Should I only get single pigment paints?

Do multi-pigment paints mix mud? (Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash)

Single pigment paints are those that contain only one pigment, or color-making chemical. By contrast, mixed paints or “convenience mixes” contain multiple pigments. 

A frequently-given piece of advice is to stick to single pigment paints. But why? 

What are single pigment paints?

The most obvious attribute of a paint is “what color is it.” The more you get into the weeds on paint, especially watercolor, the more you begin to explore other attributes, like how transparent or opaque is it, how textured (granulating) is it, how lightfast is it, what sorts of colors does it mix (not always obvious from the unmixed hue), and so on. 

Quite often, it helps to know what chemical or mineral pigment(s) the paint is made from, since the name of the paint doesn’t always make that clear. For example, if I look at a tube of Scarlet Lake from Winsor & Newton and a tube of Light Vermilion from Schmincke, I can see that they are both made from the same pigment, PR188. This helps me to understand that these paints are comparable and make some predictions about them based on what I know about this naphthol scarlet pigment. 

Some paints are made from one pigment, like the two PR188 paints I mentioned. Some are made from multiple pigments. Holbein’s Vermilion Hue is a similar orange-red color to those paints, but it’s made from three pigments: two kinds of red (PR48 and PR112) and a yellow (PY81). 

Arguments For Single Pigment Paints

Argument #1: Single-pigment paints are brighter and make better mixes

This is the main argument I have seen, and it’s the one I consider most bunk. 

The conventional wisdom goes that single pigment paints mix “cleanly,” whereas multiple pigment paints “mix mud.” 

This seems theoretically sound enough. Each time you mix two paints together, you are reducing the spectrum of light that is reflected back. Them’s the breaks with subtractive color mixing.  So for any given mix, each of the components individually would be a higher-chroma, brighter color than the resulting mix. 

But that doesn’t mean that every mix is duller than every single pigment paint!

Some single pigment paints are dull

Single pigment paints vary hugely in value and chroma, from very bright/light paints like white and yellow to very dull/dark paints like brown and black. The fact that there exist single pigment black paints is a total counterargument to the idea that “single pigment paints are brighter.”

Some mixes are bright

Mixes reflect back the parts of the spectrum that the components have in common. That’s why mixing two colors that are extremely different – such as complementary colors that have almost no parts of the spectrum in common – results in very dark, dull colors like black, brown, and gray (“mud”). However, by contrast, mixing two very similar colors may barely affect the chroma at all, because so much of the spectrum reflected by those two colors is the same anyway. 

This is why you can still get great clean mixes from premixed yellows like Daniel Smith’s New Gamboge (PY110/PY97), or Holbein’s Permanent Yellow Deep (PY74/PY83) and Aureolin (PY150/PY154/PY175). It doesn’t matter how many pigments are in the ingredient list; it matters more how similar they are to each other. The three-pigment Aureolin hue is still a really bright middle yellow paint because it’s made from three really bright middle yellow pigments.

What makes mud?

I have not found that single pigment paints mix cleanly, and multiple pigment paints mix mud. Rather, I have found that you get muddy mixes when:

  • Any of the components are dark and muted to begin with
  • The components are very different from each other in hue

It doesn’t matter whether these components are single or multiple pigment. 

If you want clean mixes, you need to learn how to mix with more nuance than “single vs multiple pigment.” You have to learn about color bias. You would also do well to favor bright, high-chroma paints to mix from, which will usually include single-pigment paints but also may include some multiple-pigment paints if they’re still bright. In this case, it makes more sense to ignore the ingredient list and judge from the hue and chroma of the paint as it exists in front of you.

Argument #2: Single-pigment paints make it easier to learn about pigments

This argument is much more compelling to me, and it is chiefly the reason I have tended to stick with single pigment paints while learning about watercolor – and why I’m glad I did!

Each pigment has its own set of properties. Different brands’ versions can still vary, but if you’re buying, say, a PG18 genuine viridian, you know you can expect it to be a blue-toned green that’s relatively weak and granulating. By contrast, a mixed color like, say, Hooker’s Green can vary much more wildly between brands, because each brand uses different ingredients in different proportions. 

I’m pretty good at predicting what mixed paints will be like, but that’s only because I have experience with each of the components individually. Trying to learn about pigments from mixed paints is confusing, because it’s hard to tell which property goes with which ingredient. It’s like trying to learn about different types of spices by eating gingerbread cookies. You can do it – especially if you change one at a time and hold all the other components constant – but it’s easier to learn about them individually before you mix them together. 

