Color and performance of paints from design to delivery

May 28, 2021

Photos courtesy Sherwin-Williams[1]
Photos courtesy Sherwin-Williams

by Rick Watson and Sue Wadden

What is in a can of paint? It is more than color. Paint can evoke certain feelings, both positive and negative, and plays a crucial role in the anticipated outcome of a space. When it comes to pigments, there is much more to it than aesthetics. The genetic makeup of a pigment and coating can help provide desirable performance characteristics.

Understanding the history of colors, how performance is impacted by pigments, and getting back to the basics of paint will help design professionals select high-quality, innovative coatings that deliver meaningful benefits to their project’s owners and occupants.

A history of color

The history of color is told through the art, design, and fashions of the past. Throughout the years, colors have earned a reputation for evoking certain feelings due to specific roles in history. From insects, plants, and stones, people have been using the natural materials around them for years to develop pigments spanning across the color wheel to create art and bring emotions to life.


Viewed as an exciting, dramatic color, red draws attention, stimulates energy, and encourages interaction and confidence. It has more personal associations than any other color, and is often used as an accent in spaces. Examples of red pigments found in nature include carmine, brazilwood dye, and madder.


Considered universally appealing, blue creates a feeling of serenity and openness while encouraging communication and promoting interaction. In the past, blue pigments were rare in nature and only affordable to the wealthy, creating the association with aristocracy and royalty. The color elicits a feeling of calm and aids in intuition. Azurite, indigo, and pollia condensate are examples of blue pigments found in nature.


Associated with extremely positive emotions, yellow is the most visible color. Hence, it is often used for road signs and school buses. It is primarily linked with the sun. Therefore, positivity, happiness, and cheerfulness are often associated with this bright color. Examples of naturally occurring yellow pigments include yellow orchre, naples yellow, and orpiment.

Paints can evoke certain feelings, and play a crucial role in the anticipated outcome of  a space.[2]
Paints can evoke certain feelings, and play a crucial role in the anticipated outcome of a space.


Signifying a strong association with nature, green refreshes and restores. It is perceived as calming and serene. Green brings balance to the human brain and can have relaxing and renewing effects. Buckthorn, terre verte, and malachite are examples of green pigments found in nature.


Giving off an aura that is cheerful, bold, and exciting, orange is the color of vibrancy. It is described as daring, joyful, and adventuresome. Examples of natural orange pigments include realgar, cadmium orange, and carnelian.


Considered a luxurious shade, purple has both warm and cool properties that uplift and calm the mind. Depending on the shade, it can be exciting and energizing or mysterious and mystical. Purple is also calming to the mind and nerves while encouraging creativity. Tyrian purple, hematitie manganese, and caput mortuum are a few examples of this hue found in nature.


A neutral, yet dramatic counterpoint to any color, black is an authoritative, elegant, and classic shade that conveys sophistication. In all cultures, black has established itself as the quintessential color of luxury and power. Examples of black pigments found in nature include vine black, bone black, and vantablack.


Known as the color of earth, brown is a relaxed neutral that is easy to live and work around. It evokes feelings of wholesomeness, reliability, and naturalness, and can be used anywhere. Umber, mommia, and sepia are examples of natural brown pigments.


Symbolizing freshness, purity, and cleanliness, white is the sum of all colors. It typifies pure thoughts, encourages de-cluttering, aids in mental clarity, and enables fresh beginnings. Examples of white pigments found in nature include kaolinite, zinc, and titanium white.

Going beyond aesthetics, pigments can provide desirable performance attributes in various areas.[3]
Going beyond aesthetics, pigments can provide desirable performance attributes in various areas.

Brushing up on paint basics

Paint covers some of the largest areas in buildings, so it is crucial to understand how to specify the right paint for the job and why not all paint is created equally. There are four primary components of paint, and each serves an important role in color and performance. The raw ingredients and formulations can vary widely, resulting in different outcomes for each project.


Solvents used to dissolve or disperse a polymer and reduce the viscosity in paint. A solvent provides no real, added durability benefits and is simply the carrier allowing the painter to get the paint from the can to the surface.


They are the extra ingredients that give the paint specific performance characteristics. For example, mildewcides and rheology modifiers improve the viscosity and application of the coating.


Binders affect everything from stain resistance and gloss to adhesion and crack resistance. Higher quality binders adhere to surfaces better and provide enhanced film integrity and long-lasting performance. Latex paints may contain multiple types of acrylic binders while oil-based contain linseed oil, soya oil, or alkyds.


Prime and extender are the two different types of pigments. Prime pigments provide color and hide. Titanium dioxide is an example of a prime pigment, and it provides excellent light-scattering properties in applications requiring white opacity and brightness. Extender pigments can cost less than prime, and add bulk to the coating, but have little value when it comes to color. These pigments may improve other paint characteristics, including clay, silica, and silicates and calcium carbonate.

When it comes to the final color of the product, it is the result of a color formula combining a base paint with colorants containing primary hue pigments that have been compounded and dispersed into a liquid. Most colorants are added at the point of sale in accordance with a manufacturer’s formula for that specific coating.

