Fugitive Colors and Watercolor Painting by Birgit O’Connor
It’s a little surprising that many watercolor artists are not really sure what “fugitive color” means, nor do they even care; they simply want to paint with colors they like and that’s about it. That’s fine but, if you intend to sell your art or teach a course in watercolor painting, you need to know what fugitive color means.
So what is fugitive color?
A fugitive color is a pigment that, when exposed to certain environmental conditions such as sunlight, humidity, temperature or even pollution, is less permanent. Over time the color can change, lighten, darken or even almost disappear. Basically think of fugitive colors as temporary. They should only be used for fun projects, rather than in a professional watercolor painting.
Red is a powerful color that affect affects people’s emotions, so when painting you want to retain the dynamic energy and not have it fade or darken over time.
Reds are notoriously fugitive, which can be a challenge when painting a red subject. Some favorite colors that are fugitive include opera, alizarin crimson, anything with the word madder, or even gamboge. Look for the words “new” or “permanent” in the colors, such as new gamboge or permanent alizarin crimson. These are reformulated pigments that are meant to be as lightfast as possible for that particular color. Even when you absolutely “love” a color, if it’s fugitive and if you want any kind of permanence to your painting, you shouldn’t use it.
What is a Lightfast Rating?
Keep in mind not all colors are fugitive. That’s why you need to look at the manufacturer’s rating system to determine your best option. The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) is the lightfast rating of a color. It refers to the permanence and chemical stability of a color in relation to environmental factors. Some brands will use different labeling, such as numbers, letters or even dots. I recommend that you try to stay with artist grade paint with a lightfast rating of l or ll and keep in mind that student grade pigments are not as lightfast.
I = Excellent
ll = Good
lll = Poor
lV = Fugitive
What can you do to replace your favorite fugitive colors in the palette? Consider more of the synthetic colors such as the quinacridones, because these were originally formulated for the car industry. These are beautiful, vibrant colors that also have an excellent lightfast rating.
Design and movement are important elements, and when trying to achieve deep color in the shadows light-fastness and value are critical.
How to Test Lightfastness for Watercolor Painting
If you aren’t sure about the rating system you can do your own test using some or all of the colors you have on hand. Simply paint a strip of color on a piece of watercolor paper. When it’s dry, completely block one side of the strip from any light and allow the other to be exposed to sunlight by placing it in a sun-exposed window. Then in a day, week and month, take a look and see how much it has faded or changed.
When using lighter variations of pinks and magenta you want to make sure the color is as permanent as possible so it doesn’t fade over time. It might not fade in a month or even a year or two, but possibly in five or ten it’s better not to be surprised.
How This Affects You
When painting you’ll want to keep fugitive colors in mind, especially if you have any intention of selling your art. Even though fugitive colors can be fun to paint with, you’re gambling with having an unhappy client returning back to you extremely dissatisfied. The reason is because the watercolor painting they fell in love with is no longer the same; the colors have shifted and have either lightened, darkened or almost completely faded away. This is a situation that can avoid.
If you’re teaching watercolor painting, it’s up to you to let your students know and inform them before they make huge investments of time into paintings that can change or disappear when they could have avoided those problems by using better art materials. At least the information will allow them to make the decision that best suits their goals and budget.
I know this can all be confusing and mind-boggling, especially when just starting out, so don’t let this discourage your or become obstacle to painting, especially if you’re painting for your own enjoyment. Simply keep this in mind so you have an awareness of it because who knows where you may decide to take your artistic journey?
Series and Permanence Rating
Many people wonder what is the difference between two colors with similar names such as alizarin crimson versus permanent alizarin or gamboge versus new gamboge. Both have basically the same hue but when it says permanent or new, that means it’s more lightfast and permanent. For instance, looking at these Winsor & Newton tubes, notice that they have the same basic color name but different letters and numbers.
Left: Make your own color chart by painting strips of color, let it dry and block one side with heavy weight paper, cardboard, or mat board so no light can be absorbed. Leave the other side exposed to light, place it in a sunlit window then check it in a week, month and so on. Right: Notice how different brands label their tubes with letters, numbers and dots.
Reading and Understanding Paint Tube Labels
Each brand’s label can be slightly different but they all have basically the same information. For instance, with the Winsor & Newton brand: AA = Extremely Permanent, A = Permanent, B = Moderately. The series number 1-5 indicates how expensive the pigment is with 1 being the least expensive and 5 the most expensive, and l-ll indicates the lightfastness. To get more specifics and information check the color chart of the brand you like.