Argument #3: Making your own mixes saves you money and palette space

Selling premixed paints is great for paint companies because they have an excuse to sell you the same pigment multiple times. This is why I refuse to buy Schmincke’s Supergranulating Paints. They took 20 granulating pigments, each of which is available as a single-pigment paint, and mixed up 45 mixes. If you want to collect all the Supergranulating Paints, you have to spend more than twice as much money than if you just bought the components and mixed them yourself. 

This is not just true of the Supergranulating paints, of course, but any mix. No matter how often someone sings the praises of a mixed paint, e.g. Sap Green, I almost always find myself disappointed when I try it because there is no magic secret ingredient beyond the pigments that are listed on the side. I too can mix a Sap Green at home by mixing Phthalo Green and Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (or whatever components there are). As an assiduous collector of single pigment paints, I often already have the components in my collection.

Mixing your own also gives you the flexibility to change the formula a bit, color-shifting between the various components. If you paint a shrub with a premixed Sap Green, you’ll tend to paint it all one flat color, maybe with some variation in value from how much paint vs water you put down. If you paint a shrub with Phthalo Green and Isoindolinone Yellow Deep, you can also easily vary the hue, making some parts more green, and some parts more yellow. Sure, you could still do that by adding either more green or more yellow to a premixed Sap Green, but then you’re looking at owning three paints instead of just two. 

That’s not to say there aren’t equally compelling pragmatic reasons to have a mix.

In some cases, you may only ever want to use the components within the context of the mix. For example, I find that I use Nickel Azo Yellow mixed with Quin Burnt Orange (i.e. Quin Gold hue) far more often than I use either component individually. In a case like this, having the mix may be just as good as owning the components, and in many cases it ultimately saves me a palette slot. 

You may also find that the convenience of premixed paint is a time-saver, especially in the field when you may not have the time or mixing space to spend on getting just the right green, gray, or brown. Rather than continually making the same mix over and over, it can be helpful to have your favorite mix already on your palette, ready to go.  

Some artists still prefer to make their own mixes in this case – for example, Jane Blundell mixes her “Jane’s Gray” from Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna, then lets the mix dry in her palette to use in the field. (This color is now available as a premixed paint from Daniel Smith, but you don’t have to wait for a company to sanction your favorite mix to make it on your palette.)

To continue the food metaphor, buying single pigment paints can be like buying ingredients rather than prepared foods. It may be cheaper and more flexible, but also more time-consuming.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the preference for single pigment paints on the grounds that they “mix better” is not merited, and I’m increasingly beginning to feel that this bit of wisdom is beginning to fall somewhere between marketing hype and purity dogma. Recently, I’ve seen multiple paints marketed with the phrase “Single Pigment!!!” as if this is a more crucial selling point than what pigment it’s actually made from. At least one didn’t even say what the pigment was. Surely if I’m in the weeds enough to care that a paint is made from a single pigment, I should care which pigment! 

I would hate for “Buy Single Pigment Paints” to become a refrain that people just memorize without knowing why. There are many good reasons to prefer single pigment paints (i.e. for learning or flexibility), but there are also many good reasons to get mixes (i.e. for convenience or because you like them). The question of whether a particular paint mixes cleanly or not is largely unrelated to its ingredient list, and has more to do with its brightness and its similarity to the other colors you’re mixing with. 

Don’t fall for marketing hype trying to use “single pigment” as a selling point – insist on knowing which pigments are in a paint, so you can make some predictions about how it will behave, but multiple pigments aren’t necessarily a dealbreaker if you like them all and the color they make is a nice one that you can’t (or don’t want to) mix yourself. Favoring single pigment pants for pragmatic or educational reasons is fine, but you don’t need to be a snob about it. And don’t feel bad about loving multi-pigment paints. Go ahead and buy the paints you like! 

6 thoughts on “Should I only get single pigment paints?”

  1. When people online say they want single-pigment paints and then also get excited when those “single pigments” are “naturally color separating” like the Primateks (we all know those aren’t really single pigments, right) it’s like single-pigment must not actually mean anything to them. And single pigment is poorly defined anyway. Is Titan Buff really single pigment when it’s naturally PW6 + PBr7 and they call it PW6:1? It is marketing hype and dogma without meaning anything.

    Another reason to buy mixed hues is if it’s on your palette, you’ll end up using it more often just because it’s there. Like if you have a mixed pastel pink on your palette, that’s going to show up in your painting, maybe a streak in the sky, maybe in mixes, and I think that’s interesting.

