Written in the late 90s/early 00s, Bruce MacEvoy’s handprint.com is still an invaluable resource for information about watercolor pigments. In his watercolor guide, MacEvoy has listed every color available from major brands at the time – and since watercolor catalogues don’t change that frequently, they’re still pretty much accurate, with the occasional missing pigment, review based on an outdated formula, or (rarest of all) inclusion of a pigment that no longer exists. Not only has MacEvoy given his general impressions of paints, he has also done various other tests that allow him to compare them numerically, including doing his own lightfastness tests and pinpointing each paint’s color wheel location.
The Top Forty
MacEvoy’s favorite pigments are marked as “top forty.” MacEvoy explains that these are the pigments “that are the most important within their hue category and the most reliable and desirable in terms of pigment manufacturing quality, and paint lightfastness, color mixing and handling attributes.” In other words, it’s subjective, based on MacEvoy’s opinion, but informed by his deep understanding of the color wheel as well as his tests of the pigments.
There’s no page on handprint.com that lists the top forty in one place, so here’s my attempt, along with my own subjective responses to each of the paints. (Note that the order is mine, just to keep track of how many I’ve found; I put them in the watercolor catalog-typical order of yellow first.)
- Cadmium yellow (PY35): Cadmiums are among the rare colors I haven’t tried, because I was initially scared off by their toxicity (MacEvoy thinks these fears are overblown), and then I didn’t really like opaque pigments enough to be tempted, but they’re certainly bright.
- Isoindolinone yellow (PY110): A bright, bold yellow-orange. I call this Yellow Orange because it’s the name of the Schmincke version that I first tried. I no longer include a yellow-orange in my palette, but if I did, this would be my choice.
- Copper azomethine green (PY129): I call this by the Daniel Smith name, Rich Green Gold, and it’s one of my favorite colors, a glowing greenish-gold that I use for foliage and as a yellow substitute, especially when mixing greens.
- Nickel azomethine yellow (PY150), usually called Nickel Azo Yellow, is a component in Daniel Smith’s popular Quin Gold hue mix. This is an extremely dispersive color so it can be hard to get a handle on, but it’s a great mixer and nothing does “glowing sunbeams” quite so well. I don’t have this on my main palette at the moment, but it’s a B-team staple.
- Nickel dioxine yellow (PY153) is one I haven’t seen offered by too many companies anymore. It used to be a popular offering, typically under the name Indian Yellow, but now it’s quite rare, and I haven’t found it. MacEvoy lists it as the basis of Daniel Smith’s New Gamboge, but now New Gamboge uses PY110 (New New Gamboge?)
- Benzimidazolone yellow (PY154) is one of my favorite primary yellows; I call it by the Schmincke name, Pure Yellow. It’s bold, bright, and perfectly balanced – smack in the yellow territory, neither orangey nor greeny.
Notably absent from this list:
- Arylide yellow aka Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97), which I typically see chosen by Daniel Smith fans as a primary yellow, since DS doesn’t offer a PY154. I think the difference between PY97 and PY154 is subtle.
- Benzimadazolone lemon aka Lemon Yellow (PY175), which I really like, but MacEvoy finds “artificial” looking (especially its greens). Well, point taken, but that’s kind of what I like about it!
- Hansa yellow light (PY3), which is roughly the same color as Lemon Yellow, so MacEvoy dislikes it for the same reasons – and it also commits the crime of being less lightfast.
- Cadmium orange (PO20): See Cadmium Yellow regarding Cadmium pigments.
- Pyrrole orange (PO73), which I know best as Winsor Orange Red Shade. I really like this color’s boldness, although I don’t find it terribly useful because it’s semi-opaque. The WN version rated by MacEvoy is listed as transparent, so possibly this one has changed.
- Diketo-pyrollo pyrrole orange (PO71), aka Transparent Orange or Transparent Pyrrol Orange. This is my orange of choice, although the DS version had not come out in time to be rated by MacEvoy. The only one out at the time is the Schmincke which is quite a different color.
- Cadmium red (PR108): See Cadmium Yellow regarding Cadmium pigments.
