Whether you dabble in it or appreciate it, we come across art in any shape or form several times in our daily lives– especially the visual kind. For most, we came into contact with making art in some art class in elementary school, using nontoxic watercolors and, if they let us, acrylic. These paints, obviously, are very different from those that professionals use in their lives, but in what ways? Why don’t professional artists use Crayola watercolors for their work? The answer may lie in the science and chemical composition of the paint itself.
For starters, paints contain binders, solvents, and pigments. The pigment is the actual color part that we see, and the more light that’s absorbed by it, the deeper the color. Binders are what help the pigment stick to the surface of a painting and can vary depending on whether the pigment is organic or inorganic, but most paints use a gum arabic binder.
Typically, organic pigments are more preferred due to their more vibrant colors and their increased stability. These paints will use a turpentine binder. Inorganic pigments, however, are more affordable and are heat and light stable. These pigments are made of metal oxides, usually transition metals that can sometimes be toxic, so these aren’t commonly used. These elements usually have their bonding electrons in d-orbitals, and when bonded, can lead to these orbitals splitting into 2 levels of energy which allow electrons to absorb energy and move between the two levels, but the wavelength they absorb can be different depending on how large the gap between the 2 energy levels are. The light that is not absorbed and reflected is what we perceive.
Gamma represents the wavelength that’s absorbed (ResearchGate)
Staying with pigments, the more pigment, the more it will cost. Typically, artist-grade paint will have a higher concentration of finely-ground pigment, increasing surface area of the pigment and its vibrancy. Another factor that will raise the cost is if the pigment is organic or inorganic. Organic pigments, which can be more expensive since they are naturally-found colors and can be rare, are more vibrant and retain color over time when exposed to light.
A more expensive, higher quality watercolor may have smaller, more concentrated pigment. Due to the smaller particle size of the pigment (which can get as low as 0.05 microns), the color will literally seep into the fibers of the paper and will stain (stick to the paper better after it has dried) more effectively, which can be better or worse depending on your art style. However, this pigment concentration and permanence also implies that the paint is suspended in fewer fillers and uses a more effective binder, which also increases the price.
AhmadArt, YouTube (2018)
As someone who likes to dabble in watercolors and has used paints of all different quality, learning specific aspects such as these helps with understanding why it may be sometimes worth it to invest in a more expensive watercolor palette. Because sometimes, the price can be translated into its quality. However, it can be easier to see it in person, or maybe under a microscope because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
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MacAvoy, B. (n.d.). handprint : how watercolor paints are made. Handprint. Retrieved February, 2022, from https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/pigmt1.html
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