Paint is the most versatile media available to an artist. It has been used in one form or another for more than thirty thousand years to express and illustrate our thoughts and feelings. Every subject has been painted from nursery rhymes to war. The reason for paint's popularity is it's versatility.

It is important to remember that it is not paint that makes the art, but rather the painter. Paint is only the medium.

There are many kinds of paint. All have the same basic components:

Pigment = color
Binder = glue
Solvent = thinner

   Be wary of colors that just tell the hue (red) or have vague names (brilliant blue). They are probably mixtures you could make yourself or just cheap materials in disguise.    

Pigment is the coloring agent in paint. Every imaginable (and some unimaginable) substance from dirt to flower petals has been used to color paint. All color is the result of light. Our eyes react to different wave lengths of light with the sensation of color. Pigments absorb and reflect color (more about this under color). Pigments are chosen for their color, tinting strength, opacity and permanence.

Pigments are ground into fine powders and mixed with a binder to make paint. Powdered pigments are available if you want to make your own paint. Artist's paints are usually named after the pigment (like cadmium yellow) but some retain traditional names (like ultramarine blue).

  Ultramarine blue has an interesting story. This was originally ground from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli which came from Egypt which was "ultra marinus" (beyond the sea in Latin) from Italy where the paint was used.    

The first pigment used was probably charcoal (carbon). Other early pigments were dirt (browns -- earth colors like raw sienna) and chalk (white -- powdered limestone). Many earth colors are still used.

Many plant and animal sources were used as pigment but most have been replaced by more stable and permanent (light safe) modern materials in paint. Do it yourselfers and traditional weavers still use many of these materials to dye fabrics. Blue was once obtained from the leaves of the indigo plant. Cuttlefish (squid) ink supplied sepia. Indian yellow was originally made from the urine of camels force-fed on mango leaves.

Many minerals are used for pigments: lead, titanium, cobalt, cadmium, etc.. These are highly processed to give the strongest and most consistent colors. Aniline dyes were coal tar derivatives discovered during the industrial revolution and have sparked the industry of color making. Pigments like phthalocynine blue (known as phthalo blue) are test tube colors.

Most modern pigments are made in the laboratory (though some natural materials are still used). Modern ultramarine blue is such a color.


Every pigment has a different ability to control the color of a mixture with other pigments. Stronger tinting strength is a desirable characteristic if economy is a factor. Some colors are relatively weak in this effect while some (like phthalo blue) are very strong. Because of the differences you can not easily measure the amount of each pigment in a mix to get a certain colored. You just mix them and adjust the mixture until it looks right.

Opaque paints are the best to use for this class.
means that you can not see through it (it is opaque). Transparency means that you can see through it (it is transparent). Pigments come both ways and all degrees in between. Artists choose there paints with this in mind since some painting techniques prize opacity (the projects for this course work best with opaque paint) and some need transparency.
  A pigment that fades is said to be fugitive.       
Permanence refers to the ability of the pigment to resist fading in strong light. This has obvious implications. Reds are difficult to make permanent. Look at posters that have been out in the sunlight to see how this works.

Binders glue the pigment to the surface the paint is put on (called the ground). Different paint types are differentiated by their binder. Most pigments can be used in all kinds of paint (but some are binder specific). Major binder types are:

Gum arabic and other vegetable gums are derived from various plant saps (acacia usually). This material is water-soluble and used to make: water color and ink (transparent), and gouache (watercolor mixed with white paint), poster paint and designers colors (opaque) paints. It is also used as a binder for water color pencils and some pastels. Paints using this binder usually use paper as a ground.

Egg yoke is mixed with dry pigment to make traditional egg tempera. This is rarely used today but was popular in early Renaissance painting in Italy before oil paints were perfected. The paint is surprisingly durable (did you ever forget to wash the breakfast dishes?) but difficult to blend and must be applied one stroke at a time. Board covered with gesso (white chalk and glue) is the usual ground for egg tempera.



This is the kind of paint that you should use for the painting projects for this course.


Acrylic emulsion is the binder in acrylic paint. This paint is really plastic. Long chains of copolymer molecules are kept in a solution (usually water) with the pigment. When they are painted out and the water evaporates the plastic molecules permanently bind to each other and the ground trapping the pigment. This emulsion is a lot like white glue. It dried clear and permanent. So water is used to thin the paint but once it dries it is no longer soluble and becomes water proof.


If you want to learn more about oil painting visit John Hogan's web site.


Oil paint
uses what is called drying oil for a binder, usually linseed oil. That means that the oil dries by oxidation (not evaporation) changing its form into a solid and durable substance. If you have ever cleaned the cupboard after you kept the cooking oils there for several years, you know what that means. The oil film never becomes solid so it will crack and yellow after many years. It is, however very durable and desirable as a medium.

Oil paints versatility and the brushing characteristics make it the most popular painting media. The paint can be used thick (impasto) or thin (as a wash), opaque or transparent (as a glaze) and anything in-between. The oil dries slowly and allows plenty of working time to blend colors carefully but can also be used spontaneously and expressively.


There a many other kinds of paints used by artists. Other painting media include:

Casein: Milk protein is the binder in casein paint. It dries much like egg tempera but can be blended easier and is less glossy.

Encaustic: Wax is the binder used in encaustic painting. Encaustic means "burned in" and so heat must be used. It looks waxy as you might imagine and is delicate. There are, however, some examples from Egypt of Coptic art that are well preserved after two thousand years.

Fresco: Fresco means "fresh" in Italian and refers to pigment in a water base put on fresh plaster. As the plaster hardens the pigment is bound into the surface. This was used for centuries to paint murals on masonry walls because other processes do not stick well to damp walls.

  NOTE: Acrylic paint is permanent even if you do not want it to be. Wash it out of your clothing right away.    

The solvent is the material that thins the paint. A painter uses the solvent to control the viscosity of the paint in order to apply it with control. The solvent is also used to clean brushes and other painting tools.

Most of the binders listed above use water for a solvent (oil paint and encaustic are the exceptions). That means they can be thinned with water and in some cases "rewet" (returned to a solution) again after they dry. That makes painting over already dry watercolor or gouache risky if you are changing the color radically.

Acrylic paint thins with water but cannot be rewet after it dries. Keep this in mind while you are using it. If it is allowed to dry on your brush, the brush will be ruined. The same goes for your clothes (acrylic paint is used to paint fabrics).

Because of the slow drying time and flammable solvents used, oil paint is not suitable for this course.

Oil paint thins with turpentine (distilled pine tree sap) and paint thinners like mineral spirits. Once it dries oil paint can be removed with the same materials, but it is difficult and usually results in a stain.

If you enjoy these painting projects, or just want to learn more about painting, take a painting class. Courses are offered in oil, acrylic and water color painting at Palomar College.


© 2006 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.