- Perylene maroon (PR179): I just find this pigment dull, though I can see the usefulness of an earthy red. I currently use DS Deep Scarlet (PR175) for this palette slot, a pigment so recent that it’s not listed at all.
- Quinacridone red (PR209), which I call by the DS name Quinacridone Coral, is one of my absolute favorites! Provided you expect it to be pink instead of red, it’ll treat you right.
- Pyrrole red (PR254) is definitely the go-to paint if you want a fire engine red, which I don’t.
- Alizarin crimson (PR83) is fugitive, and MacEvoy explains why in detail.
- Deep scarlet (PR175), see my notes on Perylene Maroon above.
- Perylene red (PR178) doesn’t light MacEvoy’s fire, and he says PR254 is a better choice for a middle bright red. I mean, fair.
- Naphthol scarlet (PR188), known in the DS catalog as a Vermilion hue and to WN as Scarlet Lake, actually receives a “CAUTION” because naphthol reds can falter in lightfastness. Though MacEvoy notes this one is “more reliable” than others.
- Pyrrol scarlet (PR255) is rated by MacEvoy as excellent in lightfastness and he seems to have high regard for it, so it’s unclear why it’s not top 40. The only negative he mentions is that it’s close in color to Cadmium Red, so maybe he was only willing to offer one slot for an orangey-red.
- Pyrrol crimson (PR264) also merits a “CAUTION” due to being “at the bottom of acceptable lightfastness.”
- Quinacridone magenta (PR122), which I call by the Schmincke name Purple Magenta, is one of my absolute favorite colors. So bold! So versatile! (Opera Pink is also acknowledged in this section, though MacEvoy notes the fugitivity of its fluorescent additive.)
- Quinacridone rose (PV19) is no surprise, an extremely well regarded pigment. Love this one too, have a hard time deciding between this and PR122. MacEvoy also waxes lyrical about quinacridone violet, purple made from the same pigment, especially when describing its mixes: “unusual, complex browns with orange or yellow paints, moody reds and oranges with orange or red paints, and subdued, atmospheric violets and blues with dark blues such as phthalocyanine blue.” I’ve never been particularly tempted by the purple because I prefer rose but I’m starting to think there could be a place for both.
- Quinacridone magenta (PR202), aka Quinacridone Fuchsia, is duller than the PR122 magenta, which MacEvoy acknowledges to be a strength in some contexts e.g. mixing dark purples or dark versions of magenta. Despite this not rating top 40, reading this is making me curious about this pigment as I don’t currently have a satisfying “dark magenta.” However, he also makes an even better case for a PV19 purple.
- Quinacridone pink (PV42), which Schmincke calls simply ‘Magenta’, is noted to be between PV19 rose and PR122 magenta hue-wise, but MacEvoy thinks PV19 is better due to its superior saturation.
- Benzimadazolone bordeaux (PV32), only available as DS Bordeaux, is a color I really liked when I first painted it out but found difficult to work into my palette.
- Cobalt violet (PV14) has always disappointed me in its paintouts by its low tinting strength, but MacEvoy makes a case for this being highly dependent on brand and particle size (as with Viridian). MacEvoy’s favorite was Holbein though who knows if it’s in any way the same as it was back then. He also notes that this is an expensive pigment so maybe not a wild goose chase I want to go on.
- Ultramarine violet (PV15) is another one that I find too weak generally.
- Manganese violet (PV16) is one I have never even seen offered.
- Dioxazine violet (PV23), known in the DS range as Carbazole Violet, is the most common violet I know of artists using today. It’s deep-valued and extremely, extremely staining. This is a rare one that MacEvoy both lists as a top 40 and a “use caution,” since it varies in lightfastness wildly by brand. (The DS one is “excellent,” according to MacEvoy.) I personally prefer to mix a similar hue with Indanthrone Blue and magenta, which I’m happy to note is MacEvoy’s recommended substitution.
- Perylene violet (PV29), which MacEvoy actually lists in the red section, and … yeah, okay, it’s basically a dark red, innit? MacEvoy doesn’t like the drying shift and finds perylene maroon more versatile. I think the two just have totally different use cases.
