Why are people mad at Daniel Smith?

I’m about two years late to this controversy, but I recently decided to dig into this question after a few oblique comments here and there. Oto Kano mentioned on one of their videos that they’re moving away from Daniel Smith paints because they disagree with some of the actions of the company, but did not explain or urge viewers to do the same. On a recent one of my posts, a reader cast a bit of a side-eye at Daniel Smith’s Primatek paints. So, I did some digging. 

Primatek Controversy

The big question is whether Daniel Smith’s Primatek paints are composed of the mineral pigments they claim, or if most of the color comes from other, unlisted pigments?

Background Reading

Shortly after the Primatek lines first appeared in 2007, Bruce MacEvoy of handprint.com posted a detailed explanation of what Primateks are, what the marketing claims are, and how they paint out, generally being cautious about what sorts of claims can be made about them. 

World Pigment Day’s Observations

Daniel Smith sells its line of Primatek paints based on the claim that they are single-pigment paints made from the actual minerals they’re named for, e.g. Amazonite Genuine is, like, you know, genuine Amazonite. They do not list any pigment numbers because these minerals don’t have pigment numbers. The strong implication here is that there are not any other pigments in the paint.

On April 20, 2021, Instagram user @worldpigmentday began a series of posts examining the Primatek paints under a polarizing microscope, and comparing them to known specimens of the mineral in question. 

Here are some quotes of their findings:

Amazonite Genuine:

“The pigment in this paint is over 90% phthalocyanine green.” 

April 20, 2021

Wading into the comments here is a bit of a bear because so many people were shocked/appalled/accusatory/defensive about their favorite paints, but it includes an interesting thread where a commenter asks how Amazonite is lifting, if Phthalo Green is typically staining. Commenter @spindoctorart replied that “using a very course grind will stop it staining tbh. Staining is a function of particle size.” In another comment they added of the Primatek line in general, “Course ground organics with basically dust leftover from mineral processing to give some gritty sedimentation is what I’ve thought most of them are all along.”

Amethyst Genuine:

“Many of you guessed that the ‘genuine amethyst’ handles like dioxazine and you are absolutely correct. Dioxazine is the major pigment present here.”

April 21, 2021

Jadeite Genuine:

“Jadeite is mainly phthalo green”

April 21, 2021

Purpurite Genuine:

“This DS paint is made from synthetic manganese phosphate i.e. manganese violet.”

April 22, 2021 

Rhodonite Genuine:

“Rhodonite is an organic red.” 

April 21, 2021

Sleeping Beauty Turquoise:

“[I]f mineral turquoise is present (and that’s a big if) it is in very small amounts. The colour of this paint is down to cobalt aluminate PB28.”

May 12, 2021


“[S]ugilite and fuchsite are dominated by synthetic, oxide coated micas (as you get in car paints, cosmetics and pearlescent pigment).”

April 21, 2021

Daniel Smith’s Response

@worldpigmentday wrote to Daniel Smith; although they didn’t post their own letter, they noted on April 21, 2021 that they “wrote to DS asking them for further information on this range whilst being honest about my knowledge, qualifications and findings.”

On April 25, they posted in full the response from Daniel Smith that they received. 

Dear Customer,

There has been a statement made that DANIEL SMITH PrimaTek watercolors are made from synthetic material.  Let me answer this.

Daniel Smith PrimaTek Watercolors ARE made using natural minerals.
These minerals are sourced by Bruce Wood, our on staff Geologist.  Each and every color in the PrimaTek line is made with the corresponding mineral listed on the label.

The label says Genuine.  It IS genuine.  It does not say 100% mineral only.  This is NOT possible.   The majority of any watercolor is a gum arabic solution, without which, you would not have a watercolor paint.

The way this is tested is by gas chromatography not looking through a microscope or polarized microscope. 

The minerals we use in production are mineral massive – they are not mineral specimens.  As such there are other elements in association with them – mica, quartz etc.  This is the nature of a mineral massive.  Minerals can change their constituency by their placement both vertically or horizontally in/on the earth and by what other elements they are associated with.  In production we use the majority of the mineral massive and the elements in association with them.

Each PrimaTek mineral is different and is sourced from all over the world.  There are some colors that, in our manufacturing process, are altered to assure the paint color is exactly as the tube before it.  Not all mineral paint would be consistent without this step.  Minerals are NOT consistent, it is their nature.  This is a manufacturing process that is private and will not be shared.  It DOES NOT take away that every single color is made with real mineral.

Daniel Smith PrimaTek ARE made using minerals. 

John Cogley, Owner Daniel Smith Inc.

Personally, I just find this response quite defensive and condescending. Again, we don’t know how @worldpigmentday worded their original letter, but there is no way they said that they felt the literal paint was 100% minerals. Obviously, any paint is going to have binder and so forth. But there is a big difference between calling a paint ‘Genuine Amazonite’ when it is Amazonite and binder, vs. when it is from phthalo green and binder with a bit of Amazonite dust. Even the latter would be acceptable to me if the label reflected the contents, but it’s not acceptable that paint just contains unlisted pigments. There’s no way to make decisions as an artist if your paints are not correctly labeled. 

In this response, Cogley’s remarks strike me as incredibly hostile as well as weaselly; he’s deliberately side-stepping the question while treating his customer like an asshole. It is not a good look. 

@worldpigmentday’s comments on the letter:

The sender talks about gas chromatography as an analytical technique. This technique is used for the analysis of organic chemicals, so in our case that’s binders, resins, varnishes and some organic pigments etc. So that makes sense for the paints in this range that contain synthetic organic pigments. Gas chromatography is not good for analysing inorganic mineral phases. It’s not a technique used in mineralogy. I have used it for analysis of binders and other organic compounds like bitumen.

