Seven Confusing Things About Paint Names

There are certain conventions or tricks to the ways paints are named that I found confusing, especially when I was starting out. Here are some key points about paint names.

Confusing Thing #1: Paint names aren’t standardized.

You can get lulled into a false sense of security because some paints look very similar, are made from the same pigments, and are given the same name by multiple major brands. For example, Cobalt Blue made from PB28 is offered by nearly every major professional brand, and it often looks quite similar across brands – varying in strength and granulation but not really in hue.

But there are also lots of situations where very similar paints (same pigment, hue, handling characteristics, etc.) are named something different by each brand. For example, PY150 is a very distinct transparent yellow made from nickel which looks ochre in masstone and lemon yellow in dilute. Some brands call it Nickel Azo Yellow; others Transparent Yellow, Yellow Lake, Indian Yellow, Green Gold, and other names.

And there’s a third situation where the same name is reused across brands but refers to very different paints. “Sap Green” is a green mixture, usually somewhat muted, which may vary in hue and value and opacity and granulation, and may be made from any number of different combinations: PG36 + PY150, PG7 + PY110, PB60 + PY129, PG7 + PY150 + PO48, etc. etc. etc.

Hence the reason why, when I write posts, I always specify the brand of a paint that I’m using and/or the pigment number(s). If I just said “I used Sap Green,” that could mean any number of things.

When you buy paint, don’t rely on the “common name” to tell you much about what’s inside the tube. Also take a look at the pigment number. While some pigment numbers can be used for multiple different paints (e.g. PBr7 which makes everything from Raw Sienna to Burnt Umber), and brands often differ in the finer points of paint handling, using the pigment number is a more reliable way to tell what paint you’re getting than the name alone.

Confusing Thing #2: “Hue” means “looks like, but isn’t.”

“Hue” means color, in general conversation. Paints that are the same hue are the same color, e.g. green-blue or reddish-violet. But in paint names, the word “hue” means “color of…” as in “this paint looks like, but isn’t…” For example, Cadmium Yellow Hue would refer to any paint that looks like genuine cadmium yellow but isn’t. If it had cadmium in it, they’d call it “Cadmium Yellow.” So “hue” alerts you to the fact that this paint is made of anything but.

To the uninitiated, you’d expect a paint called “Cadmium Yellow Hue” to contain cadmium. But if you’re avoiding cadmium, “Cadmium Yellow Hue” is about one of the safest colors you can get. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for cadmium yellow, absolutely avoid “Cadmium Yellow Hue”!

It just feels intentionally confusing, doesn’t it?

While I understand the convention now (and it is fairly systematically followed), I have to say I found it very confusing at first that a color could have a particular ingredient in the name and yet not contain that ingredient. One of the first paints I bought was Cerulean Blue Hue because I had heard good things about Cerulean Blue (PB36), but I didn’t realize that “hue” meant “Whatever this is, it’s definitely not cerulean.” (It was phthalo blue plus white. I already had phthalo blue, so this was reduplicative.)

A paint called…Will not contain…May instead contain…
Cadmium Yellow HueCadmium Yellow (PY35)Hansa Yellow Light (PY3), Bismuth Yellow (PY184), Titanium White (PW6)
Cadmium Orange HueCadmium Orange (PO20)Benzimidazolone Orange (PO62), Pyrrol Orange (PO73)
Cadmium Red HueCadmium Red (PR108)Pyrrol Red (PR264), Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255)
Cobalt Blue HueCobalt Blue (PB28)Ultramarine Blue (PB29), Titanium White (PW6)
Cerulean HueCerulean Blue (PB35 or PB36)Phthalo Blue (PB15), Titanium White (PW6)
Viridian HueViridian (PG18)Phthalo Green (PG7)

Occasionally companies use another keyword to clue you into the fact that it’s a hue/not “real”, such as “new” or “nova” (e.g. New Gamboge, Manganese Blue Nova).

The opposite of the word “hue” is “genuine.” If you see “genuine,” you can generally trust it (though do check the pigments), but the absence of the word “genuine” doesn’t mean it’s not genuine.

Confusing thing #3: Sometimes the word “hue” is omitted.

There is no standardization of paint names. Companies can name their paints whatever they want. There’s nothing to stop them. The convention is to use the word “hue” to mean “lookalike,” but it’s just a norm. Sometimes companies just borrow a name from another pigment without the word “hue.” I find this to be deceptive and confusing, but it’s still done quite widely. Mijello is a particular offender.

This paint…Does not contain…Instead contains…
Sennelier – Alizarin CrimsonAlizarin Crimson (PR83)Quin Coral (PR209), Diarylide Yellow (PY83), Perylene Maroon (PR179)
Mijello – Manganese BlueManganese Blue (PB33)Phthalo Blue (PB15), Titanium White (PW6)
Shinhan – Prussian BluePrussian Blue (PB27)Phthalo Blue Green Shade (PB15:3)
Mijello – Cerulean BlueCerulean Blue (PB35 or PB36)Phthalo Blue Green Shade (PB15:3)
Mijello – ViridianViridian (PG18)Phthalo Green Blue Shade (PG7)

In some cases, the original pigment is so outdated and unlikely to be available that the word “hue” feels safe to omit. Nobody offers genuine quinacridone gold or vermilion or sap green, or various other pigments that have been deprecated due to expense, toxicity, or lightfastness issues. In these cases, I don’t think it hurts to omit the word “hue.” But when a genuine version is generally available, it feels deceptive not to include some sort of tip-off that this paint does not contain the pigment usually associated with its name.

Confusing thing #4: “Light” and “deep” don’t refer to value.

Some colors come in pairs where one is labeled “Light” and the other “Deep.” For example:

  • Cadmium Yellow Light & Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Hansa Yellow Light & Hansa Yellow Deep
  • Cadmium Red Light & Cadmium Red Deep
  • Ultramarine Light & Ultramarine Deep
  • Hooker’s Green Light & Hooker’s Green Deep
  • Permanent Green Light & Permanent Green Deep

I initially assumed that this meant that the “Light” shade was, y’know, lighter, while the “Deep” shade was darker; the names seem to imply something about value. Actually, in paint names, “Light” and “Deep” say more about hue. “Light” means more yellow, and “Deep” means more red.

  • For yellows: a “Light” yellow is middle or slightly green-toned yellow, while a “Deep” yellow is orangey.
  • For oranges & browns: “Light” is more on the yellow side while “Deep” is more on the red side.
  • For reds: a “Light” red is orangey, and a “Deep” red is a middle or slightly violet-toned red.
  • For blues: a “Light” blue is cyan or green-toned, while a “Deep” blue is violet-toned.
  • For greens: a “Light” green is yellow-toned, while a “Deep” green may be bluer, browner, darker, or all three. (“Deep” doesn’t super make sense for greens.)

This also seems to hold when there is just one color that’s either labelled light or deep, instead of a pair. Instead of contrasting two versions, the color is modifying the typical color you expect from this naming convention, so “light” is “yellower than you’d expect,” while “deep” is “redder than you’d expect.”

  • Naples Yellow Deep – more orange-toned than a classical Naples Yellow
  • Quinacridone Gold Deep – has more burnt orange in it
  • Light Red – more orange-toned than a typical earth red (rather than lighter in value)
  • Red Rose Deep – more red-toned than a typical magenta
  • Ultramarine Violet Deep – more red-toned than a typical Ultramarine Violet

Why on earth they would do this, I don’t know. I prefer the naming convention of Phthalo Blue as either “green shade” or “red shade” (though that also is weird: why not “violet shade”?)

Confusing thing #5: “Lake” means nothing at all.

Since the word “hue” has a secret, important meaning, I also expected the word “lake”, which appears in some color names (e.g. Scarlet Lake) to also have a secret, important meaning. It took me a long time to realize that most paint companies don’t use it to signify anything in particular.

Technically, a lake is a type of pigment derived from a dye in a chemical process. While dyes are water-soluble and so not appropriate for watercolor, laking is a way of turning a dye insoluble (if I’m understanding the handprint explanation correctly). Azo pigments are lakes (e.g. Nickel Azo Yellow). Some groups of pigments don’t require laking, such as phthalos, quinacridones, anthraquinones, and perylenes.

I used to think “Lake” was a signifier that the color might not be lightfast, due to the association with dyes, and the fact that Alizarin Crimson (PR83), a famously fugitive color, is often referred to as “Alizarin Crimson Lake” or “Madder Lake.” But I think this is just a coincidence. PR83 is fugitive and a lake, but there’s no cause-and-effect there. Some pigments are just lakes.

Old Holland has defined the word “lake” according to their own internal glossary: they use it to refer to a “transparent glazing color.” Tons of Old Holland colors are therefore named “lake,” regardless of whether they are lakes in the technical sense (for example, they have a Phthalo Blue called “Blue Lake.”) Other companies don’t seem to follow this rule, though.

