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Colors of Nature—A Review of Watercolor Paints

July 4, 2014

140527_Finch_EarthPaintsLeft: Aviary finch sketch made with Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen and Color of Nature watercolor paints on Fluid 140 lb. Cold Press watercolor paper (9 x 12 inches).

Sometime early this year Colors of Nature contacted me to review a new line of paints they were releasing. Typically I purchase all the materials I review here, but even when I explained that I don’t take input for my reviews from the producers of a product, the company representative was confident enough in his product to go ahead.

Simply stated the Colors of Nature watercolor paints are an effort to fill the need for cruelty-free and vegan art supplies in the current market. They use completely natural ingredients, have certification from PETA and Vegan.org for their claims of animal free and cruelty free products. These Canadian made paints are also solvent- and petroleum-free, further reflecting the company’s commitment to the environment. 

They describe their color range as reflecting the" true colors of nature."  That’s true to a certain extent. The bright colors you might see in nature in the Amazon—the yellows and blues and startling magentas and oranges that birds sport there—aren’t in this paint line. These are "earthy" colors—the browns, dusty red, and yellows typically associated with clays. There is also a green and an Ultramarine blue.  

If you’re a landscape artist you’ll be familiar with using such colors in several seasons. (I’ll have more on this in a moment.)

Because I couldn’t find the pigments listed for the paints, and their labeling doesn’t list the pigments I asked for and quickly received this pigment list:

Ultramarine Blue PB29

Natural Red PR102

Chromium Green PG17

Burnt Umber, light and dark PBr7

Raw Umber, light and dark PBr7

Burnt Sienna PBr7

Raw Sienna, medium and dark PY43

Yellow Ochre, light and dark PY43

Titanium White PW6

With that list I know many of my readers can begin to make their own assessments on how these paints may or may not work into their palettes.

140527_EarthTestsLeft: Some color swatches and blends. Because the fragrance to these paints was so overpowering (I had a raging headache at 30 minutes) I only dispensed and tried a few of the colors, as shown here.

The biggest drawback to this particular line of colors is that there is no true red and no true yellow—well “true” is an imprecise word—no red or yellow which is clean enough in presentation that you can easily mix all the colors for things in nature that are not quite as neutralized as the mixing of earthcolors will yield. A useful palette from this line can be helped by adding a Hansa or Asa Yellow and a Pyrrol Red. 

In working with these paints I discovered the following information that will help you make a decision on whether or not to experiment with these paints.

Packaging 

Currently the paints come in small plastic jars, much like some eyeshadow or make-up products might come in. (I don’t wear make-up so I might be behind the times on how make-up is packaged, but these are small plastic jars of the type my college girlfriends always had around.)

This is an unfortunate way to pack paint for a working artist. The jars come labeled with a wrap around label that you must peel off in order to open the lid. This action either leaves a residue of stickiness on the jar or the label detaches itself when left alone. (I couldn’t work with the paints for 2 months because of illness and all the labels were detaching by that time.)

Next the paint is a somewhat runny consistency. (This too changed over time, depending on how long I waited to open the jars and how long the jars had been unsealed but closed, before use.) What you are faced with when you open a jar is a top seal to peal off (a pain for someone with very short fingernails) and a pot of paint which may or may not be running up the side of the jar onto the seal (depending on how it was stored). This means very messy opening.

When I quiried about the "normal" consistency of their paint I was told it should be semi-moist and that there will be variations from pigment to pigment (normal in tubed watercolors too). If you are using a watercolor like Daniel Smith or M. Graham in tubes you will find this paint, at least initially, runnier than that tubed paint.

You’ll next have to find a way to dispense the paint onto your palette (no student of mine will work straight from the jars!). A small spatula that’s about ¼ inch wide, or a dedicated paint knife will suit.

There is no way that you can travel into the field easily with these little jars. Taking the lids off in the field juggling them and your other gear while you make a spot to sit or stand will be a feat worthy of a Cirque du Soleil performance, even for a coordinated artist. Throw in a windy day in fall when seeds and dust fill the air and it's a contamination problem of serious proportions.

This is definitely a paint that needs to be dispensed onto your palette at home and then carried upright, and carefully into the field. (Even if the company came up with a small tray that the tubs could snap into you would have to juggle the caps and you’d be forced to work in your main jar of color, thus contaminating your main source.) 

If you are a studio painter you can take your time with this paint, and clean up your hands at your leisure. 

Fragrance/Odor 

My first exposure to the paint was jaw dropping. I opened one jar and the floral smell which emerged knocked me back. I had to close the jar and rethink how and when I was going to use the paints in trial (since I couldn’t take them outside to work with them because of the previously mentioned issues).

When I finally did my painting test I couldn’t spend longer than 30 minutes with the paints out on my palette. I had to pack everything up, wash off the palette, put the paintings in a back room to air out, and change my clothes (because I’m a painting slob and I often use my pants as a brush rag; but I even had to change my shirt because I got one small drop of waste water on my shirt).

If you read my blog frequently you’ll know that I am sensitive to smells.

