Why Paint and Pigments Degrade

Paint and pigment selection is extremely important for the serious artists because the colors used in the works of art are subject to degradation. Some of the great works of artists, such as Vincent van Gogh, are either fading, flaking, cracking, chalking or darkening.

Many of the paints, which have suffered the most degradation, are comprised of synthetic pigments created in the mid-nineteenth century. The brilliant chrome and cadmium colors, which were so popular during the period of the ImpressionistsPost-Impressionists and Fauvists, are not lasting much longer than the artists, who painted them.

To ensure that your paintings do not suffer the same fate, you need to carefully select your paints and pigments. While Father Time may play some role in how paint ages, other factors are more significant in the degradation process. These factors include temperature, humidity, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and light, both visible and ultraviolet. Degradation of color also occurs when one pigment chemically reacts with another.

Both visible and ultraviolet light have enough energy to initiate chemical reactions that affect pigments and the binding medium of paint. Exposure to light can cause a variety of undesirable results. The resin is especially vulnerable. It can become brittle and crack. It binding ability can degrade loosening its bond to the pigment particles. This can develop into chalking in which loose pigment is left on the surface of the paint after the binder has wasted away.


Light also affects pigments. The pigment particles absorb light and convert it into heat. This heat can cause a chemical change in the pigment. In this chemical reaction the pigment molecule can actually either gain or lose electrons, which results in a color change. Colors can fade, yellow or darken. Inorganic pigments are generally much less susceptible to photo degradation than organic pigments. You should take this into consideration as you select either paints or pigments.

Paint fillers, which manufacturers often included in their formulations to lower their raw material cost, have, in many cases, compounded the problem of discoloration. In the age when artists  ground their own pigments and made their own paint, it usually consisted of just  pigment and a resin, such as linseed oil. The old masters usually did not add filler into their paint to extend coverage and lower their costs. There are a few paint manufacturers, who still make paint the old fashioned way without additives.

Other mechanisms of degradation, such as oxidation, change the chemistry of the painted image. These chemical changes can alter the color of the paintings as well as weaken the surface of the paint, resulting in flaking.


Material selection is one way to minimize degradation. Varnishing, which was practiced by the old masters, can also provide protection by forming a barrier between the atmosphere and the paint. These old timers must have been doing something right. The paintings of the Renaissance have lasted for hundreds of years. That leads me to believe that we should revive some of these old practices.