- Phthalocyanine blue (PB15), including Phthalo Blue Green Shade and Phthalo Blue Red Shade. Interestingly, while I consider this palette staple, MacEvoy is more hesitant because it is so staining and doesn’t have the “interesting texture” of other blues.
- Phthalocyanine turquoise (PB16) gets the nod because it’s the darkest of the phthalos, which gives it a good range, and makes “really celestial” dark blues when mixed with violet. Wow! I’m starting to feel like I didn’t give this one enough of a chance.
- Iron blue (PB27), typically known as Prussian Blue, gets the rare “top 40/caution” combo because of its variability in lightfastness across brands. I like this dark, moody, green-toned blue, but found that I preferred Indanthrone as my dark.
- Cobalt blue (PB28) is one of my favorites, a lovely sky color. MacEvoy notes that it’s often bumped from palettes because the hue can be approximated with Ultramarine + a little Phthalo Blue GS, but that true Cobalt has a special something; I’m glad he’s also sentimental about it.
- Ultramarine blue (PB29) is of course one of the biggies. “In almost any palette ultramarine is an invaluable red blue,” MacEvoy writes, though I think mine is one of the few where it’s totally superfluous because I also have Cobalt and Indanthrone. At any rate, I still like it!
- Cerulean blue (PB35) is another non-surprise. I find this color too dull for the sky, but a lot of people like it. Reading between the lines, it feels like MacEvoy is similarly unenthused but willing to admit that it’s a good paint if you like that sort of thing.
- Cerulean blue (PB36): See above. The comments are combined for these two pigments.
- Indanthrone blue (PB60): Here we get to one of my favorite paints! However, while recommending it (particularly as a Dioxazine Violet alternative), MacEvoy seems pretty disgusted by its large drying shift, and suggests mixing a hue with Phthalo Blue and Quin Burnt Scarlet. Humph. I guess I can’t argue with a 50% drying shift, though. Yeesh.
- Cobalt blue deep (PB74) seems like a maybe, as MacEvoy acknowledges “I sometimes prefer PB73/74 to ultramarine: it is just as lightfast but is less transparent, shows very little color shift as it dries, and creates a wonderful downy granulation in mixtures.”
- Phthalocyanine green (PG7), i.e. Phthalo Green Blue Shade, is on here of course. I’m of two minds about this one, because it’s really bold and vivid but also hard to tame and mix because it’s so strong compared to other colors. MacEvoy similarly points out the pluses (very bold and lightfast) and minuses (so staining that you can’t make a mistake). He also goes over convenience greens made with this pigment, which is most of them (Hookers Green, etc.)
- Chromium oxide green (PG17) is one I’ve never been interested in because it’s super opaque.
- Viridian (PG18) is a favorite of mine because it has the same blue-green hue as PG7 but it’s friendlier to mix and has a nicer texture. However, it’s more expensive, and many brands’ versions are quite weak. (I like W&N.) MacEvoy thinks this is a pigment that takes experience to use well because of the properties of the paint, which is making me feel paranoid that I don’t use it right.
- Phthalocyanine green (PG36) aka Phthalo Green Yellow Shade has essentially the same advantages/drawbacks of PG7, but is a yellower hue and more expensive. Since you can get from one to the other by the addition of either yellow or blue paint, I don’t find it different enough from PG7 to justify having both.
- Cobalt titanate green (PG50) is one that I really like though I think of it mainly as a blue since I have it as Schmincke Horadam Cobalt Turquoise, a bluish shade. It also comes in greener shades. This color is a bit on the opaque side for me but that is sometimes useful. I like it for a sky horizon color or a mixer of the most fabulous neon mints. MacEvoy is similarly delighted by it, noting, “The pastel quality is not added but integral to the pigment, which make interesting whitened mixtures with violets, blues, and greens.” Yeah, man.
- Perylene green (PBk31) is listed in the black section as Perylene Black. I like the hue of Perylene Green as a shadow color for foliage, but found it a bit weak compared to my preferred hue mix using Indanthrone Blue and PY129 green-gold. MacEvoy notes that the black mix with perylene green and a violet such as dioxazine, perylene, or PV19 purple is “more stable than many carbon blacks.”