Chemical smells like Sharpies are banned from my classes. I request that students not wear fragrances. If floral fragrances bother you at all I cannot recommend these paints to you. In response to my questions about this the company replied, “We cannot do anything about that since the fragrance is our natural preservative.”

In an email from a partner at a later date I received this update about the fragrance issue:

Yes, we know that in our early batch, the smell is a reflection of being overly aggressive with our natural preservative. Our product contains water, so having a background in cosmetics manufacturing, we always want to ensure microbial safety. We have since then scaled down our use of the preservative, as our lab testing showed we didn’t need so much, and we discovered that, as the paint from that early batch sat, the aromatic compounds dissipated and the smell was reduced.  It still has a trace of the smell that is inherent in the preservative, but certainly not as strong as the paint you received.

Keep this in mind if fragrances bother you. It sounds like they have made efforts to bring the odor down within the range someone accustomed to wearing make-up would not be bothered by—but since I have not smelled any of the new paint you’re on your own for that.

Note: If you are familiar with the honey smell M. Graham Watercolors and Gouache both have, please note that the Colors of Nature smell is much more intense and beyond that in perfume strength. 

Color Strength and Dillution 

Now for some good news. When working with the paint I found that there was good color strength retained even when making light tints by diluting the paint.  You will see an example of this in the feathers of my finch sketch, where the marks get lighter, but still have vibrancy.

With all the colors I tested there is also a lovely granulation which many painters, myself included, love.

Composition of the Paints

The paints are full of pigment and they use a pure powdered gum Arabic.

As I was working with the paints I noticed them drying differently from the paints I’m used to working with, and then I remembered they reminded me of Holbein watercolors. I was not surprised therefore to learn from the company that Color of Nature doesn’t use oxgall in their mix (because of their animal friendly policies). Holbein paint is also made without oxgall. Oxgall is a wetting agent and it helps the pigments spread and blend easily. It is not uncommon for artists interested in laying in a large, large background watercolor wash to add a few drops of oxgall to their mixing water to add in the creation of a seamless blended sky, even when the paint they use already contains oxgall.

140527_Finch-DetailLeft: from the detail of my test sketch you can see some of what I mean by paint movement and flow. Edges would need more work, some strokes remain more stridently visible even when working on an accommodating watercolor paper with nice sizing. You will also see that the richness of the colors is yummy. Click on the image to view the image.

If you look at my sketch closely you will see how the paint stops, and see the characteristics of drying with this type of paint. If you already work with Holbein watercolors your working habits will be well suited to use this paint. If you’re used to working with paints containing oxgall you can adapt fairly quickly, and take advantage of the aspects of this formulation, which might lead you to new methods you prefer to previous approaches. You can of course control the oxgall situation by using this paint and adding your own oxgall (available from several companies), however this last effort rather undermines the animal cruelty free practices of the company.

Workability of the Paints

Had I not been hindered by the overpowering fragrance I saw enough in the early mixes I was achieving to know I would have had to adapt my working style with watercolors to work with these paints, but that it would have been a fun adventure out of which I’m convinced I would have achieved interesting results.

Kid Friendly

While the paints are labeled as kid friendly, and they are because of the lack of toxicity, these are still an artist quality paint, so if issues of toxicity concern you these paints will provide a comfort level.

Environmentally Friendly

The creators of these paints have done what they can to make a quality watercolor paint that reduces the harm to the artist, animals, and environment.  They are committed to this philosophy and are adding additional products that support this philosophy:

Our customers have requested that we provide brushes that come with the same assurances that our paints and soap do: cruelty-free (including the glue that binds the bristle to the ferrule) and animal-free.  Our current brushes are high-quality faux squirrel and faux Kolinsky and we are also going to carry branded brushes that are unpainted wood handles and synthetic sable bristles in a variety of styles.

Additional Information about Colors of Nature—The Company

Currently they are focused on online sales but they have started affiliate programs with a variety of watercolor societies in United States and are hoping to make that number grow and include Canada in June.

DianeCanadianPaintWEB

Above: ©2014 Diane Wesman, Strathmore Watercolor Paper and Color of Nature watercolor paints. In this trial painting Diane used a number of her approaches to see how the paint would perform. She used it wet-in-wet, wet-on-dry, rubbed paint back, and experimented with a variety of brushes and strokes as she sketched a marsh behind her home.


The Landscape Painter’s Assessment

Since I’m not a landscape painter and it strikes me that the colors in this set are geared towards a landscape painter’s palette, I passed my set of paints along to the talented local landscape artist Diane Wesman. (You can see some of Diane's work currently up in the Project Art for Nature show at the Jaques Gallery at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota Minneapolis Campus.)

Here is what Diane had to say:

Well…it has its good points and some real drawbacks for me. I think it smells like some sort of cheap candy. I used it outside on the deck. You know me, I can stand the smell of most anything except a sick room or a garbage transfer station. That said, I don't like the smell at all. I wrote down some comments e.g. they need a cooler blue for landscape artists, a real red. Makes stupendous grays and muted colors and can be wiped off and reworked at will. Sort of interesting that way.

