Why does Watercolour Fade & How to Stop Watercolours Fading

Watercolours fade over time for several reasons. Exposure to light, humidity, heat and pollution, as well as poor handling and storage can all impact a painting’s colours and lifespan. Not all watercolour paints are made equal either; some pigments are prone to fading and discolouring. In this article, I’ll share my tips to prevent watercolours fading, and help you take steps to significantly improve your next painting’s lifespan.

How Can I tell if my Watercolours have Faded?

You might have created a vibrant and proudly hung it on the wall; but several months later, the colours appear less saturated, more grey and less vibrant. It can look bleached, or the balance of colours isn’t what you painted. When artists describe watercolours fading, this is what they’re talking about; colours that once were bright and vibrant have become more muted, desaturated and soft over time.

Winslow Homer’s painting “For to Be a Farmer’s Boy”, 1887. The left side has been digitally restored to its original colours; the right side is how it currently looks after the red lake pigments have faded.

Fading happens to the best of us; Turner’s iconic watercolours have faded significantly over time. The same is true of Winslow Homer’s works (both in watercolour and in oil), Monet’s water lily paintings, J’M Whistler’s art, and many of Van Gogh’s paintings. His famous sunflower and iris portraits used fugitive paints, which has dramatically altered the colour balance all these years later.

Why do Watercolours Fade?

Watercolours fade for several reasons:

  1. Environmental factors (like light, heat, pollution and humidity): these can all contribute to faded watercolours. When you hang a painting on your wall, the UV rays from daylight will slowly begin chemically altering your artwork – rather like water gradually eroding a rock in the middle of a river. Displaying your painting in direct sunlight will speed up this process.

    If you live in the middle of a big city, airborne chemicals found in pollution can also break down the pigments used to create your art. Humidity and moisture can also promote the growth of mould and mildew, altering the appearance of paint over time.
  2. Poor Quality Paper: The effect of UV light on paint is exacerbated if you choose to create your masterpiece on an acidic paper. These papers are prone to yellowing with time, causing vibrant reds to become muddy browns, and beautiful blues to fade into greys.
  3. Improper Framing: The way your watercolour painting is framed and displayed will impact its exposure to the elements. A painting that’s pinned on the wall will suffer more than a painting that’s behind glass. Some glass is specially treated with a UV-protective coating to minimise the effects of sunlight.
  4. Chemical Reactions: Some art materials aren’t compatible. For instance, some backing boards, cardboards and adhesives are acidic, and can contribute to fading and discolouration of both your paper and paint. If you’re working with collage, it’s worth being aware that many newspapers and commercial inks are also acidic. Look for materials that are acid-free or archival.
  5. Poor Quality & Fugitive Paints: The most significant reason that watercolours fade is found in the formula of the paint. Some student-grade or lower-quality paints may contain additional fillers which compromise the paint’s stability.

    Additionally, the pigments found within the paint behave differently when exposed to environmental factors.

    To make life easier, artists group paints into two main categories: they are either fugitive or lightfast.

What are Fugitive Colours?

Fugitive pigments are colours that are not stable, and tend to fade or change when exposed to UV light, humidity and pollutants. They’re called ‘fugitive’, as their colour tends to flee or disappear. Fugitive colours may initially appear to be vibrant, but they can fade or shift in colour, leading to a loss of the intended artistic effect. Some paints can even fade over a period of weeks.

What are Lightfast Colours and why do they matter?

On the other hand, lightfast pigments are colours that resist fading or colour shifting when exposed to the same environmental factors. These pigments are stable, and retain their original hue and intensity over time. Light, humidity and pollutants don’t change them.

These are the best paints to use for paintings that will hang on the wall, or be exposed to regular sunlight.

Are Watercolours Lightfast?

In short; some watercolours are, some are not. It depends on the type of pigment being used in the paint, and the quality overall. However, there is some good news; many paint manufacturers will tell you on the paint packaging whether or not it’s lightfast.

Rather than fading in a few weeks, high-quality pigments can last well over 100 years. Artists often prefer to use lightfast pigments to create artworks that will maintain their intended appearance for years to come.

How do I know if a Pigment is Lightfast?

Most paint manufacturers will tell you whether a paint is lightfast. Usually this information is on the packaging of pans, or on the label wrapped around tubes. If in doubt, google the paint; manufacturers and sellers will list whether a paint if lightfast. You can then make an informed decision about which pigments to use, based on their longevity.

However, manufacturers sometimes use different methods to convey a paint’s lightfastness. You may come across one of these three scales:

01. The ASTM and Blue Wool Scale Rating

There are two measuring systems used to rate a colour’s lightfastness; the ASTM rating or Blue Wool Scale. They both measure slightly different things, but in a nut-shell:

  • If a paint has an ASTM rating, 1 is the highest and best rating.
    Professionals use paints rated 1-2.

    Daniel Smith and QoR/Golden use ASTM Ratings. QoR/Golden represents these numbers are Roman numerals instead of digits. ASTM I is the best. Avoid using lower than ASTM 3.

    A note on this system; many pigments have never been given an ASTM rating, and this rating system essentially only ranks the pigment’s lightfastness, not a pigment + water’s lightfastness. A pigment may fade faster if it is used in a very diluted wash.
  • If paint is measured on the Blue Wool Scale, 8 is the highest and best rating. 9 does exist on this scale, but it’s very rarely tested.
    Professionals use paints rated 6-8. This doesn’t mean these colours will never fade, it simply means it would take 150 years of indoor light for that to happen.

    M. Graham uses the Blue Wool Scale, and therefore a higher number represents the a better lightfastness.

You can read more about these rating scales here.

