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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Color Name Confusion

Summary: Were the names that art materials manufacturers invented for paints a well-thought idea or a blend of romantic, historical, and mythical information? From the perspective of attempting to find any continuity or order when relating the pigments used with the names of paints, the system breaks down quickly.

Were paint names created on a whim? Was any concerted effort put into the process of using the past to provide some sort of guidance? How many paint names were simply inherited from legends or geographic areas? When comparing the names of paints provided by manufacturers along with historic color terms, it becomes clear that a better part of the naming convention, if you could even call it a “convention,” makes little sense.

Naming paints can be divided into two categories: Historical: It is easy to understand that the inconsistency of paint names is based on traditions and the origin of materials from the distant past. Examples that come easily to mind are Indian Yellow, Sap Green, Cremnitz White, Rose Madder, Naples Yellow, Indian Red, Emerald Green, and Ultramarine Blue. Despite the age of many of these names, they continue to be used to label modern paint equivalents. For example, Sap Green is no longer made with buckthorn berries. Indian yellow does not come from a concentration of cow urine. Emerald Green is not derived from a highly toxic arsenic compound. Historical colors have been handed down over the ages because the origin of the color either biologically or geographically had a relationship with the pigment. They describe the raw material used to make the colorant to some extent. They sometimes go off on a tangent that has either an obscure or an obvious relationship to the hue. Contemporary: As time progressed, scientific discoveries of elements and advances in chemistry expanded the world of pigment availability. From the handful of pigments born in antiquity, what we have at our disposal today is astounding. In some cases, it is too astounding. Having studied and cataloged the colors manufactured by paint companies, it becomes clear that starting in the late 19th century paint makers appear to have "caught" a color-making fever due to new materials introduced into the manufacturing world.

Every shade of red, brown, and purple that could be extracted from madder roots was made into paint. Inventories expanded to include over 100 colors sold to artists with scores of paints belonging to the same hue family. Coal tar dyes processed into pigments and then used for oil colors made matters even worse. Colors filled manufacturers’ color charts like houses that seemed to sprout up overnight in suburban developments after World War II.

Bear in mind all paint makers only have 8 hues (primary and secondary plus black and white) that can be populated with products. Manufacturing one hundred or more colors meant that a hue could easily have contained 20 different products for sale that all looked fairly similar. From the perspective of an artist/consumer, what went through their minds in the late 19th century when faced with the choice of 20 different red hues, or 20 earth tones? Does an artist need a paintbox filled with 50 to 75 paint tubes? Other than fulfilling the dreams of paint junkies who compulsively must have every color imaginable, the explosion of choices has interesting ramifications when mixing hues to achieve different colors are considered. Color mixing is a skill honed over time by having an artist understand the properties of a pigment. It is a mental construct and exercise that gets translated into physical action. An artist needs to thoroughly understand the mass tone of a pigment. Next, an artist needs to be aware of the undertone, or "bias" of a color. Does the blue paint I am using have a warm violet undertone or is it cool and leaning toward green? Knowing the bias of a pigment is a critical skill to master.

Knowing basic color combinations along with the bias of a color is the key to predicting how a mixture will appear when two or more pigments are mixed to achieve the desired color. Otherwise, the exercise becomes a guessing game that looks like throwing darts at a dart board with a player blindfolded. The work becomes frustrating and wastes a lot of paint. Understanding the outcome of the various combinations of colors needs to be mentally stored in an artist's brain. Limiting a working palette to only the primary and secondary colors plus white gives an artist 7 colors that need to be mastered. Throw in a few earth tones and some mixed "convenience" colors and soon enough the palette can grow to 15 or more colors on it. The mixing combinations could add up to a few hundred 2 or 3-color mixtures. That is a lot of information to store in anyone's head. To complicate this Gordian knot a bit more, let’s consider the main point of this essay. The names of modern colors created by art materials manufacturers add a layer of confusion to color purchasing. Most artists who are serious about painting will want to know what pigment is contained in the tubes of paint they purchase. For example, if an artist tells you it does not matter if the blue color they buy is ultramarine blue or phthalocyanine blue, they are probably a novice who has not experienced the discipline and practice of learning mass tone and bias that was previously described. While both blues cited are indeed "blue," they behave in totally different ways from each other. They are not interchangeable in terms of obtaining the same results when mixed with other hues. Back to color names: Art material manufacturers are either diligent and meticulous about publishing pigment names and Color Index (CI) numbers or they are not. Part of the blame regarding missing information is the website resellers of art materials. All retailers will provide website visitors with the common color name the manufacturer establishes, but the pigment name and the CI number are missing in several cases. If the CI Number and names are missing, deciding what to purchase becomes a guessing game. Understand that I am not attacking the marketing strategy of art materials manufacturers, but they should understand they are hurting themselves by not easily displaying information about the pigments used. They are making it far more difficult than necessary to help artists select paints. From the consumer’s viewpoint, consider if a website or company product literature does not provide the pigment name or CI number for a product, it is more likely that an artist will skip purchasing paint from that company. For example, if pigment names are not available, what are we to make of the paints with color names like these: Brilliant Green, Delft Blue, Brilliant Pink, Kings Blue, Italian Earth, Blue Lake, (Manufacturer's Name) Deep Blue, (Manufacturer's Name) Violet, or Bright Red. The use of the name of the company at the beginning of the common name of a color gives nothing to the artists in terms of understanding the hue or the pigment within the paint.

An interesting historical note regarding color names: The pigment name “phthalocyanine” at one point years ago, was a copyright-protected entity. Manufacturers could not use the word "phthalocyanine" to describe the name of the paint. That caused their marketing departments to become "creative" in naming colors. That is where (Company Name) Blue was born. Others use an odd “sounds like” or fanciful spelling related to the work phthalocyanine. One company named their paint "Thalo Blue" to get around the protected name. Unfortunately, the practice was extended to the present. Many paints have a prefix using the company's name followed by a hue name or something even more confusing. I think manufacturers should evaluate how a consumer goes about purchasing their products. In most cases, it boils down to how they are displayed and explained on their websites. Manufacturers should be sure that the pigment names and CI numbers are easy to find in the description of the color they are marketing. It is frustrating to click on a tab on a retailer's website and nothing is listed regarding the pigment in the paint. This includes a recent trend where the name of a pigment is withheld because it would give competitors the means to copy and sell the same pigment in their paint formulation. Any of the large-scale manufacturers have the means to reverse engineer a product by using in-house or external analytical services to identify a pigment. In my opinion, artists who come to dead ends regarding the revelation of pigments in paints should consider purchasing other brands and visiting websites that respect the needs and intelligence of customers. Paints cost too much to have buying them be a crap shoot. Dissatisfaction with a product results in creating a collection of boxes of tubes that are treated like "misfit toys" relegated to an infrequently opened drawer in an artist's studio.

In the next essay, I will explore a thread of discussion in the news that has the potential for far-reaching consequences in the way art materials are viewed from a social perspective.

Syntax of Color

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