Here are some examples of color names where the “lake” feels superfluous or misleading:

  • Sennelier – Yellow Lake (PY150) – usually called Nickel Azo Yellow, at least this is a lake
  • MaimeriBlu – Orange Lake (PO43) – usually called Perinone Orange, idk if this is a lake
  • Holbein – Scarlet Lake (PO73, PR254, PV19) – mix of Pyrrol and Quinacridone pigments; Quin pigments aren’t lakes but maybe Pyrrol are?
  • Mijello – Scarlet Lake (PR112) – Napthol red
  • Winsor & Newton – Scarlet Lake (PR188) – A different Naphthol red
  • Holbein – Crimson Lake (PR177, PR122, PV19) – mix of Anthraquinone and Quinacridone pigments – notably none of these are lakes!!
  • MaimeriBlu – Crimson Lake (PR149) – Perylene scarlet, not a lake
  • Mijello – Crimson Lake (PR202) – A quinacridone, not a lake
  • Sennelier – Rose Dore Madder Lake (PR255) – Pyrrol scarlet
  • MaimeriBlu – Quinacridone Lake (PV19) – a contradiction in terms, also not informative; this is quinacridone violet
  • Sennelier – Rose Madder Lake (PV19) – quinacridone, not a lake

No consistency whatsoever. It’s all over the place. Some of these aren’t even lake pigments! Some of are, but clearly not every lake pigment is referred to as “lake,” so why just these ones?

As far as I can tell, this is just a kind of vestigial leftover from previous historical offerings of these paint companies. For example, perhaps a company once had a dye-based Rose Madder pigment which was replaced with Alizarin Crimson which was replaced with quinacridone rose (PV19), and for historical reasons the company is still calling it “Rose Madder Lake.” I just wish they wouldn’t! It’s confusing to newcomers. It also doesn’t make longtime customers happy, because I can now say, having lived through it, that it’s annoying when a company replaces the pigment but keeps the name of a paint, and just hopes you don’t notice.

Since some of the words in color names are super super important (like “hue”), it’s extra confusing to have to learn to ignore some of the words. Paint names are a landmine of secretly important and secretly superfluous keywords. Try and guess which is which!!

Confusing thing #6: “Permanent” means “kinda.”

I have noticed that there is a “the lady doth protest too much” thing going on with the word “permanent,” where the paints labeled “permanent” tend to be moderately lightfast – rarely the top of the lightfastness scale. This is more of an observation of my own than a hard-and-fast rule. Paint companies acknowledge that “hue” means “lookalike” (they want you to know!), but this is one that I think they would dispute. Still, I have found it to be true often enough that I regard the word “permanent” with suspicion.

Paints named “permanent” (as in “Permanent Alizarin Crimson” or “Permanent Yellow Light”) are usually replacing some other, specific, fugitive pigment. For example, genuine Alizarin Crimson (PR83) is well-loved but prone to fading, so companies began offering “permanent” alternatives. While these alternatives have better lightfastness than the thing they’re replacing, they’re often still not top of the lightfastness scale. For example, Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith both put ingredients in their Permanent Alizarin Crimson formulas that are lightfastness II or III; sure, better than fugitive (IV), which is what Alizarin Crimson (PR83) rates at, but not what I’d call permanent.

Confusing thing #7: Sometimes paint names are helpful!

I alluded to this in #1, but there are some situations – especially in the earth tones – where the name is more helpful than the pigment number because multiple paints can be made from the same pigment number. For example, nearly every earth color is made from either PBr7 or PR101. Knowing whether you’re buying a Raw Sienna or Burnt Sienna PBr7, or a Transparent Red Oxide vs Indian Red PR101, gives you a lot of information.

Just when I thought the solution was going to be “ignore color names entirely,” they reel me back in!

Conclusion

Paint names aren’t useless, but they lack standardization. It’s up to the buyer to beware.

Know your pigment numbers, and check to make sure the pigment(s) you expect are in the paint. Don’t go on the color name alone. (But also don’t go on the pigment number alone, especially for pigments with multiple personalities like PV19, PR101, PBr7, PB36).

Know your vocabulary:

  • The word “hue” means “anything but.”
  • In “light”/”deep” pairs, “light” means “more yellow,” and “deep” means “more red.”
  • The word “lake” means nothing at all.
  • The word “permanent” means “not fugitive, but tbh also not permanent.”

In the end, paint names can be used to identify a particular product within a brand, but they aren’t consistently informative on their own. When in doubt, research the paints you’re interested in before buying, and make sure they are what you expect them to be!

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