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Artists' Water Colour

Pigments in Water Colour

Today, our Artists’ Water Colours contain an ever-widening range of high performance pigments, which ensure strength of colour and excellent brilliance combined with extremely high permanence ratings. 

Types of Pigments in Water Colour

Pigments can be classified chemically into two main groups, which can then be divided into natural and synthetic:

1) Inorganic: Those pigments which are derived from compounds that were never part of living matter and do not contain carbon. This group includes cadmiums, cobalt, ultramarine and a wide range of other traditional colours. Earths are also included in this group.

2) Organic: Those pigments which are derived from living substances or substances that were once part of living things. This group includes many modern pigments known for their clarity, transparency, and their polysyllabic names, such as phthalocyanine, quinacridone, perylene and benzimidalazone. These pigments are based on carbon.

Pigment Family Groups

As well as classifying the pigments in Artists’ Water Colour into their chemical groups, we can further categorize the range into the following family groups, and have chosen a few of these to discuss, as follows:


Earth pigments are the oldest colouring materials in the world. The caves of Altamira and Lascaux still show artworks from at least 15,000 years ago. Natural earths are essential for their low tinting strength and natural tones, which cannot be mixed from hues using blacks and whites.

Earths are coloured deposits usually taking their hue from contact with iron over millions of years. They are some of the most inert, permanent pigments available. Earth pigments are extracted from the ground and are then cleaned and washed.

The Artists’ Water Colour range includes a number of new earth colours: Brown Ochre: This is an orange-brown earth, fitting between the yellow and red earths. It closely resembles our original Brown Ochre of nearly 40 years ago. It is semi-transparent and useful in all types of painting. Yellow Ochre Light: A pale semi-opaque yellow ochre in addition to Yellow Ochre.

Synthetic Earths

Over the many decades of Artists’ Water Colour, the deposits of many good natural earths have become depleted and have been replaced with synthetic iron oxides. Synthetic iron oxides are appealing in themselves because they tend to be quite strong and opaque in character.

The first synthetic iron oxides (“Mars” colours) date to the mid 19th century. Although synthetic iron oxides have their own great characteristics, they do not completely replace the earth pigments and we therefore recommend that the best range, as illustrated by Artists’ Water Colour, needs to include both synthetic earths and natural earth pigments side by side.

Examples of synthetic opaque (Caput Mortuum), natural opaque (Yellow Ochre), synthetic transparent (Burnt Sienna), natural transparent (Raw Umber)

Cadmium Pigments and Alternatives

Colours based on cadmium pigments constitute an important colour range in the artist’s palette. Their unique hues, good coverage and low tinting strength are qualities unmatched by any other pigments available. Moreover, they have excellent light-fastness in combination with very high opacity.

Why use alternatives?

Cadmiums are the most popular reds and yellows in the palette and as artists’ colours in normal use, do not present a health hazard to the user. While there has been public concern about cadmium compounds used by other industries and their impact on the environment, it should be noted that cadmium pigments used by Winsor & Newton are practically insoluble. With this in mind, some artists who do not depend on cadmiums for their unique characteristics may therefore choose to use alternatives. There are no direct replacements for cadmiums but there are alternatives with some of the desirable characteristics of cadmiums.

Below is a chart that explains how each alternative colour relates to the genuine cadmium.

When considering the ”alternatives“ to cadmium pigments, each pigment is assessed in the following areas: • Hue • Opacity • Strength (Note: Opacity and strength will have an impact on colour mixing.)

Key to coding: = Equal to or similar < Less than


Quinacridones are a very important group of pigments originated in the 1950s. The first quinacridones were introduced by Winsor & Newton as Permanent Rose and Permanent Magenta. With their highly transparent and lightfast hues, these colours transformed the pink and mauve section of the palette, an area that had always suffered from poor lightfastness. Over the next 50 years many more colours have become available, ranging from deep crimson to gold. This is achieved by juggling the chemicals involved.

The eight Quinacridones in the Artists' Water Colour Range

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