- Natural iron oxide (PBr7) is one of the quintessential earth tones and the pigment that is used for the Big Four earth pigments: Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber. MacEvoy thinks you need all four, saying, “I suggest you start by buying all four earth colors from a single manufacturer” (since they vary in relation to each other but may overlap in hue from different manufacturers). Personally, I have just one PBr7 on my palette: the yellowish Monte Amiata Natural Sienna by Daniel Smith, which occupies the yellow ochre to raw sienna space. I prefer a PR101 (see below) to Burnt Sienna, and duller browns can be mixed on the palette.
- Quinacridone orange (PO48), known to Daniel Smith as Quinacridone Burnt Orange, is part of their popular Quin Gold hue mix. I like this granulating earthy rust shade, but it’s almost identical to my preferred Transparent Red Oxide (see below).
- Quinacridone gold (PO49), RIP, a pigment that no longer exists.
- Synthetic red iron oxide (PR101) is the other quintessential earth tone, in my opinion. It also comes in a huge variety of colors and textures, generally in the red-brown space, notably Indian Red (which I find too opaque). My favorite is Transparent Red Oxide. MacEvoy is more skittish, suggesting that lightfastness can be variable, and he notes (which I have also noticed) that PR101 can separate from Cobalt and other blues. This is making me want to do a more serious paintout comparison of PO48, since I wrote it off as “looks just like PR101” but MacEvoy seems to like it better.
- Quinacridone maroon (PR206), known as Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet in the DS line and as Brown Madder in some other lines, is a dark red similar in hue to Perylene Maroon (PR179) or Deep Scarlet (PR175). I really like the color of this paint, which is between red and orange, earthy without being dull, and glowing. I just find it a bit weak and easily overpowered, especially in mixes with Phthalos, which is a shame since it dulls them to such nice muted sea-blues. MacEvoy concurs (or rather, I guess I concur since I’m later in time), calling it “an unusually versatile neutralizing complement” for greens and blues but “Its major drawback is its relatively weak tinting strength; other dark pigments can overpower it; for that reason I prefer perylene maroon.” I guess same, only with Deep Scarlet.
- Synthetic yellow iron oxide (PY42) is used by many manufacturers for Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna shades. It tends to be more opaque than my earth yellow of choice, Monte Amiata Natural Sienna (PBr7), though less opaque than natural yellow iron oxide (PY43). MacEvoy also prefers the synthetic PY42 for similar aesthetic reasons.
- Potter’s Pink (PR233) only rates a few throwaway sentences; MacEvoy clearly couldn’t care less.
Black and White
- Ivory black (PBk9) is not a color I really use because I don’t like black. MacEvoy suggests it “harmonizes” with watercolor better than other blacks, idk.
- Titanium white (PW6) is also not a color I really use in watercolor much, though I do use titanium white gouache occasionally for certain effects (e.g. splatter stars or seafoam). MacEvoy doesn’t say anything specific about using white at all, but notes the advantages of titanium over zinc white (more opaque and bright), and also acknowledges a titanium white variant – Daniel Smith’s Buff Titanium – as a way of making desaturated colors. I find it chalky, but ymmv.
The top forty is not intended to be a palette – MacEvoy’s palette advice suggests a much smaller one – but rather a pool of recommended pigments which are a useful way of narrowing down similar choices, since someone has already done the “homework” of identifying pigments that are high-performing and lightfast. (That said, if you love a color that’s not on the Top 40, you should definitely go for it! MacEvoy isn’t god.)
I really enjoyed going through these and thinking about which of my favorite colors were on, or not on, the top 40. Sometimes MacEvoy and I disagree on aesthetic grounds, and sometimes I simply don’t care that much about his concerns (e.g. lightfastness), but other times he put into words things that I had already noticed but found it hard to articulate; pointed out good qualities I had overlooked in specific pigments; and provided grounds for choosing one similar color over another.
Are your favorite pigments in the top 40? What are your top (five, ten, twenty) pigments?