02. The Star Scale

Some paints depict the rating in stars – the more stars (‘***’ or ‘+++’) there are, the more lightfast the paint is. The star system usually uses either three or five stars, and more stars represent excellent lightfastness (will take 50-150 years to fade). This scale is used by Sennelier, Schminke, White Nights and Winsor & Newton.

03. A Letter Rating

Other brands, like Holbein Watercolours and Mijello Mission Gold, use a letter. The letters “A” through “E” represent different levels of lightfastness, with “A” being the most lightfast.

Da Vinci has made their own system, where ‘LF’ stands for ‘Lightfast’. In other instances, they use a sun to indicate the paint is light-resistant.

Which Pigments are known to be Fugitive?

These are some of the most common fugitive pigments that are prone to make your watercolour fade:

Alizarin Crimson (PR83)A vibrant red colour, loved by the Old MastersLightfast Alternative: Permanent Alizarin Crimson (PR177) or Quinacridone Rose (PV19)
Rose Madder (PV19)Derived from a plant, and fugitive when exposed to lightLightfast Alternative: Quinacridone Rose (PV19) or Permanent Rose (PV19)
Aureolin (PY40)A yellow pigment, loved by the Old MastersLightfast Alternative: Hansa Yellow (PY74) or Lemon Yellow (PY175)
Gambodge (PY151)Another fugitive yellow, loved by Turner. Made from the sap of trees.Lightfast Alternative: New Gamboge (PY153)
Indian Yellow (PY110)Historically made from the urine of cows fed yellow foods. The modern cow-free version is fugitive and can fade.Lightfast Alternative: Indian Yellow Hue (PY154)
Emerald Green (PG18)Contains copper acetoaresnite, which makes it highly fugitiveLightfast Alternative: Phthalo Green (PG7) or Cobalt Green (PG50)
Cerulean Blue (PB35)Certain formulations may be fugitive: Cerulean Blue, particularly genuine cerulean, is fugitive and prone to fadingLightfast Alternative: Cerulean Blue Hue (PB15:3)
Cobalt Violet (PB14)Certain formulations may be fugitive: A beautiful violet colour, which is known to be fugitiveLightfast Alternative: Quinacridone Violet (PV19)
Cobalt Blue (PB28)Certain formulations may be fugitive: some formulations and mixtures can make it fugitiveLightfast Alternative: Cobalt Blue Hue (PB15)
Naples Yellow (PY53)Contains lead antimonate, which is fugitive and can darken and discolour over timeLightfast Alternative: Naples Yellow Hue (PY53)

If you would like a much longer, more complete list, check out Kim Crick’s brilliant work here. One of the things she has observed from her tests is that PB27 – frequently branded as Prussian Blue, Sap Green Deep and Prussian Green – fades significantly in light, but recovers once returned to shade. However, this pigment is frequently branded as lightfast, despite this odd fluctuation.

Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom’, 1889. Left: Original Colours (digitally reproduced); Right: Current Colours

I’ve already finished my picture. What can I do to stop my watercolour painting from fading?

The most important thing you can do is to make sure you use lightfast pigments. However, there are three other things you can do to stop or slow a painting from fading:

  1. Don’t hang your artwork at all: keep it in a presentation folder, keep it in a drawer, or paint it in a sketchbook.
  2. Hang a Reproduction: You could always scan your painting and create a print that you can hang without fear of damaging the original. If you’ve already experienced fading, you can digitally up the colours and contrast to recapture the original look!
  3. Avoid placing your artwork in direct sunlight or in an area with bright UV light sources. If you really want to showcase your art, consider cycling it with another painting to minimise its exposure.
  4. Hang your artwork behind UV glass: Your local picture-framer probably has a few options for you.
  5. Use Conservation Matting: avoid mounting your painting near cardboard or acidic matting boards.
  6. Handle with Care: When handling your watercolour paintings, make sure your hands are clean and dry. Avoid touching the painted surface to prevent oils, dirt, or moisture from transferring to the artwork.
  7. Seal the Painting: Some artists choose to seal their watercolour paintings with a fixative or varnish; these are often called Fixative Sprays or Workable Fixative. Use a fixative that has been specifically designed for watercolours.

    Workable fixative allows you to add additional layers of paint and adjustments after sealing, so you might prefer to use this if you’re indecisive. If this is your first time using a fixative, I always recommend applying it on a small, inconspicuous corner of paper first to ensure compatibility and to check for any changes to your paint’s colour or texture.

    Some artist use varnish, although this is more complicated and can alter the appearance of your paper.

By understanding the factors that contribute to fading and taking appropriate measures, artists can help preserve the integrity and longevity of their watercolour paintings.

So, never use a Fugitive paint – Right?

You’re in an art store and there are two red paint options. One paint is cheaper than the other, but it has an ASTM rating of 5, which means it isn’t lightfast. Should you still go for it, or spend the extra for the other paint with a higher ASTM rating?

Many artists will tell you flat out that you should always go for the most lightfast paint – and generally, I would agree. You don’t want to create a painting that you love, but realise you can’t hang it because those vibrant reds will fade to a dull brown in a few years’ time. If a client has paid you to complete a commission, you should always use lightfast paints.

There is one exception: if you’re a beginner or only going to painting in a sketchbook for the foreseeable future, you might be just fine using less lightfast paint. A closed sketchbook will protect your painting from regular light exposure.

However, I would highly recommend separating your less lightfast paints from the rest of your art supplies: you don’t want to start painting a commission that’s going to be displayed and then realise you’ve accidentally used a paint that will quickly fade!

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