will last for centuries, you can ensure the durability of your pieces by eliminating pigments from your palette which do not have an “excellent” or “very good” lightfastness rating.
The most durable pigments should last centuries without discernable change, given proper framing and protection. Below, I’ve listed a few common paints to watch out for, as well as alternatives. This list is by no means exhaustive – do your homework and research the specific paints that you use if lightfastness is a concern for you
“Opera Rose” and other paints containing rhodamine dye (BV10): Probably the least lightfast paint in most modern paint lines, “Opera Rose” is a hot pink, popular with botanical artists looking for the brightest colour. Usually formulated with PR122 (Quinacridone Magenta) and rhodamine B dye. The rhodamine is highly fugitive, if exposed to sunlight, this will lose brightness, fading back to the (still fairly bright, but not neon) PR122. A safer alternative is to just stick with Purple Magenta (PR122) to begin with.
Alizarin Crimson (PR83): An early synthetic and once the most stable “cool” red, Alizarin Crimson is a relatively dull, deep rosy red. It is now considered relatively fugitive compared to the many available permanent red pigments. Many modern paint manufacturers still offer Alizarin Crimson, and it is favoured by portrait artists and traditionalists over the brighter, modern quinacridone rose (PV19) for mixing skintones and rosy lips because it is slightly muted. However, it isn’t very permanent. Many brands offer a “permanent alizarin crimson” formulated with quinacridone red (PR206) or redder shades of quinacridone violet (PV19). I use Quinacridone Rose (PV19) or Purple Magenta (PR122) for most mixing, and Perylene
Hansa Yellow Lemon (PY3 and PY1): The moderately lightfast Hansa Yellow Lemon (PY3) is one of the most common lemon yellow pigments available. It is much more transparent and highly tinting than other pigments in this range. PY3’s close cousin PY1 (also a Hansa Yellow Lemon) is even less lightfast, yet is still available in some paint lines. An increasing number of paint brands have started offering Lemon Yellow paints made with PY175 , an azo lemon yellow with a “very good”lightfastness rating.
Dioxazine Violet(PV23): Present in nearly every watercolour line, dioxazine violet varies in lightfastness depending on manufacturing. It is a deep, saturated, transparent and non-granulating bright cool violet colour, in a portion of the colour wheel with relatively few pigment alternatives. It is also a relatively inexpensive pigment, whcih no doubt contributes to it’s enduring popularity. There is no single pigment replacement for dioxazine violet, however, hues can easily be mixed from a warmer violet shade such as quinacridone purple (PV55) and a splash of a blue.
Rose Madder Genuine: Most brands have discontinued this pigment, but Winsor Newton have made it their flagship colour. The Winsor Newton paint is scented with bergamot – originally to please Queen Victoria. It is a slightly muted, liftable colour similar in hue to Quinacridone Rose (PV19) but lighter and more muted. Just use quinacridones. For a muted pink with some granulation, try Potter’s Pink (PR233)
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