There can be a lot of mystery when you go to purchase paints, especially if it’s your first time buying a particular medium.
Just to start with, when you look at the wall of paint at your local art supply store you’ll see many different brands. Then within each brand you’ll find different series numbers, and sometimes even different series numbers within what looks to be the same color.
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So what do these paint series numbers mean?
The short and simple answer is that the lower the series number (“Series 1” for example) the cheaper the paint will be. As the number goes higher, so will the price.
Having worked in an art supply store for a very long time, I’m no longer surprised when art students, working artists, and even art professors ask about paint series numbers.
The main thing to keep mind with paint, though (and it doesn’t matter whether you’re buying acrylic, oil, watercolor, or gouache) is that paint series numbers are primarily a pricing strategy. You cannot necessarily make assumptions on the quality of paint based purely on the paint series number.
Paint series numbers exist so that the company which manufactures that paint does not charge you too much for a color that is inexpensive to produce, or lose their shirt on a color that costs a lot to produce.
If you’re just starting to paint, you will probably need several specific colors to fill out your palette, but it’s up to you whether or not you buy all of your colors in the same brand of paint.
As you compare different brands, you will notice that certain colors are in the same series number regardless of type or brand of paint.
For example, yellow ochre paint tends to be “Series 1” regardless of whether you buy a tube of Golden acrylic paint or Winsor & Newton watercolor. It’s simply NOT an expensive color to produce.
On the other hand, you’ll find cobalt blue paint is always on the higher end, typically a “Series 4” regardless of brand or style of paint. That’s because it’s a more expensive color to produce.
Understanding “pure” colors and “hues”
Besides checking the series number, there are more things to explore before you purchase your paint. You should always look at the actual pigment being used. The front of the tube may say one thing, while the pigments listed on the back of the tube are something different.
For example, if you look at a tube of Gamblin’s Quinacridone Red (Series 3) you will see the pigment listed as “Quinacridone Red b (PV19).” Because there is only one pigment listed, this is considered a “pure” color. Pure colors are great for mixing, because they won’t muddy as fast as “hues” or “mixtures.”
If you look at Gamblin’s Naples Yellow Hue (series 2), you will see the pigments listed as Zinc Oxide (PW4), Concentrated Cadmium Sulfide (PY37), and Natural Hydrated Iron Oxide (PY43). This particular color is a mix of 3 pigments, which when put together appear to be a new color.
The first clue that this is not a “pure” color is the fact that the name of the color has the word “hue” on it. When it comes to artist’s paint, the word “hue” references the fact that the paint is a mix of colors, not a single pigment.
Mixes are made for many reasons. In the case of Naples Yellow, a hue is produced because the original pigment for this color (which was used by the masters as far back as the 1600s) is now considered toxic.
People who’ve studied the masters and want to paint like them still want this color—so paint manufacturers make it available by mixing other colors to create a “hue” with the appearance of Naples Yellow.
For other colors, hues are made because the original pigment doesn’t mix well with the medium being used, like acrylic. A popular pigment in oil paint might not work with the acrylic polymer emulsion to turn it into an acrylic paint, so a hue is created.
Another reason is simply convenience, of course. If you are a landscape painter, you’ll need to mix the color green over and over and over, yet each time you mix it, it will be slightly different no matter how careful you are. But a paint manufacturer can mix the paint and deliver the same color to you in each and every tube. You can save time and materials by buying these pre-mixed colors instead of trying to achieve an identical color on your own.
Lastly, paint manufacturers create “hues” or “mixtures” in order to save you money.
Let’s say for example you want to paint a giant canvas with a base coat of Cerulean Blue (series 6). That would probably be a lot of money for a color that is mostly going to be covered up by other paint.
The better choice would be to go with Cerulean Blue Hue (series 2) which is made up of Zinc Oxide and Pthalo Blue. It isn’t really Cerulean Blue, but it sure looks like it. For this purpose, a mixture is a perfect solution.
Keep in mind that you might still want to consider the original (series 6) for your main palette when you’re done painting the background, because that hue may not mix with other colors like your color theory class taught you it should.
Think of it this way. . . when you mix real Cerulean Blue and real Cadmium Yellow Medium, each of those paints contains a single pigment, so you’re only mixing two colors. There’s nothing else to muddy up the paint.
However, if you use hues of those colors, you are often mixing as many as six colors, since each color is made up of three pigments each. The more pigments that are being mixed together, the faster your color will turn muddy and brown.
I’ll leave you with one last example. . . I personally like to buy an acrylic convenience mixture called Light Blue Permanent (Series 1).
On the back, there are 3 pigments listed, Copper Phthalocyanine, Chlorinated Copper Phthalycyanine, and Titanium Dioxide. I buy this color often, because it’s great as a base color for skies. I don’t really mix with it, but it’s a good, inexpensive base layer.
So the next time you’re in the art store purchasing paint, check the back of the tubes to see what pigments are included, and don’t forget to compare different brands and series numbers to see where your dollar will make more of a difference.
The more you consider how you plan to use a specific color, the better you’ll be able to make an informed opinion about which tube is best for you.