Tuesday 19 March 2013

Lightfastness: Is It Really That Important?

  I wrote a couple of days ago about the Derwent Studio coloured pencils, (as seen here) and the whole incident lead me to find out more about lightfastness. From what I gathered, a company called "ASTM" is in charge of setting standards to do tests on products, that includes artist's materials.

  The lightfastness system is calculated by doing colour swatches on acid free paper, then exposing that paper to direct sunlight for about three months. That's over hundreds of hours of direct UV light. The lightfast ratings are then determined by which colour is still left standing after all those hours in sunlight.  There are different ways to rank them, one is the blue wool scale method. The lightfast scale usually goes from 1 through to 8. 8, being "here's a gold star for you, you're one hulk of a colour". 1, being "kill it! kill it with fire! don't let it near your paper or it'll ruin your art work!"  .... Or something along those lines.

  Now, try to let that sink in for a moment. Hundreds of hours in direct sunlight. I sat there wondering; which artist who has spent countless hours on a painting would just leave their art work in direct sunlight. Well, what about an art collector? If you give someone an art work, I'll like to think that they would take care of it. If the product is paid for, then there's no question that the buyer would take good care of it.

  So is the hundreds of hours in direct sunlight justified? Are we just being paranoid? Is it a way for companies to make some extra bucks from artists? "My naples yellow has a better lightfast rating than any other in the market." Sounds like a good promotional slogan to me.

  And, if a colour can stand up to hundreds upon hundreds of hours in direct sunlight, I started to wonder... what is in the paints/pigments to make it such a hulk colour? Is it dangerous to us humans? When humans stand a couple of hours in the sun, we het sunburnt. Indeed we are quite weak when pit against Mother Nature. Shouldn't colours, to a certain degree, be like that too?

  Pigments are made from natural materials, with more synthetic and stable colours being added to the market and replacing fugitive colours each year. I'm all for more stability, replacement of fugitive colours, and the addition of new colours. But do we really know what goes into the tubes, sticks, and leads that we buy?

  Is lightfastness really that important? If we are not going to put our paintings into direct sunlight for countless of hours, is it alright for an artist to use student grade materials to create Art? I think that's a personal question. One artist said, if it's to just experiment, that's fine. But if you wanted to sell it, you'd have to use artist grade materials.  Another said that he has been using student grade materials from the very start of his career. He liked the consistency he could get with the student grade acrylics, and never had any complains from clients. He said he used what worked best for him, and that was that. Maybe it's what they add to the colours to make them lightfast that made the artist grade colours more sticky...

  Has "artist grade" become sort of a stamp of worthiness that represent one has become a "real artist"? You're only as good as the tools you use, goes the age-old saying. But, if an artist really is that great, the materials he uses shouldn't be a problem. I've seen my father use a $2 box of 12 oil pastels for a self portrait. It was really expressive, and he had no problem using something so cheap as a medium. I guess it all boils down to personal choice. What works, what doesn't, what materials you would or would not use. And like all other things, the importance of lightfastness is up to an artist to decide.

  What do you think? Is lightfastness really that important? Would you use a colour that has a lightfast rating of 3 or 4– or do you only use materials with a rating of 5 and up? Leave me your answers in the comment section below.


  1. The tests simulates full direct UV light as a control to make the test consistent each time and therefore give an accurate lightfast rating. Not because anyone thinks paintings sit in full sunlight.

    1. That makes sense. :) But then the question that's up for debate is that should paints/pencils of grade 1-5 be used in art works that an artist would sell?

  2. If the artist and buyer wants artwork to potentially increase/hold its value 5, 10, 20, 100 years time then the painting should not deteriorate. Colour with a lightfast rating 1 or 2 will avoid fading of colour over such time periods.

    There is still variety of other factors that may deteriorate an artwork that involve choice and application of paint etc. Many problems have to do with using incompatible products together.

    Overall, I think a professional artist that is asking significant prices for their artwork should do all they can to ensure the integrity of their work long term.