To create a high-performing coating that does not sacrifice color requires human and technical expertise to manage hue accuracy and consistency at every stage from product design, quality manufacturing, color formula management, and final tinting to reduce the possibility of color issues on the jobsite. Specifiers should look for coatings, colors, and color formulas that are designed to work as an integrated system. For example, color formulas should be programmed to flex subtly and precisely depending on the product and finish combination specified, ensuring the most accurate color results in the finished product. One way to ensure this is by working with a paint manufacturer that controls their own manufacturing and quality, as it positively affects the colorants used to tint the paint.

How pigments impact performance

Beyond aesthetics, pigments can also provide desirable performance attributes. The type and quality of prime pigments used in the base paint affect the coating’s performance in four areas:


Hide is the paint’s ability to obscure the surface on which the coating is applied. It is created by the light-absorbing or -scattering properties of pigments. From a practical perspective, ‘dirtier’ colors tend to offer a better hide in fewer coats. Specifiers should look for high-quality paints with an optimal primer for the topcoat color to achieve deep, clear, bright, and translucent hues.


Durability is measured by how well the paint film resists physical degradation from use and environmental conditions, such as abrasion, chemicals, scrubbing, washing, staining, moisture, and ultraviolet (UV) exposure. It is traditionally influenced by the paint’s binder or resin, as well as the gloss level. High levels of resin or binder create high sheen, smooth finishes, and durable surfaces.

This is a result of the paint’s binder imparting adhesion, thereby gluing the pigments together and strongly influencing properties, such as gloss, weather durability, flexibility, and toughness. High paint pigment levels along with coarse pigment granules create duller, rougher, and less-resilient finishes. Color wash-off is the phenomenon of color wearing off the paint film due to repeated cleaning. It is a result of pigment particles being exposed at the surface. Coatings rated with higher durability retain their color and gloss, no matter how many times they are washed.


Exterior coatings must be resistant to fading, as they are exposed to UV rays and other elements. Interior paints can also fade or the color can lighten when the surface is exposed to significant sunlight. Slight fading is acceptable, but it can become more noticeable as the coating ages. Another problem that can occur with some paints is chalking—when the painted surface comes off—causing the color to appear lighter. Certain pigments are inherently better at retaining color, which is why design professionals should have a broader range of hues for interior products than exterior because the former will fade when used outside.


Gloss and sheen are two aspects of the same element. Both strongly impact how a color or finish looks and can affect how the eye sees that hue. Gloss and sheen are measured by reflecting light off of specific angles. Gloss is measured at a 60-degree angle, meaning a beam of light is deflected from 60 degrees off of a surface and back into a receptor. The receptor provides the number of gloss units, from zero to 100. The closer the gloss units are to 100 units, the shinier, or glossier, the paint. Sheen is measured at an 85-degree angle.

Dark glossy finishes tend to look darker than their matte counterparts while light glossy finishes skew brighter and sharper. The light source’s intensity and direction should be factored in as well. Matte colors tend to look darker when viewed from an angle or in low light and can also look quite flat when viewed straight-on and only seem lustrous from an angle. Glossy finishes can look lighter or slightly mottled if the surface is rough, uneven, or has other imperfections. It is also important to understand sheen and gloss are not mutually exclusive—some paints have a gloss value, others have a sheen value, and some have both.

Here are some tips for specifying a product’s gloss and sheen to ensure the end result meets client expectations.

Brown is a relaxed neutral color that is easy to live and work around.[4]
Brown is a relaxed neutral color that is easy to live and work around.


Typically less durable, flat and matte finishes offer zero to very low reflectance when dry and can hide imperfection in the substrate.


Slightly more durable, low gloss, low sheen, eg-shel, low lustre and velvet finishes offer low to medium reflectance when dry. Satin finishes can minimize glare in spaces with lots of lights.


More durable than satin and flat finishes, semi-gloss, pearl, and medium-luster finishes offer medium to low-high reflectance when dry. Semi-gloss offers a tough, washable, and stain-resistant finish.


The most durable, gloss and high-gloss finishes offer high reflectance when dry, and these finishes accent architectural features and create depth perception.

Foundation of the paint system

Primers can play a critical role in the success of any paint system and help achieve the final topcoat color. The primer is a hard-working component that establishes the initial adhesion to the substrate. Certain primers are formulated to block stains, resist corrosion, assure adhesion, allow the finish coat to develop a full and consistent sheen and maintain a topcoat gloss, and act as surface filler.

For certain deep, vivid, or transparent colors, a gray primer achieves accurate color match in fewer coatings, better touchup, excellent hide, a more uniform color with less streaking, bolder and brighter colors, resulting in increased customer satisfaction.

It is common to see specifications calling for one coat of primer plus one or two coats of a topcoat, but that may fall short of what is needed to achieve a suitable hide and the desired finish with deep tints and accent colors. Instead, it is important to keep in mind deep and accent clear-base colors may require one to two more coats to achieve the proper hide. A primer is necessary because it helps contactors avoid applying additional coats of paint, saving them time and money and avoiding issues like uneven paint film or peeling.

Specifying paint

When specifying paint, make the process easier and ensure a quality outcome on the job by keeping in mind a few key points.

To specify the right coating and color for the job, it is helpful to understand everything from the ingredients making a coating to how they affect the emotions and performance of a space. By following these tips, specifiers will ensure the project is done successfully and to their clients’ expectations.

  1. [Image]:
  2. [Image]:
  3. [Image]:
  4. [Image]:
  5. [Image]:
  6. [Image]:

Source URL: