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The ingredients of paint What makes paint paint

The basic definition of paint in the Concise Oxford Dictionary has shortcomings due to it's brevity. It says paint is solid coloring matter in liquid vehicle so as to impart color to a surface. By that definition my bath water following digging in the garden is 'paint' which clearly it is not. Nor is paint the same as ink. Inks can often fit the above description, but have other characteristics including end usage which gives reason for the different name.  Paint requires particular solid color called pigments, finely ground, and particular liquid vehicles that have the ability to dry or otherwise harden adhering the paint to the surface for an extended period of time. Paints are also formulated to be applied to surfaces principally with a brush. Thus not all solid coloring matter in a liquid vehicle can be defined as paint, and  paint is not suited to every purpose requiring a colored liquid substance.

For thousands of years making paint involved gums and other easily obtained natural substances that were mixed with water and red and yellow clays or soot from the fire that was pulverized between rocks to make the paint when mixed with water. Durability was always a problem and only work done in protected caves and rock overhangs was able to survive more than a short time. Wax and egg were both found to be good vehicles but finicky in use and requiring high levels of skill. Fresco was durable but even more difficult. It wasn't until the late middle ages that the qualities of oil paint were discovered in Northern Europe and paint 'as we know it' was born. All that remained was the development of the plethora of beautiful pigments we are familiar with today.

This page outlines the various characteristics of paint ingredients and then provides links to other pages with fuller information on individual ingredients.

Pigments The coloring agents
Coloring agents are either dyes or pigments. The dyes are molecular in their make up and because of this are easily damaged by light breaking down the molecules to smaller molecules and atoms. This is called fading. Pigments on the other hand consist of finely ground solid particles that because of their greater size are able as a general rule to resist light more so than dyes are likely to. They must be ground extremely finely as the finer the grinding the more beautiful the color as a general rule.

There is another reason, that of stability. A pigment that is not ground sufficiently well can suffer if the particles in the dried paint can be broken down to smaller particles by physical abrasion in normal wear and tear. If these particles are near the paint surface they could enter the atmosphere which is a serious problem if the pigment is poisonous. So it is an important requirement that pigments be ground very finely so that the oil or other binder can coat every particle completely to create the most durable and safe paint.

The following pages give detailed information on all the major pigments likely to be encountered plus the major ones sought for historical or other reasons.

                     Detailed information on pigments


Extenders/fillers/driers Adulterants and other things
These ingredients modify the paint for a variety of reasons. Most artists assume they are there just to 'cheapen' the paint and therefore make more profits for the manufacturer. Certainly that happens and is one of the main differences between brands and grades of paint. All commercially made paints contain carefully measured amounts of one or other of these extra ingredients for very good reason. Gouache for example without the addition of chalk to the pigment would cease to be gouache and would be just plain watercolor without the chalk to make it opaque. There are also some pigments that dry very poorly without some small addition of a drier, Cadmium is one such pigment.

The fault exists only where a manufacturer uses an excessive amount whereby turning a well meant and wise addition into a fraudulent adulteration. The artist making paint in the studio is much more likely to err on the side of too little or none of these substances at all. While making the paint less easy to use or giving it some other fault the extra brilliance of color is worth it in many cases.

                     Detailed information on extenders / fillers / driers


Binders The vehicle for the pigments
Until the 20th century all paint vehicles were natural substances from gums from trees in Arabia to the oils from the seeds of the Lin plant. Before Linseed oil the yolks of eggs was a common binder in Europe, and the use of gums extends back to ancient times.

The 20th century saw the development of Acrylic resin and more recently Alkyds which are based on soya and similar oils. Both have made significant inroads into artistic practice. Acrylics in particular have become the popular choice for many artists. This section deals with the various kinds of oils, acrylics and other binders that are likely to be used by the paint maker.

                      Detailed information on oils, acrylics, gums, alkyds, and eggs




References
Alberti, L B,    On Painting    1435 (Penguin Classics)
Cellini, B,    The Life Of Benvenuto Cellini,    finished 1562 but not published until 1730 (Heron)
Cennini, C d'A,    The Craftsman's Handbook.    1437 (Dover)
Doerner, M,    The Materials Of The Artist And Their Use In Painting,    1921 (Harcourt Brace)
Eastlake, Sir C L,    Materials For A History Of Oil Painting,    1847 (Dover)
Feller, R L,    Artists Pigments    1986 (National Gallery Of Art / Cambridge University)
Gettens, R J, and Stout, G L,      Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia,      1942 (Dover)
Gottsegen, M D,    A Manual Of Painting Materials And Techniques,    1987 (Harper & Row)
Maire, F,    Colors: What They Are And What To Expect Of Them,    1910 (Drake)
Mayer, R,   The Artists Handbook Of Materials And Techniques,    fifth edition 1991  (Faber & Faber)
Merrifield, Mrs. M P,    Medieval And Renaissance Treatises On The Arts Of Painting    1849 (Dover)
Muther, R,    The History Of Painting From The Fourth Century To The Early Nineteenth Century,    1907 (Putnam)
Parkhurst, D B,    The Painter In Oil   1898 (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard)
Patton, T C,    Pigment Handbook,    1973 (Wiley)
Porter, N      Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary,      1913 (Merriam)
Pliny, The Elder (Gaius Plinius),    Natural History,    77 AD (Penguin Classics)
Roy, A      Artist's Pigments: A Handbook Of Their History And Characteristics,      1994 (Oxford University Press)
Taubs, F,    A Guide To Traditional And Modern Painting Methods,    1963 (Thames & Hudson)
Theophilus,   On Divers Arts,    1125 (Dover)
Various,    Encyclopedia Britannica,    fifteenth edition 1981  (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc)
Various,    Paint And Painting,   1982,  (Winsor & Newton / The Tate Gallery)
Various,    The Artist's Colormen's Story,    1984 (Winsor & Newton)
Vasari, G,   The Lives Of The Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors And Architects,    1568 (Penguin Classics)


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