Can Colors Really Escape a Painting? A Review of What “Fugitive” Colors Means

You were so proud of your watercolor painting of some roses. You had achieved a good drawing as a foundation to the painting. You loved the composition and how it encompassed the picture plane.. The light spread across the roses giving you just the effect you were after in balancing 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 happier.

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

Fugitive colors—that’s what happened. The artist failed to read the labels on the paints she used and to truly understand the permanence of the colors she had chosen. Maybe it was the first time she had chosen those colors. She had no idea some of them were “fugitive” colors. In this article, we’ll briefly review what fugitive colors means and how to read paint labels to better understand what you’re buying, whether it be oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache, or other paints.

A fugitive color is a paint that has a pigment that can change over time. Most times the changes are caused by exposure to strong light, especially sun light. 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 ability of the pigment to withstand exposure to light—on a scale of I-IV with I being Excellent and IV being 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 fugitive the color. Always try to use those marked I or II no matter how much you love the color. Especially if you will be selling the work. Customers get unhappy when their paintings change over time!

Reds are the most fugitive colors, hence the rose painting example above. Historically, alizarin crimson has been fugitive, but now you should look for re-formulations like “Permanent Alizarin Crimson”. Re-formulations of fugitive colors are much more stable and can also be named “New” like some yellows. With fugitive colors like gamboge, again, look for “New Gamboge” since it’s a re-formulation. Any color with the name “madder” is also fugitive, such as Rose Madder.

Try and familiarize yourself with how different brands mark their tubes. On Winsor & Newton, for example, you’ll see permanence marked with AA for extremely permanent, A for permanent, and B for moderately permanent. They also show a Series number that relates to price with 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. And finally, the lightfastness 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 work.