Final Assessment

The jar container system is fraught with problems for any artist who works in the field, and inconvenient for studio artists. The paint’s odor will be problematic for many artists. 

I do believe however that the paint has interesting qualities that will appeal to users working in the studio and tolerant to strong fragrances. Many will welcome a company working hard to make products that strongly reflect an animal-free product stance. I will look forward to seeing what they start doing with brushes.

    • Tina
    • July 4, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for the very interesting review. The smell and container issues are deal-breakers for me. But if they make good brushes that aren’t made of animals, I’m listening!

    – Tina

    • Julana
    • July 5, 2014
    Reply

    I watched John Muir Laws intro to watercolor on youtube yesterday. He wears a rag cuff to avoid dumping paint water into the environment at painting sites. Otherwise, have to lid water jar and carry home. Is now committed to waterbrush. I hadn’t thought of the paint as an environmental hazard.

  1. Reply

    Julana, I haven’t seen Laws’ video so I’ll have to go search it out. When I paint out in the field I have my paper towel to clean my niji waterbrush and that’s typically all the water I use (what’s in the brush) so there is no waste water to dispose of.

    If I take a full set of watercolors with regular brushes and a rinsing cup I have a series of containers sized appropriately (yogurt and large ice cream). The small goes into the field along with my regular water jug (clean water). The small container which ends up having dirty water in it gets carried back to the car and dumped into the larger plastic ice-cream bucket and taken home to dispose of.

    I never dispose of waste water in the field.

    At home, for the studio, I have a rather elaborate disposal method for waste water that no one else would ever even try to follow as it needs space and time for evaporation.

    But I would suggest that you ask your local municipal services about their rules and regulations for disposing of paints. And then come up with a system that works for you and protects your environment.

    Even though the Color of Nature Paints are rated as non-toxic I would, if I were using them (which I can’t because of the smell) dispose of them in the same way as I do my other paints as they have the same pigments in them.

    • Julana
    • July 5, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you for the info about your practice in the field. I knew some of your indoor (winter) routine from a Sketchbook Skool.

    By the way, am happy with the Strathmore 500 series journal you mentioned. I am also trying the Staedtler liner, but somehow got a triplus instead of a pigment liner, and the ink flooded when painted over. It was fun to watch, like a Tombow.

  2. Reply

    Julana, I don’t like the Triplus at all. Go watch the 2nd video in my class again, the one called “Materials Girl” and you’ll see a Staetdler Pigment Liner labeled on screen while I talk about it—and that will help you see them in the store when you go back sometime.

    I buy mine open stock at Wet Paint, here’s my most used size http://www.wetpaintart.com/staedtler-pigment-liner-0-3-black.html

    and they sell a 5 pen set http://www.wetpaintart.com/staedtler-pigment-liner-5-set.html

    The set contains everything except there is a very, very fine 0.005 which is finer than the 0.05. But I rarely use that one except on very smooth paper, like plate Bristol.

    Good luck with your pens.

  3. Reply

    So what is the deal with paint waste water? I usually pour mine on the flowers in my yard, they don’t appear any worse because of it.

  4. Reply

    CaptElaine, some pigments are toxic and since all the pigments get mixed together one can assume all waste water is toxic. The problem with improper waste water disposal is that the pigments can migrate to the ground water and otherwise work their way into the environment.

    I’m not a scientist and don’t understand all the ways waste pigments can effect plant and animal life. And I know people will argue, “But it’s only a cup of water with some dilute particles in it.” However, if we are going to scream at farmers for using too many chemicals and contaminating the water table then we, as artists or simply as people, need to do something about our own actions.

    Every municipality (in the US) has strict regulations regarding the disposal of this type of waste so I suggest you contact your local agencies and find out what they are.

    Many artists are clueless about this. They will avoid using products because certain states (often CA) have very stringent labeling and many products get labeled as harmful that you would essentially have to bathe in and ingest in vast quantities before problems would arise—yet these same artists don’t think past their own use of those and other products.

    One could argue that you’ll never get all the hobbyists out there to act responsibly so why bother, it’s literally a drop in the bucket?

    Every artist has to have that discussion with himself. I grew weary of having it with my students so now I just tell people to find out their local regulations.

    I’ve lived two places in my life that have deeply impacted me and all my behaviors. I lived in a land with very little water (Australia) and now I live in a land of 10,000 (actually more) lakes (Minnesota). I still act like a person living in Australia when it comes to my water usage.

    • Julana
    • July 6, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you so much for the detailed info. Blick’s, our local store, carries only the Triplus. I will look into online sources.

    John Muir Laws, in California, said you can disturb fragile micro-climates dumping paint water. FYI. (We have paint drop off days at a designated location, here.)

    • Julana
    • July 6, 2014
    Reply

    P.S. I have planned to watch your videos again, and will. They are packed with information and ideas.

    • Julana
    • July 7, 2014
    Reply

    http://www.jacksonsart.com/blog/2014/05/07/cadmium-crisis/

    The EU may ban cadmium paint altogether, to protect the water supply.

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