Will watercolour fade?

Will your painting fade?

Nowadays there is a a lot of confusion about painting durability, materials and a big misunderstanding about “watercolour painting”. Because of this, I think it’s necessary to create a short page to explain doubts and  frequently asked questions.

Will my watercolour fade?

This is one of my most frequently asked questions.

When people spend a significant amount of money on a piece of art, they want to know if the artwork will fade in few years. Durability is a big concern, I understand, what I find funny is why nobody ever asks me if

 Will my oil painting fade?

It makes me consider a couple of things; people think watercolour will probably fade, and second, people believe oil painting will not fade.

Apparently it’s a common thought to think about watercolor as a delicate thing, made out of a kind of thin watery inky colour, and think about oil as a completely different kind of paint, something more solid, strong, durable.

What are the ingredients to compose a watercolor paint and which ones are the one that made an oil paint?

Are the ingredients so different to make one fading faster than the other? 

Do the oil paintings last more?

Which on is the older, watercolour or oil painting?

Let’s answer these questions and explore the reasons behind the myth.

Watercolour history

Watercolour is much older than oil painting, oil painting is relatively modern compared to watercolour also called watercolor, aquarelle, acquarello.

Watercolor painting is the oldest form of painting dating back to cave paintings, You have to go far back in time to find the roots of this technique, to the time when prehistoric humans in the Paleolithic ages painted the walls of their caves with mixtures of ochre, charcoal, and other natural pigments. Watercolors were also painted on papyrus and used in Egyptian art forms. 

However they have been in continuous use since the Renaissance, when they were made popular by the artist Albrecht Dürer.  Oil colors, on the other hand, were first used by Indian and Chinese painters between fifth and tenth centuries. Hence, they are a much newer medium than water colors. However, like water colors, they also came into popularity in the 15th century, where they were used by nearly every Renaissance painter, a move which cemented their place in history.

Differences between Watercolour paint and Oil paint

As we said before it’s a common thought to think about watercolor completely unrelated from oil paint, but watercolour paint is made from the same main ingredient of an oil painting, the pigment,  Watercolor paints are pigments held together by a water soluble binder, along with additives and solvents.

Yes, they are mostly  the same thing, pigments. Pigments with different binders. In commercially made watercolor paints, the binder is either natural gum arabic or synthetic glycol. Oil paints are comprised of pigments ground with oils, most commonly linseed oil. The binder determines the category of medium, basically what type of paint it is. Acryl paint it’s pigment + acrylic medium. The binder, whichever one it may be, acts to hold the pigment to the surface on which the artist is painting. It’s not the type of paint that determinate the longevity of your painting, it’s more important to speak about the pigment quality. But remember, having a good quality pigment it’s not the only requisite to ensure your painting will preserve its colours without fade. There are other factors to consider. 

What factors will determinate the longevity, of a painting?

There are 4 main factors: the pigment, the surface, the framing and the light exposure. 

The pigments are rated for permanence in watercolors the same as they are in oils. The painting will fade with the time if the artist will use poor quality pigments. Many Van Gogh and Matisse oil paintings are badly fading as a result of some of the pigments they used. Some bright yellows and cadmium yellow from that period are turning beige gray, because at that time they didn’t have much of the information  we do today. 

Another important factor is the surface: The paper quality should be acid-free as normal paper that’s not acid-free, will yellow and make the painting fade.

The paper I use is 100% cotton rag, archival. If you buy a mixed media artwork made from newspaper paper or a painting on cardboard, the painting will definitely change in color and it will probably not last long.

Framing:  Let’s say you just bought a beautiful high quality watercolour,  and you want to frame it with $9.90 ikea frame:  Well why not?  Some Ikea frames looks ok,  the problem is that the material they use are not acid-free.

If an acid-free paper is in contact with a NOT acid-free surface it will get affected and most likely start to fade after a few years. This can  happen even if you are storing your artwork to be framed – keeping your artwork in a office paper folder or in a wooden draw, always be sure to keep the artwork in contact only with acid free materials/surfaces.

Regarding glass finishes: If you want to have an extra protection you can always frame your masterpiece with an UV glass, it’s often call museum glass.

I like to frame with glass all my paintings, not only watercolors also all the canvas. If you don’t like the reflection of the glass you can always use a no-glare glass, it works incredible well. 

Light exposureYou should never put any artwork in direct light,  even good quality pigments can risk  fading in direct light. This is not just applicable to artworks – but any objects – prints or clothes for example.  Exposure to intense sunlight can drain the color from almost anything. This one is one of the main reasons people can’t take photos with flash at museums. Also extreme heat, or extreme humidity can affect a painting. 

Remember, light, heat, humidity, dirt, dust are all potentially harmful to all works of art, and the damage is dependent upon the materials used and where the artworks are located. Traditional oil paintings are no different,  cotton canvas or linen can have other sorts of problems too, with the time, they can move and shrink and they can get moldy easily especially in humid climate like Australia. Excessive heat can lead to cracking and.  the wood can be most severely affected by moisture in the air, expanding in high humidity and contracting in a dry environment. 

Art prints longevity

For art prints is the same, always look for a print made of archival pigments printed on archival paper, no direct light, and no Ikea frames would be better. Have you ever seen these old Monet reproductions in cheap frames at hospital waiting rooms or car pictures at mechanic offices? You’ll notice that they tend to be yellow and faded because they fail on all the 4 main factors mentioned above.

Are watercolour materials cheaper ?

So now you understand that watercolour does not fade more than oil, if presented properly, it has the same durability or even more. Note that all the oldest paintings alive are watercolors.

What about the material costs? Maybe the price of the materials can justify the different price evaluation. There is also the idea that watercolors are cheaper.

Well, here comes another surprise, watercolour paint is by far the most expensive paint in the world, a 10ml professional high quality lightfast watercolour tube costs about 2000%, yes two thousand per cent more than a professional oil painting tube. With the cost of a 200ml oil tube you buy a 10-15ml high quality professional watercolour tube.

Because of the large price difference many artist prefer buy cheap watercolor paints made with cheap synthetic pigments or dyes that have a low resistance or to UV rays.

The price of good quality watercolor paper is extremely high too, a lot more expensive than most cotton canvas. So are the brushes, much more expensive than any other kind of brushes, the watercolor brushes must have a really high quality soft bristles to hold paint and water for washes.

Conclusion, will my watercolor/painting fade?

So, now you know that watercolour is NOT more delicate than other paint  and it’s wrong to believe that it will fade quicker than other type of painting.

At least not these days. Perhaps hundreds of years ago when some colours were sometimes made from vegetable dyes and other natural materials that could fade when exposed to strong light. But just think – some of the oldest paintings in the world made from natural pigment – aboriginal rock art, is still alive today even with those pigments.

I personally use only the most permanent modern pigments with the best light-fastness ratings. When properly cared for, my watercolors will likely last for many centuries without fade, probably more than most oil paintings on canvas.

I hope this will make think about the common misunderstanding about watercolor, unfortunately the knowledge about this ancient technique is what is really fading.

Watercolor is a wonderful medium because of its freshness, transparency, spontaneity, movement, and vibrancy. Its unpredictable characteristic is why it’s one of my favorite mediums, the way the water moves and evaporates leaving behind permanent pigment on the paper is unique, and these extremely rich colours granulations are impossible to emulate with any other medium.

I am more than happy to advise collectors on proper handling, framing and care Instructions to ensure your painting will remains in perfect condition through the time.

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