How To Read a Paint Tube Label Easily
Learn how to read a paint tube label easily and discover the eight most important features of a good quality paint tube – making your paint selection simple.
Is the colour red the same in all paint tubes? A colour’s appearance is more than just its name. How to read a paint tube label will reveal all the necessary details of the colour.
In my early days when I began painting, I used to go to our local art shop and buy acrylic and oil paints based on the colour name. I thought red will be red disregarding the brand or the make of the paint. But I started to notice that was not truly the case.
The red from this tube wasn’t exactly the same red as from this other tube!
To select the exact colours I was after, I developed one of those habits called “reading labels”, particularly when it comes to any art materials. It may sound boring to some people, but I have learned a lot about paints from reading labels on the paint tubes.
In the painting art world, selecting a colour based only on its name is not necessarily the right approach. And this is where the paint tube labels become very important.
In this article, I will try to provide some of the answers to some of the questions people ask me about selecting artist colour paints from reading paint tube labels. Some of the questions include:
- What information is on a paint label?
- What do the squares on the paint tube mean?
- How do you read pigment code?
- What are the numbers of paint tubes?
How to read a paint tube label?
If you are a beginner artist or even paint as a hobby but you care to produce stunning colours, how to read a paint tube label will vastly improve your colour selection and your painting process.
Art paints come in a variety of tubes and containers. Any decent type of paint would have some or certain information on its container or tube label. This information is likely to be included on most ‘Student’ types of paints and definitely on all ‘artists’ or ‘professional’ grades.
There are several different types of information on a paint tube label, but I will focus on the main information and codes. This information and codes apply to most types of paints. You would find such information on acrylic paint tubes, oil paint tubes, watercolours and gouache.
At first, it may seem a little overwhelming when you look at a paint tube label and see all sorts of different information and codes. It’s actually not that difficult once you become familiar with the codes and becomes part of your process of selecting your art paints.
I hope this guide will help you how to read a paint tube label easily. If you have any questions, just drop them in the comments section below. I may not have all the answers, but I will do my best to provide some answers.
What information is on a paint tube label?
Here are the common 8 important pieces of information that you would find on a paint tube label:
- Colour name
- Pigment Composition/Number
- Series Number
- Health and Safety
Let’s look at each piece of information in a little more detail and understand its importance.
#1. Paint Brand/Manufacturer
The brand or manufacturer’s name will be printed on the paint tube label. As you would expect, there are many brands of different paints made by different manufacturers. The colour might be similar, but there are usually some differences when it comes to the paint quality, properties and characteristics.
I’m not trying to make a comparison of the different brands in this article, but one of the best ways to compare each type and brand is for you to try different brands of the same colour and see which ones you prefer.
In a way, it becomes a personal preference depending on your subject, style of painting and the outcome you wish to present.
Popular brands/manufacturers of acrylic paints
Here are some of the popular brands of acrylic paints in no particular order or preference:
- Winsor & Newton
- Daler Rowney
- Old Holland
- Royal Talens
Popular brands/manufacturers of oil paints
Again, in no particular order or preference, here are some of the popular brands of oil paints:
- Michael Harding
- Daler Rowney
- Winsor & Newton
- Old Holland
#2. Paint Colour Name
The colour name will, obviously, give you an idea about the colour and what it will look like. Better quality paint will say a lot more than just ‘blue’ as the colour’s name.
For example, Cerulean Blue is different from Cobalt Blue. Cerulean Blue is considered cool blue, while Cobalt Blue is warm blue. This is known as colour temperature.
Colour temperature simply refers to how cool or warm a colour is. Red, yellow and orange spectrums are warm. Blue, violet and green spectrums are cool.
The colour wheel above shows the colour temperature and illustrates the range of cool and warm colours.
Many, but not all, paint brands and manufacturers will have a chart explaining their colours temperatures and other useful information.
