View Full Version : What's the deal with the numbers

03-14-2008, 10:39 PM
I expected to buy pastels and have them in nice little 1-5 or 6 value ranges (obviously a yellow isn't going to ever be all that dark) but I got a full set of polychromos yesterday and they're all named with watercolor/oil color names and very little rhyme or reason to the numbers. Can someone explain this to me. I'm once again making little marks and trying to figure out is it a warm red, a cool red, is it a medium value or what.

Why can't their be logical little numbers and info about value printed on the sticks instead of these ludicrous names-madder, carmine, scarlet, cadmium ARRGGG!

If anyone has a good color-name-temperature guide laying around I'd love to see it. I've dragged out water color books and oil painting books but I just can't get in my head that MADDER means anything. Geranium I get but cadmium and chrome and Hooker etc...Its very annoying and I'm wishing I took art appreciation in college.

Deborah Secor
03-14-2008, 11:23 PM
I don't know all those color names either and there is no one number method that you will ever be able to get all the manufacturers of all the brands of pastels to agree on, so forget that idea (though it would be nice.) Do you have a grayscale value finder card? That can be a helpful item.

You can hold the little hole over a color, in good light, and compare its value to the scale. (WARNING: even the card manufacturers can't agree on what number a light color is and vice versa.) Then arrange all your colors into values.

Here's a thread that might help you think about all your colors in terms of value instead of color or number or name or any other such thing. http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=464540&highlight=arrange There's some discussion and photos. You might search the words arrange values in the Pastel Talk forum and see what else is there.

Hope this helps a little...


03-15-2008, 07:51 PM

I guess that red celophane (?) greys colours ?
That may be of some help.

Kind regards,


Deborah Secor
03-15-2008, 08:26 PM
Looking through a red filter makes all colors gray, as long as they contain NO RED. It filters out red to make it neutral (white). I had one student darned near in tears one day because she'd spent the night trying to decide on values using a red filter. Trust me, night is not the time to decide color or value to start with, aside from the red problem.


03-15-2008, 09:20 PM

I don't know if any of you guys watch quilting shows, but it seems like quilters run into similar issues with value determinations for fabric items, and they have similar filters - red and green. At least one source of the red/green filters is "Cottage Mills Color Evaluator II Red/Green Filter" and these come in a sturdy acrylic bars. The frustration with value determination is something we all feel. Hope this helps.

03-15-2008, 10:06 PM
Its not just value. Its temperature too. They put the sticks in the box in a way that is somewhat like a nice rainbow but if you start looking at temperature too you realize they give you a range of values but not all values have a corresponding warm and cold. That's where it gets dicey for me.

Should I just ignore temp? Isn't that a recipe for disaster?

03-16-2008, 01:18 AM

I am also trying to pay attention to the warm and cool. Argh - so many things to keep in mind!

03-16-2008, 03:26 PM
Hi, Colour names is a jungle, that has grown for thousands of years, so no, there is no standardized system for artist's colours. Names like "Cadmium" and "Cobalt" tell what the pigment is made of. Experience in oils, acrylics, or watercolours tells one that the cadmiums are bright saturated and opaque reds, oranges, and yellows with with a slight red component (="warm"). Cadmium Lemon is greenish, though, and there also exists a Camium green, which is a warm (=yellowy reddish) green. So "Lemon" is describing the hue.

I think there was a Mr Hooker, who mixed pigments into a green that some find very useful, and others find distasteful.

"Madder" is of the what-it-is-made-of category, as madder is a plant whose roots give a red colour.

And then you have colours like "Indian yellow", which tells where the colour originated, but not what it is made of (used to be cow's urine...)

To make things way simpler, you can describe the colours as what you see. A grayed yellow (Siena). A yellow with a little red (Cad yellow). A red-yellow (orange). A green-blue (turquoise). A greenish-yellow (Cad Lemon).

I suggest you make a colour chart of your sticks, note the name and number, so you know what to get when you need to replace it with a new stick.

