The disappearing blue

Dear Artist, Recently, Barbara Hawley of Madison, Virginia wrote, “The blue colour in an acrylic painting I did in 2009 has disappeared! As I have several brands of acrylics in my paint box, I don’t know which one is the problem paint. Living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s important that the mountains are blue! What do you think?” Thanks, Barbara. It’s always a good idea to check the lightfastness printed on each tube of pigment. Having said that, some less expensive acrylics don’t list lightfastness at all and may be so full of extenders that there’s very little blue of any sort in there. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) gives ratings from I to V. I is excellent, II very good, III fair or non-permanent in artist’s paints, IV and V pigments are rated poor and very poor, and not to be used by artists. The British system known as the “Blue Wool Standard” (BWS) gives a rating from one to eight. Ratings of one to three mean a color is fugitive and you can expect it to change within 20 years. Ratings of four or five means a colour’s lightfastness is fair, and shouldn’t change for between 20 and 100 years. A rating of six is very good and a rating of seven or eight is excellent. Equivalents on the two scales: ASTM I = Blue Woolscale 7 and 8. Excellent. ASTM II = Blue Woolscale 6. Very Good. ASTM III = Blue Woolscale 4 and 5. Fair. ASTM IV = Blue Woolscale 2 and 3. Poor. ASTM V = Blue Woolscale 1. Very poor. Fugitive. Other than time, it doesn’t take much to conduct a lightfastness test. Put thin and thick dabs of your favourite pigments on a small piece of canvas, label them, photograph the canvas and tack it unprotected on a sunny roof for a couple of years. This is how we keep the colourmen honest. Best regards, Robert PS: “Our colors offer excellent permanency and lightfastness. There are no fillers, extenders, opacifiers, toners, or dyes added.” (Golden acrylic information sheet. Note: Golden doesn’t pay me to write this. In fact, I pay retail for their stuff. RG) Esoterica: Golden’s blues recommended for even outdoor mural applications include Cobalt Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Phthalo Blue (both shades) and Primary Cyan. Ultramarine blue is also listed with them as lightfast. Cerulean Blues by some colourmen are in the second category. Prussian blue, hardly used nowadays because of the superiority of Phthalo blue, is listed by Liquitex as slightly fugitive. Amsterdam (a low priced acrylic by Talens) lists their King’s blue as lightfast for 100 years. Four rules: (1) Buy the better brands and check the lightfastness on each tube. (2) If you do augment with cheaper brands, use them thickly. (3) Don’t use any acrylics too thinly, and always include more medium than water. (4) Always finish up with a “Final Varnish with Ultraviolet Light Stabilizers.”   Barbara Hawley

original acrylic painting with blue mountains, 2009


original acrylic painting with disappearing blue, 2013

            Interpreting the numbers by Tom Irvine, Gravenhurst, ON, Canada  

M. Graham Oil Paints


Golden Acrylic Paints

        My Golden acrylics have “Lightfastness 1/ conforms to ASTM D 5098” on them. My M Graham & Company paints have Lightfastness 1 or 2 and say conforms to ASTM D 5098 and ASTMD 4236. How would I interpret this? (RG note) Thanks, Tom. That means you’re good to go with both those brands. Several friends use the M. Graham oils and swear by them. I’ve used them a few times and found them to be very smooth and buttery with excellent tinting power. Enough to make a guy want to go back to oils full time. They’re beautiful. There is 1 comment for Interpreting the numbers by Tom Irvine
From: Rene — May 14, 2013

And their Watercolors are great as well.

    Importance of quality by Luc Poitras, Montreal, QC, Canada   I’m always amazed that even good artists don’t take the time and effort to learn about the paints they use. Lightfastness should always be a priority. If you buy paint from a reputable manufacturer and the best that manufacturer has to offer then you’ll have no surprise. If you don’t, then not only the blue will disappear, but so will your integrity. Factor in the cost of a frame, support, your time, plus profit, the cost of your paint is not much even if you buy the best. So, don’t be cheap! Your clients will appreciate it. There is 1 comment for Importance of quality by Luc Poitras
From: Anonymous — May 16, 2013
  Fugitive colour-changed piece first to sell by Patricia Peters, Grande Prairie, AB, Canada  

