When I started painting again this year, I didn’t think much about the quality of my paints. All that mattered was the color: which ones yielded the brightest colors, which ones gave the prettiest pinks and purples, which ones had the bluest blues. Everything was going well until some of my works started fading. It hasn’t been a problem for me when I was a student, since I didn’t keep my works long enough to see how they changed; but now that I’m selling pieces, I’ve become more concerned with how my paints hold up in the long run. So I did a little reading to find why my paintings were fading, and found that exposure to sunlight played a big part. To avoid fading, paintings had to be kept away from direct sunlight, and make sure that the paints are lightfast.
So what is lightfastness? Honestly, I’m not even sure if “lightfastness” is a legitimate word (hehe) but I’ve seen other websites use it, so I’m going to use it here as well. Maybe it’ll catch up. Simply put, if your paint is lightfast, it will not fade from sunlight as much. Just like photographs or clothes, watercolors also fade due to the sun’s UV rays. Fortunately, paint manufacturers conduct lightfastness tests. There are even standard ratings in place to rate lightfastness like the ASTM (American Standard for Testing Materials), but not all manufacturers openly give away their ASTM rating or subscribe to the ASTM method. Instead, what we have is a different standard for each manufacturer’s paints. What may be considered lightfast to one manufacturer may not be as lightfast to another. It all boils down on how the manufacturer wants to market its product. Pigments, on the other hand, are standard to all manufacturers. Artist paints always include which pigments are used, and if you have the time (and patience) to read up on which ones are lightfast and not, you can pretty much deduce the lightfastness from that. If you’re the type to geek out on that, then feel free to read this forum. On the other hand, if you’d rather see the results for yourself, then you can replicate this simple lightfastness test for yourself or just read about the results at the bottom. There’s also a TLDR section in the end, in case you’re not in the mood to read all of this.
For this test, I made three identical swatches of all the watercolors that I own, namely:
- Prang (set of 8)
- Royal Langnickel (set of 17 + white, but I didn’t include white in this test)
- Peerless (basic book of 15 colors)
- Holbein (Opera, Permanent Yellow, Permanent red, Cobalt blue hue)
- Shin Han PASS (Alizarin crimson, Ultramarine deep, Yellow ochre, Permanent yellow, Opera)
I made the swatches as identical as possible; from the swatch size, paper type, to the application. I placed one swatch under direct sunlight, another in a corner of the living room that doesn’t get too much sunlight, and the last one in my supply box.
According to my research, it’s best to conduct this test over the course of a few months, but with the rainy days coming in, I only had two days to do the actual testing. I tested the swatches for four hours each day, since our front yard only gets full sun for four hours in the middle of the day. Even with that little time, I’ve seen some pretty helpful results.
Prang is a common entry level watercolor set. They’re very pigmented and don’t dry out in the pan. Also, they attract ants and other insects because they smell a bit like burnt sugar. Prang doesn’t claim to be lightfast as do other student grade watercolors, but since it’s a popular brand for beginners, I’ve tested it as well just to see how it holds up against other brands
As you can see, only the brown and the black withstood the light. The yellow can pass as ok, but the rest of the colors faded, especially the blue, violet, and green.
2. ROYAL LANGNICKEL
The reds and yellows kept the colors really well, except for the yellow ochre and the orange yellow. I’ve read that gamboge, regardless of the brand, is not very lightfast, but this one is still holding up so far.
Like the Prang set, the blues and violets didn’t do so good with the Royal Langnickel set. In eight hours of exposure, the Prussian blue changed into a color similar to cerulean blue. Both the rose and violet swatches changed into cooler toned versions of the original swatch. It seems like only cerulean blue and ultramarine retained its color.
For the greens, browns, and black, only the sap green and deep green faded. Everything else stayed roughly the same. Overall, I’d say that the most reliable colors from this set are the ones in the red group.
Like the previous two, Peerless does not claim to be lightfast, nor it does not claim to be permanent. But it’s a favorite among artists because the swatches are extremely portable and the colors come out extremely pigmented and transparent. They’re also packaged as “self-blending” watercolors which, if you’re a sucker for gradients like me, is a huge plus.
