Getting Started: What are your paints made from?

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting

From oil to egg yolks

Same pigment, different binder.

Same Pigment (dry crushed material), different binder (oil, plastic, etc)

In a nutshell that is how paints are made and the difference between mediums (oil, acrylic, watercolour, pastel, egg tempera)

What are Oil Paints?

Oil paints are made of pigments ground with oils, most commonly cold-pressed linseed oil. Here is a simple Glossary of Oil painting terms.

How do Oil paints dry?

Dry pigment is mixed with oil into a paste, that is why it takes such a long time to dry, it’s not the pigment but the oil. Just like if you spill some olive oil on the work-top it will take ages to dry.

When the oil oxidizes (has contact with the air) it forms a solid film that binds the pigments together, like baking a cake,  the mixture starts smooth, gets ‘cooked’ in the air and dries.

Oil paint can take anywhere between 6 months and a year to dry depending on the  thickness of paint used.


Pigments start out as earth or rocks and are now often man-made, some of the oldest pigments are made from coloured earth, like yellow ochre and are called earth colours. Different oil colours have been created as new pigments and manufacturing methods have been developed. 

Pigments can be divide into three camps:
Inorganic Pigments – compounds that were never made from a living thing, i.e rock/mineral/metal

Organic Pigments
– substances that were once part of a living thing, animals/plants/synthetic treatment of plant stuff

Artificial Pigments. These are often derived from organic pigments that have been chemically altered, they can make a more stable and even paint, the modern, very bright colours come from artificial pigments.

A word of warning about Artificial Pigments
For those starting painting I wouldn’t recommend using all man-made pigments as they can ruin a painting more quickly that help it. I always adhere to the practice  of starting with the dullest, most natural colours and creeping up on the stronger brighter colours. This helps you to think more tonally and will pay dividends in the long run. Initially this can seem boring for beginners because of the allure of all the bright paint, but working from black and white to full colour is a classical way of learning about painting and one that you have a much greater chance of producing a harmonious, balanced painting than being let loose with everything!

Think small steps.

Here’s a quick guide on how to choose a starter paint set. and a tutorial using only two colours.

What are Acrylic paints?

Acrylic paint consists of pigment suspended in a binder of acrylic polymer emulsion. Water is the vehicle for the acrylic polymer emulsion instead of oil, that is the vehicle for oil paint. Here’s a glossary of acrylic painting terms.

So, which paint will suit you best?

Have a look at the 5 key differences between oils and acrylic paint.

Don’t get confused by Hue

The labeling on paints can be really confusing, ‘Hue’ in colour mixing land just means the colour of a paint, i.e. that yellow has a orangey hue to it. However in paint labelling Hue means ‘fake’ or ‘imitation’ so a label that says:

Cadmium Red Hue means that this isn’t a pure pigment made from Cadmium Red. Some of it might be Cadmium Red but it has been mixed with something else to give it the same colour. This used to be a sign of inferior quality paints but now it’s because some natural pigments are no longer available, not as light fast or extremely costly. You can read about the 8 key differences between student & artist grade paints here.

What is Watercolor?

Watercolor paints are pigments held together by a water-soluble binder, along with additives and solvents.

In commercially made watercolor paints, the binder is either natural gum Arabic or synthetic glycol. This is what holds the pigment in suspension. The binder also allows the pigment to adhere to the support (e.g. paper) once it is applied. Additives, such as plasticisers (e.g. glycerin) and humectants (e.g. honey or corn syrup), are mixed in to alter various characteristics of the watercolors, such as viscosity and durability of the paint. Other additives include extenders and dispersant’s.

What are Pastels?

Pastels are usually in stick form, similar to chalk. A pastel stick consists of pure powdered pigment and a binder, such as gum Arabic, gum tragacanth, or methyl cellulose. Pastels have a higher pigment concentration than any other artist medium (hence the rich, luminous colors that pastels can achieve). The powdered pigments used in pastels are similar to those found in oil paints.

Pastels can be hard or soft. Soft pastels have more pigment and less binder, so they are easier to smudge and have brighter colors. Hard pastels have less pigment and more binder than soft pastels. Hard pastels can stay relatively sharp, so they are ideal for pastel artwork that requires tight detail.

What is Egg Tempera?

Egg tempera is composed of egg yolk, powdered pigment, and distilled water. The egg yolk serves as the binder that holds the pigment together. The addition of water turns the paint into a usable paste-like form. Manufactured egg tempera also includes gums that act as dispersant’s are like salt, grainy particles that can be milled and crushed to make smaller and smoother.