original painting
by Patricia Peters

I had a particular painting that I had glazed with transparent orange (D. Smith) that gave me such beautiful warm vibrations of colour and delicious nuances that were very intriguing. I was preparing for a solo show and had packaged the piece carefully, and had it stored in a dark, cool, dry place until the set-up, about 4 months. What a surprise, when I unwrapped it — all the subtle colourations had shifted and changed dramatically (the only one out of 60 paintings). I deemed I could rescue the piece with not too much difficulty, but the gallery director was adamant not to change a thing. I decided to listen to her advice and just let it go. It was the first painting to sell and, of course, nobody else seemed “to notice.” There seems to be some acute memory of colour in our memory, and I am surprised how accurate the memory is of these things. This acute recognition of colour was very useful when evaluating reproductions. I carefully watch several older paintings that I have kept, and find that the artists pigment and varnishes are standing up to the test of light, time and environmental issues… which gives me greater confidence in sending a finished work out into the world. I am full of appreciation that many people go to such ends to make superior products, and trust their name on it.   Removable final varnish for acrylics? by Tim Alcock, Denver, Colorado, USA  

“Paria Canyon”
acrylic painting
by Tim Alcock

I wanted to get your take on ‘final varnishes,’ particularly on an acrylic painting. The varnish provides a degree of protection from knocks, scrapes and UV to the surface of the painting, right? I’m told that an oil-based varnish can be stripped from an acrylic painting in the event repair is necessary while an acrylic medium / varnish bonds with the underlying paint and cannot be removed. Not claiming my work is of archival quality but there might be an occasion where I want to paint-out that ubiquitous blue fox, or repair a chip. (RG note) Thanks, Tim. I’ve heard of final varnishing acrylics with various oil media before, but I’ve not tried it. Why not just use the excellent media supplied? Start with a coat of acrylic medium (I use gloss) cut with half water put on with a rag. Dry thoroughly, either forced or over several days. Then do the same with a Golden product “Final Varnish with UVLS” (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers — removed easily with household ammonia). Put the canvas flat on the floor and flood it on (again, fifty-fifty with water) and spread it around and almost off again with a soft, lintless cloth. Two coats if you wish. I’ve never had a problem with “sinking in,” fading or fugitives.   How does the varnish work? by Ellen Simon   Could you please explain to me how varnish can protect a painting from ultraviolet light? Why would that light not be able to get through the varnish and fade those fugitive colors?

Golden varnishes

(RG note) Any varnish, Damar, Spar or acrylic, improves the life expectancy of paint underneath it by stabilizing and retarding the tendency of some colours to slowly oxidize and change. Acrylic final varnishes do not flake or peel off — they merely disappear after many years — a fact that invites a further varnishing later down the line — say in twenty or thirty years. Other products such as “Bulldog Ultra” provides long-lasting ultraviolet protection to digital imaging ink such as in Giclee prints. This is a fast dry, elastic coating that will not yellow, oxidize, check, crack or peel. Bulldog Ultra has a very high resistance to ultraviolet light, claiming to block 99% UV light transmission. Some of these new products claim light fastness for 100 years. For further information see The acrylic finishes that are removable with ammonia started as wipe-on floor vinyl acrylic co-polymer emulsion wax for linoleum and vinyl floors. They built up and yellowed and had to be removed. But some bright guy at Golden figured out how to make a varnish that could be dealt with in the same way. I use household ammonia to remove the final varnish if I feel the necessity to go back in and work on a painting. Information on Golden varnishes can be found at There is 1 comment for How does the varnish work? by Ellen Simon
From: Ann — May 16, 2013

I had the Golden final varnish turn into dandruff-like whitish flakes after only a few weeks the painting has been in a gallery. Embarrassing — had to take it off and replace with just another layer of medium. The bottle of this final varnish that I have (almost full) looks like the content has changed in color and consistency. I have this bottle for a few years and it’s not stored in a very cool place, so maybe that’s the reason. It’s disappointing that the bottled stuff has such a short shelf life. Instead of buying more of that stuff and risking it go bad, I use Liquitex gloss medium and varnish — excellent product that can be used as medium and permanent varnish (which can be painted over if needed). I don’t really see the need for removable varnish on acrylic paintings if you use couple layers of a permanent varnish which can be safely cleaned from dirt and repaired for scratches.