Something else is worth mentioning about the colour name. If you see the word “Hue” in the name, like ‘Cobalt Blue Hue’, that means it is a different type of pigment mixture meant to emulate the original.
Some paints such as those made with cadmium are toxic. Many manufacturers have mixed different pigments to emulate the original pigments to make non-toxic versions. These are labelled with the word “Hue”.
#3. Pigment Composition/Name
This is probably one of the most important pieces of information that describes, as accurately as possible, the colour itself and how it will appear.
A pigment is a fine-coloured powder that is mixed with a binder, such as an acrylic polymer (for acrylics) or linseed oil (for oils), to make an artist paint. Each pigment or colour of paint has a code according to the Colour Index Generic Name Code. Let me explain using some examples:
- Ultramarine Violet = PV15. Pigment Violet (the colour group) 15 (the chemical composition). Some manufacturers, but not all, include the chemical formula on the label as in this example of Golden Ultramarine Violet – Sodium-Alumino-Silicate.
- Cadmium Red Medium = PR108. Pigment Red 108
- Mars Blac = PB11. Pigment Black 11.
The paint colour you see depends on the type of pigments and other chemicals used in making the paint colour. Some paint colours are manufactured with a single pigment or by mixing different colour pigments.
Single pigment paints are great to use and are the easiest to mix. Multi-pigment colour paints are also fantastic but just keep in mind how they could affect other colours when mixing or blending.
I can appreciate that this information may sound way too complicated, but I thought just to touch on it briefly.
There are a lot more details about the Colour Index Generic Name Code if you are interested.
You can also find all the colour pigment codes in this link Colour of Art Pigment Database. A great resource for all artists.
#4. Paint Series Number
Many paint manufacturers group their paints into various price ranges. This is referenced as “Series Number” on the paint tube label. The higher the number or the letter, the more expensive the paint is.
Let’s look at examples of some of the acrylic paints I use.
- Golden, Cadmium Red Medium, Series 9
- Golden, Ultramarine Violet, Series 4
- Winsor & Newton, Mars Black, Series 1
This can also be an indication of the amount of pigments vs. the binder and fillers included in the paint itself. The more pigments, the more expensive the paint is.
#5. Tube/Container Size
This is self-explanatory to tell how much paint is in the tube. For example, the label could include something like ’2 fl. oz. / 59 ml’.
This is the resistance of pigment in paint to change when exposed to UV light. This process depends on the quality of pigments and their medium.
There is a slight difference between lightfastness and permanence. Permanence is thought to be not only pigment’s resistance to light but also other atmospheric conditions.
Many paint manufacturers follow the ASTM standard (American Society for Testing and Materials standard). Therefore, lightfastness ratings are:
ASTM I = excellent (the pigment could remain unchanged for more than 100 years)
ATSM II = very good (the pigment could remain unchanged for 50-100 years)
ASTM III = fair (the pigment could remain unchanged for 15-50 years)
ASTM IV = poor (the pigment could remain unchanged for 2-15 years)
ASTM V = very poor (the pigment could remain unchanged for less than 2 years)
ASTM III, IV and V are not used in artists’ or professional paints.
- Golden Cadmium Red Medium, Lightfastness I
Other paint manufacturers may use permanence ratings, which are:
AA = excellent permanent
A = permanent
B = moderately durable
C = fugitive
- Winsor & Newton Mars Black, Permanence AA
It is also worth mentioning that other paint manufacturers may use different rating systems. For example, Schmincke uses a star system, e.g. one star being the least lightfastness and five stars being the highest.
Also, Royal Talens paints use noughts and crosses, e.g. o, +, ++, +++. ‘o’ indicates the least and ‘+++’ is the highest lightfastness.
I have touched on this topic in a different article. Have a look at this post 20 Basic Art Questions and Answers.
Opacity and transparency are other information you may find on a paint tube label. These terms explain how much or how little the paint will allow light to pass through it.
Opacity describes how opaque or solid the paint appears when applied to a surface. An opaque paint completely covers the surface it is applied to. Opacity is usually affected by the quantity of pigment in the paint and also the amount of binder or filler.