Pro Tip: To test the quality of a dry pigment, place a small amount in a glass jar, add water, give it a stir and leave for a few days. The solid particles of the dry pigment should float down to the bottom leaving the water clear. If it’s not clear some form of dye has been added to enhance the colour.

Some Pigment Pointers:

There are some confusing aspects to knowing pigments. Keep these points in mind:

Similar pigments are sold under different trade names.

For example:  Winsor Newton’s Winsor Blue, Liquitex’s Phthalo Blue and Grumbacher’s Phthalo Blue are all based on the same pigment:  Phthalocyanine Blue.

Fact: The name “Yellow ochre” comes from Greek ochros = yellow, pale yellow

You might also like:
1. Should you choose Oil paints or Acrylics?


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

John Dumas August 12, 2012

“Indian yellow used to be produced by feeding cows mango leaves and using the colour produced in the urine to make the paint pigment!! The practice was outlawed in 1908 due to malnutrition of the cows”

Wide spread myth.
Cows like mango leaves!
“the coloring matter is extracted from a tree, or large shrub, called memecylon tinctorium*” David Myers


Will Kemp August 12, 2012

Hi John,

Oh, what a shame! I used to love telling the kids the paint we where using used to be made from cows urine, you should have seen their faces! Thanks for the note.



annette bailey November 14, 2012

great evening at Formby artists demo, Many thanks.


Will Kemp November 15, 2012

Oh Hi Annette, thanks for dropping by, so pleased you enjoyed the demo.



Kamma Babu November 11, 2013

I want to learn the door paint mixer along the paints, and the mixer by write the iron boards with paint adding chemical name and information. This is requesting. Kamma Babu. Chennai. 11-11-2013.


Will Kemp November 11, 2013

Hi Kamma, I’m not exactly sure what you’re trying to mix?


vishnu April 12, 2014

Which support is best for egg tempera paintings? will egg tempera paintings will dry faster as acrylic? will it long last for ages like oils?


Will Kemp April 14, 2014

Hi Vishnu, you might find this article (and website) helpful on egg tempera techniques & supports



vishnu April 18, 2014

thanks will!!! great guidance!!!


Malak May 28, 2014


I want to conduct an experiment that will demonstrate how different kinds of white paint reflect off different wavelengths of light (different colors) at varying intensities. Could you guide me as to what kinds of white paints there is? Are there different pigments used for different white paints?

Your help would be greatly appreciated :)


Will Kemp May 29, 2014

Hi Malak, you can read about the different pigments used in white paint here.



C J. Marin August 12, 2014

I have several boxes of pastel. Loads of unison soft pastels , Windsor Newton. Etc
I can no longer use pastels due to Heath reasons. I would love to use the pastels and combine them with another medium. Per example. Pour water into a jar Dissolve the pastel add acrylic medium. And then use it as paint.
Do you have any suggestion.
Thank you
C j M


Will Kemp September 2, 2014

Hi C J,

Not really with reusing the pastels, however you might be interested in the new professional Watercolour sticks from Winsor and Newton.



Kent Whitaker February 27, 2015

Will, I’ve been using oil pastels for the last few years.Sure like to see some instruction from you on the medium.



Will Kemp February 28, 2015

Hi Kent, I don’t personally work a lot with oil pastels so will mainly be focused on acrylics and oils instructions.


Hamidreza Rahimkhani July 9, 2015

Hi will. I am from Iran and enjoy so much from your useful website.
I am interested in painting but not sure about oil or acrylic! I like both but want to
focus on one mostly. May you guide me.
Of course I am beginner but seriously about learning.
Excuse me if my English not good enough.
Hamid reza.


Will Kemp July 12, 2015

Hi Hamid, the best thing to do is buy a couple of colours in each and see which medium you prefer, you might find this article of interest.


King Farish November 26, 2015

Hi Will,
Have you heard of Fleur brand paint ? It is made in Italy and is supposed to have a matte finish without sacrificing color saturation. They say it is a mineral paint not acrylic. I asked for specs. – emulsion, pigment load, light fastness , etc…. They were vague in there answers so I probably got my answer. Do you have any suggestions for finding out more about a paint when the company doesn’t publish the details ? Thanks in advance for any help.


Will Kemp November 26, 2015

Hi King, yes, Fleur brand paint is good for painting furniture and walls if you’re after a matte finish, it can also be used on canvas. Most paint companies have a technical support section that you can ask specific properties of the paint pigments.
Hope this helps,



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