Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What are fugitive colours?

Fugitive colours in art media are colours which are based on pigments or dyes which have a short life. They are not lightfast which means they are not permanent.

What this means in practice is that if you use fugitive colours in your work they will look absolutely fine when you create the work. However if the work is continuously exposed to light, the colour saturation will reduce and the work will dullen and then eventually the hue will completely disappear. This is as a result of chemical change rather than any bleaching effect of the light.

I've even known some colours fade despite being in a stack of work because they were not put away in an environment which excluded light. That was the experience which first got me interested in fugitive colours. The medium concerned had no claims to be lightfast however it did make me realise just how fast colour can fade when it is fugitive.

I was reminded of fugitive colours last night while reading Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour.

The book is the catalogue of the Girtin exhibition at Tate Britain Thomas Girtin And The Art Of Watercolour: 4th July - 29th September 2002 and is absolutely fabulous in terms of an insight into his work. It also clearly highlights how some of Thomas Girtin's paintings cannot now be seen the way they were when painted due to the pigments having completely disappeared from the paper.

It's only because of his technique of painting (of which more in another post) that we can make out what some of his paintings are about.

I was prompted to find out more about Girtin having seen his painting of The White House at Chelsea (1820) at the Turner and the Masters exhibition at Tate Britain and read Turner's comment. Turner is quoted as having said
if Tom Girtin has lived, I would have starved
JMW Turner
The White House at Chelsea 1800
Thomas Girtin 1775-1802

Pencil and watercolour on laid paper

Girtin mainly used transparent colours with occasional use of bodycolour. It's suggested that he was maybe not too fussed about whether or not the pigments he used were permanent. There's a fair bit of information about how Girtin painted from William Henry Pyne. He used 15 pigments in all. However the names were not standardised at the time and it's unclear where Girtin sourced his pigments.
As Richard Hearn has argued, the specialist colour shops grew up to satisfy the amateur market, and thei high costs, and often dubious reputation as opurveyors of adulterated stock, meant that many artists bought their own pigments or the raw materials from which they were prepared from a wide range of outlets including pharmacists dry salters and apothecaries.
Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour page 96
However the list of pigments provided by Pyne explains in part why some of Girtin's work has faded.
Indigo, lake, gamboge, yellow lake and brown pink are all highly fugitive when exposed to light, and their use in mixing of blue tints for the sky, greys for clouds and greens for the foliage partially explains the distorted appearance of (some of his works)
The exhibition catalogue suggests that in using some pigments which were known to be fugitive that Girtin was 'at best negligent and at worst irresponsible'. However it also higlights the notion that the majority of his works may not have been designed for public display - that they were sketches rather than paintings for sale.

Another recent example of an artwork on display which has faded very badly is the painting of Roses by Van Gogh which is owned by The National Gallery of Art in Washington as is currently on display at the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Van Gogh tells his brother in a letter that he has just finished a painting of pink roses against a yellow green background in a green vase. The pink roses are now almost white which has affected the intended contrast with the green.

Very oddly, the NGA website now titles the work 'White Roses' and fails to highlight the fact that the pink in the roses has faded to white.

Which just goes to show you can never be sure that you can really see what was originally painted even when it is on the website of a reputable museum (which does highlight the fading problem in teaching material about Van Gogh)!

Fugitive Colours

Examples of fugitive colours include:
  • all the colours which have only one star on their label.
  • all the colours which have the letter C to denote their permanence level on their label
Any really good manufacturer will make the lightfastness ratings / permanence of their art media absolutely clear on the labelling they use for their product. However not all those that do use clear labelling also adhere to the ASTM standards for testing for lightfastness

These are the ASTM latest standard specifications artists media for:
(Note: There is still no standard as yet for pastels and I can't see any evidence of the ASTM working on one. Does anybody know different?)

My post about Colour - naming dyes, pigments and paints tells you a lot about how colours are named and labelled and also about the standards which are in place to help make such labelling reliable.

My recommendation is to always look to see how upfront the manufacturer of the brand you favour is about telling you about the different pigments and dyes which are used in the product you want to use.

Can they for example match Winsor and Newton's very clear information about their Artists' Water Colour?

This is Winsor & Newton's very helpful definition of permanence
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 freely exposed to ordinary daylight and an ordinary town atmosphere'. This definition reflects the manner in which we expect to find paintings displayed. However, for testing purposes we are also able to utilise accelerated tests for lightfastness and binder stability, in addition to the information issued by our pigment suppliers.

Winsor & Newton ratings are therefore a combination of the natural passage of time, accelerated tests and pigment manufacturers' testing and development and are the most stringent in the industry.

AA - Extremely Permanent

A - Permanent

B - Moderately Durable

C - Fugitive

For further information on some colours, the rating may include one or more of the following additions:

(i) ‘A' rated in full strength may fade in thin washes

(ii) Cannot be relied upon to withstand damp

(iii) Bleached by acids, acidic atmospheres

(iv) Fluctuating colour; fades in light, recovers in dark

(v) Should not be prepared in pale tints with Flake White, as these will fade

Winsor & Newton Resource Centre: Composition & Permanence Tables

In a follow up to this post I'm going to try and identify the pigments which create fugitive colours. In the meantime why not check out Handprint's Guide to watercolour pigments

If you have any personal experience of fugitive colours do please leave a comment.



  1. Hi,
    Regarding lightfast colored pencils.........Derwent, Prismacolor & Talens have apparently discontinued their lightfast lines of colored pencils due to poor sales. I was told though by a sales rep at a local art materials expo that Prismacolor may include some of the pigments used in their lightfast line in the lineup.
    I cannot figure out why these types of pencils did not sell. I thought that with the increase of colored pencil art , shows & sales artists would want to have lightfast fade resistant colored pencils. One would think that using a pastel shade , a purple or pink colored pencil in their work artists would want these colors not to fade. Those colors and a few others are usually the ones that fade out. I hope that these brands of colored pencils begin to offer lightfast pigments throughout the entire palette .
    There is no reason not to do so especially since colored pencil is a serious and respected fine art medium.-

  2. This is a wonderfully informative write up Katherine!

  3. Did you make the post about the pigments which create fugitive colours? It would be really helpful.

  4. No I didn't - but thanks for the reminder!

  5. Thanks to you indeed for your amazing labor of information.


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