Chemistry and Painting


                                                                                               March 20, 201Some of you think these two words are opposite from each other.  Using the different hemispheres of the brain, how can this be?  One is analytical, the other is interpretative.  

I studied chemistry and received a BS in Medical Technology.  So what does that mean?  Lots and lots of chemistry!  In my past life, I was fascinated with everything regarding chemistry.  I learned how all the organs work together with chemistry to be a well-engineered body.  Balancing chemical structures and formulas is Nature at her best.  How does she mix the acid and bases of life and what are their chemical properties.  How does she make nature all work together?  

Yep Chemistry!

In the last 5-6 years of being a painter, I still get fascinated with how certain properties of paint mix.  How is it that you take one pigment of yellow and red and get different oranges?  You can do this with all of the primary colors.

Artist and chemists have their own languages

I spent a whole year trying to figure out how other artists pick two or more paint hues and are able to get what they see.  I asked art friends, some with BFA or MFA (or not), but they don’t answer my question.  They just know it or learned it over time.  

They also tell me that I am using the wrong hemisphere of my brain and thinking too much!  REALLY? Now school was hard, and I spent many long hours studying to get that degree and I am proud of myself for earning it. So if they learned it, there must a book on this, right?  

In today’s climate of everything at our fingertips with the Internet, I searched and searched, taking a year or more to finally find the answer and guess what!


My old, long friend, chemistry will help me after all these years!  Now hold on, let me explain and I hope to not loose my right-brain friends.  (The left-brain friends will understand).

While I was studying oil painting and learning the techniques, I came up with part of the answer. Tubes of paint are made from pigments or mixture of different pigments with a suspended material to make it oil, acrylic or any other type of media.  For oil paints, linseed oil is added to pigment.  

Pigment the answer?

The pigment used is a key.  Each manufacture must specify which pigments they use.   Luckily there are societies and associations that have developed a color Index that covers pigments, solvents, dyes, inks for all different industries.  

Think of all the chemists who helped!

Now back to the chemistry of paints.  So there is an Online Colour Index that has 13,000 generic names with corresponding constitution numbers.  

This numbering system is the fingerprint of pigments.  Therefore you can purchase a tube from one manufacture and see if it’s the same as another by this system.  Check out  “Color of Art Pigment Database” 

Pretty cool huh?  This seems similar to the elements in the periodic table.  This database tells you many things; to answer my question, it informs me that not all names on the tubes of paint are the same.  You need to make sure your cadmium yellow tube has only ‘PY35’ number on the tube.  If it has the code index of P1, then it’s a cadmium yellow hue.  Which means it doesn’t have the same properties as PY35.  Finding parallels!

True pigment vs hue

Experience artists know that when a paint tube states hue, its not a true color and wont work as the true color.  Thereby when mixing colors of true colors together you will have consistency!  OK now I am getting somewhere.

Getting that constant color each time you mix

With this knowledge, I will need to use the same code index tube of paints to get consistency in my mixture. (Cad Yellow; PY35 plus Cad Red, PR108 will make a bright pumpkin orange)

Now this doesn’t really answer my question on why you mix a Cadmium Yellow of brand X and Cadmium Red of brand Y, you will get the same orange hue as if you used Cadmium Yellow of brand Y and Cadmium Red of brand X.

Earlier I stated that pigment is the key. So how do my art friends know to mix certain colors together and always get their color they want!

Color Theory can be bewildering!

When I was learning color theory, I found my answer.  Artists always describe a color as warm or cool.  Well ok, my analytical side of the brain thinks temperature.  But that really didn’t help on mixing…mostly if you mix a cool with a warm, its still confusing…. aaargh!

Color Bias is your friend

I dug deeper till I understood that colors have biases!  Wow, what’s this?  My instructor convinced me that using the Munsel color wheel is very important and I agree. Click below to read further

Hues (colors) on this wheel all have a bias or influence on each other.  Wow, how funky is this!  Are we talking about the chemistry of colors? The elements in the periodic table?  Humm this sounds similar?

A red-blue or green-yellow or orange-red are a few names that artists describe a hue. There is so much more you can get reading on your own on biases.  Carol A McIntyre, color maestro explains it well.

Therefore, nearly every primary tube of paint carries another color with it; artists say they carry a color bias.  Thus there are very few pure primary colors, Red, Blue and Yellow. You can say that every chemical in the world consists of one or more elements on the periodic table!

Have I convinced you that chemistry and painting are similar?  

1 thought on “Chemistry and Painting”

  1. Hi, Cindy-you’ll find, also, that different brands of paint with the same color index number can be subtly different. You would enjoy The Artists Handbook, by Ralph Mayer—I remember him discussing particle size & the fineness of mulling the paint can make a difference, as can the binder (linseed, poppy oil, safflower oil) or resins, waxes, or other proprietary ingredients. I have charts and charts of colors—but tend to use the same 8-10 tubes (out of maybe 50?) most of the time. If you start investigating glazing, where transparent colors mix optically rather than physically, you’ll get a whole other series of colors! You’d probably also like Tad Spurgeon’s Living Craft book! Sorry for the long comment 🙂

Comments are closed.