  Student and artist qualities by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA  

“Angels in the Casa”
mixed media painting
by Elle Fagan

Many years ago, I did a commissioned watercolor of a famous historic building for a very nice client and we all delighted at end transaction. But, later, the painting was exposed to too much heat and direct sunlight. The supplies were “top stuff,” the water boiled and filtered, but it faded terribly in two spots. I guarantee my work and restored it when I learned of the damage. In this case the areas that had faded were heavy dense and needed a few more layers anyway! So the repaired painting was better than the original and the happy ending was won for this painting, two times. I also went thru my paintbox to check on all the tubes of paint “Just in case” — and trashed any that seemed even slightly off, to avoid similar issues in the future. I visit the paint company websites for fastness data etc., if I cannot find what I want on the tube. In watercolor paints, “student” and “artist” quality are named and the latter is the better quality with much less filler and thus, the higher purchase price. But pro watercolorists often deliberately use the pastier student colors to achieve a denser effect, rather than the sparkling ones that are won from the artist colors. Both are touted to hold up well, as long as the painting is not placed in extremes of heat/light/damp. But after that experience with my good client, “not for me” — I use colour-mixing and/or application of layers of the “artist quality only” paints, to achieve the less transparent, duller desired effect where it is called for, and have had no issues since. I always filter, but not always boil the water — and yet there have been no new issues of the sort. One more note: At sale time I re-iterate to my client the importance of telling me if an issue arises. Some want to be “nice” and then no one is happy. My only fear is in my work. One does the painting for a good reason and my clients pay me well — a happy client is the goal and requirement in all good business. I always praise the good customer service I receive and try to be as good. There is 1 comment for Student and artist qualities by Elle Fagan
From: Don — May 14, 2013

Not sure there is anything you can do if a client subjects any watercolor to heat and direct sunlight. It will surely fade. And, even though I work with a variety of acrylic paints, and have for over 35 years, I always advise my collectors to never subject their artworks to direct sunlight.

  Suggested topic for future RG Twice-Weekly Letter by Nancy Oppenheimer, Seneca, SC, USA  

“Grandfather’s Mountain 2”
pastel painting
by Nancy Oppenheimer

I would love to read your celebration and invitation to share poems devoted to art by the sisterhood and brotherhood — by the community you have amassed! I’ve attached my own poem about the passion of art.   The Passion of Art by Nancy Oppenheimer I am drawn with caresses To a palm’s esoteric existence Whose fingers motion With magnetic insistence To dispel all defenses To cease resistance To enter a respite Far from this unanswerable dissidence. I take leave of this world absurd And await the amulet’s sweet word And the word is a hand opening a door Upon a land of what once shimmered before Before I breathed a breath Or knew a thought of death. Here then rise mountains upright and true Bathed by sunny lights of every hue Where all living creatures are free from the harms That hunters and warriors bear with their arms Here then to bring birth to the passion of art Is to fully understand with a loving heart. My hand holds brush with color And caresses the canvas like a lover We are one.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The disappearing blue

From: Marvin Humphrey — May 09, 2013

Thanks, Robert, for clarifying the increments of lightfastness ratings. Life’s too short to use cheap materials…although I once did a sun-exposure test of 5 brands of black felt-tip markers, and the cheapest one won out.

From: Sridhar Ramasami — May 10, 2013
From: Gene Martin — May 10, 2013
From: ReneW — May 10, 2013

I agree with painting with the best brands if you value your work. If in doubt, test the paints by painting 1″ x 6″ strips. Cover half with a piece of mat. Put in a sunny window for several weeks or longer. Take the mat off and see if there is a change in the color. You should be able to see if the paint is light fast or not.

From: Rick Rotante — May 10, 2013

Other than light fastness of manufactured pigments, it should be said that paintings be kept out of direct sunlight. The only time I’ve had no problem with sunlight on my work is with my pastels. They seem to hold the color longer. (permanently so far) Probably due to the fact that there is no linseed/safflower oils used as binders which yellow and darken with time. Acrylics have a polyethylene-based plastic that may affect the aging and lightfastness properties..

From: Donna Hirtle — May 10, 2013

Found the code on Golden but not on Mantegna

Learned about ACMI in the process [Conforms to ASTMD-4236….] eeps, the things I remain blissfully unaware of. Had simply been using the strategy that I’d be getting what I paid for “good/better/best” pricing
From: Lynn Arbor — May 10, 2013
From: John Churchill — May 10, 2013

Barbara is “lucky” her painting did not sell. May she can fix it.

We live in UK now, Am familiar with Blue Wool Scale relating to the giclee field but will look on oils sold for a sign. They seem to only show “Permanent”
From: David McHolm — May 10, 2013

Love this one…switch to OILS!

From: Brian Care — May 11, 2013

All this technical stuff about colorfastness is just so tiresomely complicated.

Wouldn’t it just be easier for Barbara to move? Signed Simple Solution from a Simple Mind
From: Deana Blanchard — May 11, 2013

Is there a similar scale for oil paints?