I’m afraid the second paragraph is waffle and as a mineralogist I find it oddly worded and arguably patronising!

The final paragraph I understand, and this makes total sense. To ensure consistency in paint properties they are topping these paints up with other pigments to cover up inconsistencies in the colour (or lack thereof) of the earth materials they are using.

I do not doubt that there are minerals in these paints (and have NEVER said that there were not, indeed I have highlight the natural mineral components in my posts). But they are present in small amounts and are not necessarily the minerals you might be expecting and they may contribute little to the colour.

Nevertheless, these are well-made paints, made with high quality artists pigments which produce interesting colours and effects. Sadly it seems that we will not find out the full list of ingredients that they contain.

April 25, 2021

Does it matter?

I actually don’t think it matters how much mineral content the Primatek paints have, but I do think it matters that paints are labeled accurately with their contents.

I would have no problem with Daniel Smith selling a paint called “Amazonite” that is inspired by the color of Amazonite, whether it contains any actual Amazonite or not, as long as they accurately labeled what it did contain. 

It’s important for artists to know which pigments they’re working with for many reasons: to be able to predict how they’ll behave and how lightfast they are likely to be; to make informed choices about which pigments they want to work with (e.g. avoiding toxic or environmentally unfriendly pigments); and to give accurate information to buyers of their artwork. 

It’s also important on a basic level for artists to be able to trust the companies that provide their supplies!

It feels pretty clear to me that DS’s motive here is profit, i.e., they can charge more for Genuine Amazonite than they can for Phthalo Green. That combined with the CEO’s withering, intentionally missing-the-point response just leaves a sour taste in my mouth. 

It’s not enough to insta-boycott, but it’s enough to factor in when I decide where my money goes in future. 

And Another Thing

While I’m on the subject of things that annoy me about Daniel Smith, none of these are dealbreakers but they do add up to kind of a negative opinion of them as a company:

  • Similar to the Primatek controversy, I’ve noticed they seem to try to “get away with” not listing everything on their labels. For example, the Opera Pink only lists PR122. Once you do a bit of research you quickly learn that Opera Pink typically has a fugitive, fluorescent additive (sometimes listed as BV10 or red dye). To their credit, DS does list this as a fugitive paint – but other companies do a better job of listing all the ingredients. That said, DS is not the worst company I’ve ever known in terms of misleading labels (I’m looking at you, Shinhan).
  • Although I wasn’t in the watercolor world for this, for something like a decade, DS was the only brand that offered PO49 – the original Quinacridone Gold – because they were hoarding the supply. I understand that it wasn’t their (or any brand’s) fault that the pigment stopped being made available for watercolor because it was no longer produced in the automotive industry, but it still feels kind of shitty to me that they cornered the market like that. Savvy business move? Sure, but gross. I feel like they may be doing the same with PO48, since I’ve noticed most other brands have dropped it.

What now?

I don’t feel the need to boycott Daniel Smith over this ancient controversy, but this adds another reason for me to find alternative sources for some of the paints I’ve always gotten from them by default. They were my first professional watercolor brand, since I started with their starter kit, and so I had sort of mentally classed them as my default brand for my first year or so of painting. Now, I tend to use Da Vinci or Holbein as my default brand, and I’m kind of limited my DS purchases to colors that I find uniquely special in their line. (And none of them are Primateks!)

I tend to prefer DS for these colors, and after trying other versions, I just keep coming back to DS:

  • Indanthrone Blue (PB60) – DS’s version is an outlier among Indanthrone Blues for being extra violet-toned and muted, which I really like for the cool, muted tones of New England landscapes. That said, my reliance on this color has lessened since my first ten-day challenge, and I am now as likely to use Ultramarine or a mixed Indigo hue.
  • Monte Amiata Natural Sienna (PBr7) – One of my favorite earth tones, I love its yellow tone and granulation. DV Raw Sienna Deep comes close, but it is made from PY43 (the yellow ochre pigment), and I prefer the PBr7 brown pigment which is more transparent and more able to mix with blue without going green. I have discovered that plain ol’ Raw Sienna is better for some of the use cases for which I used to use MANS, though, such as dry grass; Raw Sienna is more easily muted by blue.
  • Transparent Red Oxide (PR101) – My other favorite earth tone, DS’s version has the perfect muted redness for me, and is also gorgeously granulting. I also like DV’s Burnt Sienna Deep, but it’s kind of a different color in that it is much more orange. I think DV BSD is a better substitute for Quin Burnt Orange than for DS’s TRO. That said, in practical terms, they mix really similarly, and both are good for making the kind of muted browns and grays that I enjoy with Ultramarine or Indanthrone Blues.
  • Rich Green Gold (PY129) – I have not tried all that many versions, but I like the brightness of DS’s compared to DV. But there are others I haven’t tried.

For my other colors, even those that started out as DS picks for me, I’ve found non-DS alternatives that I have enjoyed just as much or more.

Learning about this controversy hasn’t started that process, but it has given me more reason to poke around. It has been nice to explore different brands because I don’t like being brand-loyal or beholden to any given company. While I like finding the ‘best’ (for me) version of any given color, I also like feeling that I am flexible and have a lot of options!

1 thought on “Why are people mad at Daniel Smith?”

  1. Kim Crick has some recipes to try to dupe the primateks. She seems to get pretty close. Not sure if the dupes would mix the same as the DS ones.

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