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Can colors really escape a painting? A review of what the “runaway” colors mean

You were so proud of your watercolor of some roses. You had achieved a good drawing as a basis for painting. You loved the composition and how it spanned the image plane. The light spread through the roses and gave you just the effect you were looking for by balancing the shadows from very dark to beautiful bright red highlights. It was one of your best pieces to date. In fact, it sold very quickly and that made you even happy.

But a couple of months later, the buyer contacts you. Something had changed in the painting. The buyer said that he has lost some of his shine. You agree to look at the painting and are surprised by what you find. It seems much less vibrant to you. Some of the red areas that were rich in color now look dull and watered down. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. What happened?

Runaway colors — that’s what happened. The artist was unable to read the labels on the paints she used or truly understand the permanence of the colors she had chosen. Maybe it was the first time she chose those colors. She had no idea that some of them were “runaway” colors. In this article, we’ll briefly go over what runaway colors mean and how to read paint labels to better understand what she’s buying, whether it’s oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache, or other paints.

A runaway color is a paint that has a pigment that can change over time. Most of the time the changes are caused by exposure to strong light, especially sunlight. Every manufacturer of better paints places a rating on the tube by the American Society for Testing of Materials (ASTM). You’ll also find this rating on better colored pencil brands. They rate lightfastness (the pigment’s ability to withstand light exposure) on a scale of I-IV, with I being Excellent and IV Fugitive. Look for that number on your tubes of paint. It may look like this: ASTM IV or ASTM II. The higher the number, the more runaway the color. Always try to use the ones marked I or II no matter how much you like the color. Especially if you are going to sell the work. Customers aren’t happy when their paints change over time!

Reds are the most fugitive colors, hence the rose painting example above. Historically, the alizarin crimson has been a runaway, but now you must look for reformulations as “Permanent Alizarin Crimson”. Runaway color reformulations are much more stable and may also be referred to as “New” like some yellows. With runaway colors like gamboge, again, search for “New Gamboge” as it is a new wording. Any color with the name “madder” is also a runaway, such as Rose Madder.

Try it out and get familiar with how different brands mark their tubes. At Winsor & Newton, for example, you’ll see permanence marked AA for extremely permanent, A for permanent, and B for moderately permanent. They also show a Serial number that relates to the price, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. And finally, the light fastness marked I, II, III or IV.

Each manufacturer provides the same information in different ways. So, read your tubes and have fun with the colors you like. But be careful if you want permanence in your job.

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