Among the reds, only the brilliant yellow and Japonica scarlet stayed the same. The ones that performed the worst were geranium pink and royal crimson. The geranium pink swatch under the sun lost color within three hours. At first, I thought it was water damage, but as far as I knew, there were no possible sources of water to contaminate the swatch at the time of the test. There was also no bleeding beyond the swatch that would suggest that the fading was caused by water damage. I didn’t think that the royal crimson faded that bad, but as I reviewed the original color, I saw that it went from deep red to a dark pink.
The rest of the palette faded slightly, with the exception of wistaria violet (my personal favorite, boohoo) and dark green which went from deep to just so-so.
Overall, the Peerless palette is just average in the lightfastness test, as were the first two brands that were reviewed. However, none of them claimed that they were long lasting or resistant to sunlight, so I’m not so disappointed with the results so far. The next two brands are of a higher quality, and give out lightfastness ratings. It’ll be interesting to see their results.
Holbein is an artist quality watercolor, meaning that it has more pigment and their colors supposedly last longer unless they say otherwise. They do have paints that fade faster than others from their brand, but at least they disclose it to their users. They also do not label them as lightfast. Instead, they label their paints as “absolutely permanent”, “moderately durable”, and “not durable”. These paints are pretty pricey, so I only have four in my collection. I also didn’t know that they had these ratings when I bought these tubes. I assumed that artist grade paints = lightfast colors, so that was a big mistake that I made.
According to their official color chart, the durability of the colors are:
- Opera – not durable
- Permanent Yellow Light and Permanent Red – Moderately durable
- Cobalt Blue Hue – Absolutely permanent
Based on that, I assumed that the opera would fade first, followed by red and yellow, and finally blue, so imagine how I felt when the blue started going first. Also imagine how impressed I was with opera which hardly faded. Permanent red and Permanent Yellow Light stayed exactly the same. So impressive.
5. SHIN HAN PASS
Shin Han PASS is technically not a watercolor. It’s marketed as a gouache – watercolor hybrid, but I included it in the test because I wanted to see how it performed. Shin Han rates the lightfastness as low, normal, high, and highest. If you’ve noticed, the ratings are highly subjective, same with Holbein. There are no values attached to the levels of lightfastness, so it’s hard to judge their durability unless you see them side by side. You’ll just have to take the manufacturer’s word for it.
According to their color chart, the lightfastness of the colors are:
- Opera – low degree of lightfastness
- Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Yellow, Permanent Violet – Normal degree of lightastness
- Ultramarine deep and Yellow Ochre – High degree of lightfastness
As the swatches show, they all pretty much stood up against varying amounts of light except for opera (but it didn’t promise anything, so I’m not angry about that). However, for a supposedly high degree of lightfastness, yellow ochre faded the tiniest bit too much for my liking, as did alizarin crimson. But then, I’ve read that alizarin crimsons are not lightfast, so I’m not so disappointed about that. I’m actually happy that this one didn’t fade as much. Overall, as with the Holbein set, I am impressed with the Shin Han PASS set.
This test isn’t conclusive. Only time and experience can tell which paints will stay and which ones will fade. There are also other factors like paper quality that determine the longevity of the paints, but that’s for another test. I’ll probably continue this test until next year, and I’ll give all of you updates whenever I can. For now, here’s a TLDR of this extra long post:
Lightfast colors (so far) according to brand:
- Crimson red lake
- lemon yellow
- Cerulean blue
- Rose (moderately lightfast)
- Violet (moderately lightfast)
- Pale Green
- Burnt Umber
- Burnt Sienna
- Brilliant yellow
- Japonica scarlet
- Mahogany brown
- Light Green
- Permanent Yellow Light
- Permanent Red
- Cobalt Blue Hue
SHIN HAN PASS
- Yellow ochre (moderately lightfast)
- Ultramarine deep
- Permanent violet
- Permanent Yellow
- Alizarin Crimson (moderately lightfast)
Hope this added to someone’s paint seleciton criteria, or at the very least, satisfied someone’s paint swatch fetish. If you’ve had similar or different experiences with the paints tested here, please feel free to share them in the comments section below 🙂
That’s all for now. See you in the next post!