Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Winsor & Newton - Notes on the composition and permanence of Artists' Colours

I came across a little gem of a book the other day. Winsor and Newton publish a slim booklet titled Notes on the composition and permanence of Artists' Colours. It's only 24 pages long and cost me £1.33. However it is an absolute treasure trove of relevant information for all artists using their art media.

Apparently it has been the most popular W&N booklet since it was first published over 100 years ago with generations of artists finding it an indispensable resource. I found a 1954 edition on the internet - valued at $25! The copy I bought was published in 1997 so will inevitably be limited to what was known at that date.

Unfortunately, even with my well known sleuthing abilities, I've been unable to track down any reference to the booklet at all on the W&N website - although I have found sections from it. I've no idea how you get hold if other than by asking W&N or one of their suppliers.

The booklet contains information about all the latest pigments. The contents include:
  • Statement of Policy 1892
  • Addendum 1997
  • Permanence
  • Historical Notes on pigments and colours
  • Composition and permanence tables
  • Synonymous colour names
The publication of information by Winsor & Newton has become a particularly intrinsic and important role for the company. There are now many more products available and yet much less teaching of proper technique than in the past. .......By offering a wide variety of literature we are able to support many more people across the world than we can reach personally.......

We do
not fear disclosure as we know it takes very much more than just chemical constituents to make Winsor & Newton products
Addendum 1997
The notes about permanence are interesting and the booklet provides one of the first accessible but comprehensive definitions that I've read - it's also available on the website. This particular page provides a great deal more detail about permanence - as found in the booklet.
The permanence of an artists' colour is defined as 'its durability when laid with a brush on paper or canvas, graded appropriately and displayed under a glass frame in a dry room exposed to ordinary daylight and in an ordinary town atmosphere'.
Winsor and Newton Permance Ratings
I think this might need updating for those of us who use pastels and don't use brushes! Of more interest to artists is the following statement
It is a shocking fact that almost all artists' permanence problems arise from poor technique or the use of materials which are not manufactured for artists.
The effect of artists' techniques on permanence
You can find Hints, Tips and Techniques for every medium on their website
Historical Notes

I can't find the historical notes about pigments and colours on the website. The notes are two short lines per pigment/colour but they're still fascinating! It covers all the commonly used used pigments and names in use in the 1990s. It doesn't include the older pigments which were less permanent and haven't been used since the early 20th century.

Composition and Permanence Tables

Like the website the booklet usefully explains colour terminology such as the colour name and colour index. (see
Colour - naming dyes, pigments and paints).

Both the booklet and the website provide detailed tables for each medium which list for each colour:
  • Code
  • Colour Name
  • Chemical Description
  • Colour Index Generic Name (eg P Br7) and Colour Index No.
  • Permanence rating / permanence series (by W&N)
  • ASTM rating (this is the rating by ASTM)
  • Characteristics eg transparency/opacity; granulating; staining; bleeding and binder used.
These are the links to the tables on the website:
Artists' Oil Colour
Galeria Acrylic Colour
Winton Oil Colour
Artists' Water Colour
Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour
Cotman Water Colour
Griffin Fast Drying Oil Colour
Designers' Gouache
Artists' Oilbar
Artists' Soft Pastels
Artists' Acrylic Colour

Statement of Policy 1892

This makes interesting reading on two counts. First the reasons why it came about and second its contents.

Apparently at the end of the 19th century artists were furious that some colours they were using were proving to be fugitive and that they were being kept in the dark about colours were made of. An investigation ensued and at the end of it W&N issued their statement which is written in very forthright language.

In 1892, the position they took was broadly speaking as follows:
  • artists' colourmen as manufacturers are in business and must respond to the demand made upon for them for colours
  • the basic training of artists includes learning about the basic characteristics of different pigments
  • artists are expected to be the sole judges as to which colour was the right one to use
  • artists had had access to information about the permanence of pigments for a long time - if they chose to use one which was less permanent that was their prerogative
  • as artists' colourmen, they undertook to make colours as durable as they could - within the context of a pigment's inherent properties
  • the commercial secrets of making colours are not limited to which pigments are involved
  • scope existed to make information about composition and permanence even more accessible - hence why they published the composition and permanence tables.
If Winsor and Newton have been publishing the chemical composition and permanence of pigments in colours they manufacture since 1892, it only remains for me to question why the same cannot be said for every other manufacturer of artists' colours.

So - why do other manufacturers not publish the equivalent level of detail?

  1. Winsor and Newton was founded by William Winsor and Henry Newton in 1832 when they invented the first semi-moist watercolours using pigment, gum arabic and glycerine. The limited company was created in 1882. Winsor and Newton watercolours have been used by JMW Turner, John Constable, Samuel Palmer, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keefe.
  2. WINSOR & NEWTON is now a trading name of ColArt Fine Art & Graphics Ltd, Whitefriars Avenue, Harrow, England, HA3 5RH. (
  3. For more about the Making A Mark Colour Project see below.
Links to The Making A Mark Project on Colour - previous posts
Resources for Artists information sites created by makingamark


Marion said...

I agree absolutely with you about this booklet. I bought my copy some years ago and I think it has been used more than all my other art books put together.
I love your blog site. I have only just discovered it. It is a fascinating read and a mine of information.

Marion said...

I agree with you about this book. I think I have referred to this book more times than all my other art books put together. I have no idea where I bought it though!
I have only recently discovered your wonderful blog. A fascinating read and a mine of information.

Cindy said...

Another solid source of product information (for acrylics) is Mark Golden's blog. Mark Golden the leader behind golden acrylics. If you have specific questions (no matter how technical) about their product to include problems with it, this is the place to go. He's often taken concerns or questions posted to his research staff. He also asks for feedback from the artists who use his products so it's a win-win for all I think.

Here is the url for his blog.