First-rate Finds: Understanding Pigments & Labelling in Paints

Ever since I began painting, I’ve always mixed my own black, rather than buying it ready-mixed in a tube. My rationale was that by mixing my own, I could always be sure of how warm or cool my black is, and thus, how it translates into other colours I mix it with when creating shades. 

Recently however, I began noticing that many artists whose work I admire, use Ivory Black on their palette. Perhaps pre-mixed blacks aren’t such a curse after all? Perhaps I just needed to look into how paints are made, and how the tubes are labelled. 

I began investigating the information dotted across my paint tubes – particularly the little number and letter codes that the manufacturers use to let people know what pigments have gone into making certain paint colours.

Much like the Pantone Matching System (PMS) colours that designers and printers use to specify ink colours, there is a painters’ equivalent Colour Index out there to standardise the naming and creation of all the different paint colours. 

This discovery led me to a fantastic (albeit old school) website: – more specifically, to the Pigment Database on this site.

In this database, all the most commonly known paint pigments have been sorted into their colour groups and numbers. Selecting a specific colour index number then takes you to a page which describes what pigments are used to create it, their common names; CI constitution number; Colour description; Opacity; and Light Fastness. I recommend looking at the Table Key – as this explains a lot of this information in more detail.

From this database I learned that any paint colour with an index number that has a W in it, uses a white pigment in its colour mix. Such colours are not what you’d call ‘pure’, or fully saturated, so when you mix them with other colours, you’re actually creating a lighter tint – however subtle.

Understanding this meant that when I ventured into an art store earlier this week, with a view to buying my first ever tube of pre-mixed black paint, I was able to make one of the first truly educated purchasing decisions of my short painter’s life. When the shop assistant recommended Payne’s Grey over Ivory Black, I was almost swayed… But a check of the index number revealed that there was white in the Payne’s Grey mix. This could lead to all sorts of frustrations when mixing it with other fully saturated colours, hoping to obtain really deep shadows for instance. So, Ivory Black it was.


I still wasn’t fully convinced, mind you, so when I got home, I did some experimenting. I mixed up a black using three primary colours as I usually do, and then used it to incrementally tint some Cobalt Turquoise.  Then I repeated the exercise using the new tube of Ivory Black. I was perfectly thrilled with the results: it was as near a match as I could’ve hoped for. One less colour to mix every time I set out my palette is a win for me.


I also experimented with mixing the Ivory Black separately with each of my pure primary colours, and some Burnt Umber, to see how easily I could create a warm or a cool shade of black, and then added some Zinc White to see how the greys tints of each looked.


It really was a great little exercise, and by the end of it, I felt far more comfortable with the latest weapon in my painting armament. I recommend doing this – or something similar – every time you purchase a new paint colour, or switch brands; it really helps to familiarise yourself with each paint and the way it mixes and behaves beneath your brush.


I hope you found this post helpful. If you’d like to see some of my paintings or read about my weekly experiences with oil paint, have a browse or hit Follow in the side menu – new posts will be directed to your email inbox.

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