    Yeah, if a multi pigment paint makes your heart sing, put it on your palette, be happy.

    Reply
  2. I have a “single pigment” cerulean blue hue (cotman) in my palette. It’s a bright/light cyan color with moderate tinting power, very mild granulation and winsor and newton describe it as “opaque”. Even more interesting, they say it is a “careful combination of pigments closely resembling genuine cerulean”
    and to top it off, this “combination of pigments” only lists one pigment, PB15 aka phthalo blue, which is not normally opaque or granulation or mild in tinting strength. I would have thought they’d list PW6 if that was the other pigment in the mix, that they haven’t makes me wonder if the unlisted pigment is chalk (PW18) which artiscreation.com claims is commonly added to make gouache opaque but is not usually indicated by the manufacturer.
    Of course this wasn’t advertised as a single pigment paint and I didn’t buy it thinking it was going to be normal PB15, but I imagine someone who bought it thinking it was would be exceptionally disappointed and might look to blame “student grade” for the surprising behavior of this pigment in this formulation, when it’s the (probable) chalk that’s affecting the phthalo so dramatically. (and many would say for the better, single phthalo is often criticized for its overwhelming tinting strength and staining)

    Reply
    • That’s interesting! I didn’t know that about PW18. I wonder if it’s similar to whatever process Daniel Smith uses to make their Manganese Hue, which is also a granulating mid-strength light blue, in this case meant to emulate PB33. It also only lists PB15.

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      • it would make sense to me. And this brings up another element of the “single pigment” and “restricted/limited palette” mania; what counts as the same pigment? if you have a red PV19 and a violet PV19 do you call that one pigment or two? If you have a normal phthalo blue on your palette and you add DS manganese hue, is that a new pigment you’re adding to your palette or do you treat that like a whole new pigment?
        I think that watercolor is a very tricky medium with a hard learning curve, and “muddy” colors (also: what on earth does that mean? muddy? does that just mean brown? desaturated? less vibrant than you were expecting based on the chroma of the paint you started with?) are easy to identify and hard to fix.
        I have a suspicion that the muddy colors that pain so many watercolorists are a result of attempts to fix wet washes. I know that I have a hard time leaving an ugly wash alone. I want to add more paint, try to change the hue, fight backflow, and all I ever end up doing is disturbing granulation and color separation, which I think (especially on paper that resists lifting and layering) creates a muckier and uglier wash than any multi pigment paint could

        another consideration is that maybe multi pigment paints are recommended against because a red paint with a yellow/orange undertone and a blue mass tone might lead a painter to conclude that their purples are muted because the paint has multiple pigments rather than because the undertone of the paint is neutralizing their violet.

        I was inspired by this post to try and make some mud and to make some un-mud. so far I’ve made a really interesting granulated/separated blue grey brown from cotman cerulean hue (phthalo plus probable chalk) and cotman cadmium red hue (PR149 perylene + PR255 pyrrol)
        now, if I had been wanting violet, I’d be very disappointed in this grey blue brown granulated puddle, but leaving it the heck alone after I put it on the paper and knowing that the colors I’m used aren’t going to give me anything like a vibrant violet means that my paints did more or less what I expected of them. And that is what I expect genuine cerulean and genuine cadmium would mix to, since one is a green blue and the other an orange red. When it comes to oranges, cadmium red hue is a powerhouse whether it has one pigment or two, and I suspect that mucking around in a wash of a single pigment orange and a single pigment red would also disturb the granulation, paper fibers, and something I haven’t come across a name for, which is the drying shift that happens in watercolors that isn’t the shift of the color but is the way that WCs, especially wet washes, shift and adjust and change as they dry (as long as they’re not being muddied up by a helicopter painter like I’m trying to not be)
        Sorry for getting long winded, I think I need my own blog to try and get this out of my head!

        Reply
        • yes to all this! When I stop to think about it, I’m also confused by what people exactly mean by “mix cleanly” or “mix mud,” and the clean/dirty language is huge part of what sends up my purity dogma antennae.

          I used to think people generally meant vibrant colors vs muted colors, but I’ve seen the same people who complain about mixing mud turn around and praise muted single-pigment paints like Perylene Maroon and Raw Umber. I do understand that, like any color, it can be difficult to mix the muted shade you WANT, and easier to use a paint that already is that color, but that’s also the argument for using convenience mixes. One man’s mud is another man’s muted/muted/subtle/nuanced/natural.

          I mean, mud is natural. I was mixing up a dead leaf color the other day, and glad I had some mud on my palette!

          I’d read your blog!

          Reply

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