It works fine to use the simple designations when you paint. I don't think "I need a Cobalt blue for this section of the sky". Rather, I think like this: "I need a blue that is neither reddish nor greenish, and I want a clear colour" and I look at the sticks and choose the one that looks like what I thought about. Or, "I need a bluish red, not a yellowy red". (Permanent Rose, not a Cad Red.) My mind is simple, and likes simple solutions. Comparing differences of colour bias is way easier than to remember the names. Sort of using Ockham's razor to chop down the "jungle" of fanciful names. :-)

03-16-2008, 07:24 PM

Some of the names actually refer to the pigment used - it seems like I remember something about Unison pastels trying to overcome the issue with somewhat unhelpful names, so the name references of those pastels are pretty simple - like "blue violet" and "red earth".

To get 'Indian Yellow', I think the cows had to be fed mango leaves and not much else so they were malnourished to get that color. Another sort of ghastly historical color is 'mummy brown' - originally, it was made from ground up Egyptian mummies. Something to keep in mind when you might be gazing at some pre-19th century paintings that have a lot of reddish brown in them. Carmine can be made from bugs, same with shellac.

It would be sort of nice to have something like pantone charts where there is a very specific color identification - it's sort of unfortunate there is a bit of an attempt to align colors a bit more consistently, but it would be nice to be for all art items - like oil, acrylic, watercolors, etc. Since I've tried to make some of my own pastels, I like the Mount Visions because they are just numbered, and if you look at a color chart reference, the pigments used in the pastels are listed.

We all feel your pain. ;)

03-16-2008, 10:09 PM
The follow website has a lucid section on pigment description code:


Pigment description is different from color description. This is just about pigment. However, you should know that every pigment has a descriptive code given to it by the society of dyers and colorists as well as a unique identifier for its chemical structure (in which artists are not interested) by another society.

The place to learn about pigments is in the oil paint section of an art store. Look at the side of the paint label. Reputable companies put the code on their oil and watercolor paints. The problem arises when a paint is a mixture of two pigments. Then they put two codes on it. Generally speaking it doesn't make sense to buy such a paint since you should be able to mix it yourself from its constituent pigments. If one does buy a pre-mixed paint, it is for convenience. I'll just mention here that when a pigment name is followed by "tint" as in "Cadmium Yellow tint" it means that it's an imitation of Cadmium Yellow using other pigments that are cheaper.

Unfortunately the value of the pigment as it comes from the tube is not labeled by the manufacturer although the lightfastness can be.

Pastel makers do not label their pastels with the pigment codes and are not really selling pure pigments for the artist to mix to his or her requirements. They create huge arrays of mixtures of multiple pigments. Some like Rembrandt have a code for values of the same hue going from light the dark or visa versa.


03-17-2008, 09:11 AM
... I'll just mention here that when a pigment name is followed by "tint" as in "Cadmium Yellow tint" it means that it's an imitation of Cadmium Yellow using other pigments that are cheaper.
Pastel makers ... like Rembrandt have a code for values of the same hue going from light the dark or visa versa.

To add to Richard's excellent post: Tints are often non-toxic, while Cadmiums are highly toxic.

Rembrandt, Schmincke, Winsor&Newton, code their tints and shades.

03-17-2008, 11:42 PM
I just wanted to add something to Charlie's remarks about toxic cadmium. In fact, most people are concerned about Cadmium paint being toxic and it may eventually be hard to find. Elemental, that is pure, Cadmium is very toxic. However, properly made cadmium paint has the cadmium bound up with other chemicals and is not toxic. My yellow lab, when he was a puppy, ate a whole tube of cadmium orange. Fortunately there is a poison control for animals and they had about 5 such incidents in which dogs had eaten cadmium paint without bad effects. My dog's poop was bright orange for a few days, and artists friends warned me not to mention it to other artists here in NYC because they were sure someone would turn it into some sort of art event!

Sloppily made Cadmium paint is toxic and it may be that dried cadmium paint is also toxic if it is used in house paint.