From: Sonja Boyce — May 11, 2013

Regarding rule #3: “Don’t use acrylics too thinly”. I am very partial to glazing with Golden Glazing Liquid with titrations of drops of paint to tablespoons of glazing liquid in ratio. Does rule #3 apply to this practice?

From: Tess — May 13, 2013

I test my colours by painting horizontal rectangles of colour onto a strip of whichever support they are to be painted on. I write the name of the colour next to each colour, cut the whole thing in half vertically. One half I tape to the window the other half I fold up and put into an envelope in a drawer. I return to compare them after one month to see if there is any change. Some colours I bought which were described as having ‘a very good degree of light fastness’ Some of them had changed after just 2 weeks so best to do your own tests.

From: Nelson Quan — May 13, 2013

Generally speaking lightfastness is greater among the earth pigments as the actual “lumps” of color tend to be bigger as opposed to the often micron size of synthetic colours. This is one of the reasons pastels (mentioned above) tend to be quite permanent. bigger . This

From: Linda D Burchill — May 13, 2013

Dear Bob:

Today’s post really speaks to me. Jil’s letter to you, “The Art of Patience,” was so beautifully written I felt that she was talking directly to me. And your comments on the topic are words that I need to heed. Today’s world is much too fast. We miss out on the quality of life if we are swooped up in the frenetic pulse of society. I know that I, for one, would benefit by slowing things down. For one thing, now that I’m far past the other side of 50, my body won’t support that hectic lifestyle any longer. Endurance isn’t the goal. Time to step off the treadmill and enjoy every minute of life. Sad, isn’t it, that we need to be reminded that it is quality that matters – not quantity? Thank you for the reminder. Your loyal follower, ~Linda.
From: Margaret Kevorkian — May 13, 2013
From: BarbaraMcGuire — May 14, 2013

I loved reading the article about patience.After a shoulder operation two weeks ago and with my painting arm in a sling I was becoming more and more tense not being able to do anything let alone paint.however,I have been sent some wonderful links and have spent the last two days reading some wonderfully inspiring information about art.I am new to iPads so it is a stiff learning curve.The hours are passing more rapidly now.Thanks to all who share !

From: Nancy Paris Pruden — May 14, 2013

This is wonderful! Yes, patience is very difficult for me but I am going to work on this. Thank you!

From: Tom Wirt — May 14, 2013

Maybe one of the operative factors is, that when ‘looked’ at with a camera, basically nothing enters your long term visual memory…to be stored, metabolized and joined with other images. It the pops out in some other painting.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — May 14, 2013

As I recall, using Alizarin Crimson in any underpainting meant that it would show through other colors later.

From: Ellie Mercadoria — May 15, 2013

I can only hope that some of my early work fades away.

From: Jason Chan — May 15, 2013

Photo lithos are notorious for their fugitive colours. This fraud has severely affected the art market and the ill will will continue for some time.

From: Dick Nordstrom — May 15, 2013

All pigments these days arise as a byproduct of the car painting industry. Research in this area has led to more stable paints, particularly over the last two decades. We painters are beneficiaries of this improved technology and lightfastness is not the problem it used to be. Unless a painter’s requirements are particularly peculiar, one does not need to worry too much about oil or acrylic paints from reputable companies.

From: Bela Fidel — May 16, 2013

Thank you so much for this reminder, so beautifully put. I confess to suffer from the same itch. My work is abstract and every painting comes from my head, heart, entrails – not Nature as we know it. I take months to complete a painting – not because I am patient but possibly because I don’t sit and stare long enough. Which results in more changes than would have otherwise been necessary.

     Featured Workshop: Wilson Street Studio with Deb Grise 051413_robert-genn Wilson Street Studio workshops with Deb Grise Held in Charlevoix, QC, Canada   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

From the Rooftops

oil painting, 12 x 9 inches by Donna Dickson, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes a question from Mary Catherine Jorgensen, “You do not mention oils & light fastness. I use most often the better brands so am not really worried but still… acrylics are NOT oils and thus my question.” (RG note) Thanks, Mary. The same system works for both oils and watercolours. Lightfastness is printed right on the tubes in all the better brands. Oils are generally not so much of a problem as painters tend to use them thicker and with more impasto. The danger lies particularly in acrylics because the medium is easy to use in a diluted or watercolour manner and the result is that they don’t have the body as in oils. And also Robert Cohen of Rockville, MD, USA, who wrote, “Correction: ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).” (RG note) Thanks, Robert, and all other sharp-eyed artists and others who corrected me on this. And also Brian Care of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “All this technical stuff about colourfastness is just so tiresomely complicated. Wouldn’t it just be easier for Barbara to move?”