Transparent paint, on the other hand, allows some of the surface or other paint layers to show through. This can create a translucent effect. It is commonly used to create glazing and layered effects in a painting.
Some paint manufacturers may provide an opacity or transparency rating on the label. This can be described as ‘opaque’, ‘semi-opaque’ or ‘transparent’.
Other manufacturers may also use a lettering system, such as ‘O’ for opaque, ‘SO’ for semi-opaque, ‘T’ for transparent or ‘ST’ for semi-transparent.
Others may use a solid square, half solid or an empty square to indicate the level of opacity and transparency.
- Winsor & Newton Mars Black uses a solid black square indicating that it is an opaque paint.
Other manufacturers, like Golden, use hand-painted swatches of the colour painted on the tube or container with black bars.
For example Golden Cadmium Red Medium shows a red swatch with black bras across it, referring to the paint being opaque.
There is no set standard used to show the degree of opacity and transparency as different manufacturers will use different visual codes. It is rarely the case that paint can be perfectly transparent or opaque.
#8. Health and Safety
It goes without saying, but reading and understanding the health and safety instructions of the paint tube label is essential to ensure safe handling and use.
Most paint manufacturers will include health and safety information on the tube label. The common statement you might see is ‘Conforms to ASTM D 4236’.
It refers to the American ASTM Standard Practice for Labelling Art Material for Chronic Health Hazards guidelines.
These health codes are still voluntary to be used, but many manufacturers are using them and printing them on tube labels.
Other manufacturers may use ‘ACMI’ (Art & Creative Materials Institute) safety standards. On the tube label, you may see ‘ACMI AP’, i.e. ‘Approved Product’, or ‘ACMI CL’ which indicates ‘Cautionary Labelling’. In the case of ACMI CL, specific health warnings will also be included.
Disposal of hazardous waste
I’m not totally sure if any of the art paint manufacturers include relevant information about the disposal of paint tubes. However, most manufacturers will include some information on their websites.
This is a subject that needs more attention to include some information on the tube itself. One of the challenges is going to be how much information can they add on one tube label. I’m referring to the font size as well as the tube size.
The best advice I know about disposing of hazardous waste is to contact and consult with your local council.
Like any other hazardous waste, paint tubes, solvents, mediums, etc. should not usually be disposed of in household or garden waste. There are certain rules and regulations about the disposal of hazardous waste.
Sometimes the process may not be simple or it might include a small fee. But we all need to be conscious of potential environmental impacts.
Final thoughts on how to read a paint tube label
The two main paint types of paint I use in my abstract paintings are either oils or acrylics. Here are some of my original one-off abstract acrylic paintings and abstract oil paintings for sale.
Each type of paint is so different in its qualities, properties and characteristics. One of the best ways to enhance your knowledge and understating of the type of paint you use is to learn how to read a paint tube label.
Selecting your paint based on the paint colour name is not enough if you wish to develop your artistic painting skills.
Most quality paint manufacturers provide important information on the paint tube labels. Also, they may provide additional information on their websites.
The pigment code on the tube label is one of the most important to tell you exactly about the colour itself. Such information is necessary for the consistency of colours and also when it comes to mixing and blending colours.
Higher quality and professional types of paint are obviously going to be more expensive. This is mainly due to the amount of colour pigments and the quality of other materials used in making the colour.
Reading paint tube labels may sound a bit overwhelming with different codes and terms that may make no sense at first. It’s a process that combines learning the codes and understanding the terms on the paint tube label. Equally important is the application of the paint on your painting surface.
In my opinion, this is probably one of the best ways to increase your knowledge of the different types of paints made by several manufacturers. The main goal here is to make great artwork.
This article touches briefly on some of the important information on how to read a paint tube label. There is a lot more information, but I hope you will learn some useful information from this article.
Now it’s your turn. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to add them in the comments section below.