Fears about Fading Colors

Fears about Fading Colors

I recently received a comment on a post from a person who had fears about fading colors with colored pencils.

The reader who left this comment was open in her admission that the lightfast tests of Judith Crown frightened her.

By her comments, it was easy to see that she didn’t trust the lightfast testing conducted by the companies that manufacture artist-grade colored pencils.

I thought about this reader’s response to one test in particular, and a number of other things. Then I decided it was time for a bit of straight talk on this issue, because it is a very important issue for those of us who want our artwork to last.

Fears about Fading Colors

Previously unfamiliar with Judith Crown, I looked her up and found the article to which my reader referred, Lightfastness Test Results, published by Pencil Topics. Judith Crown is a coloured pencil artist with years of experience, as well as a Gold Signature Member of the UK Coloured Pencil Society (UKCPS.) She knows what she’s talking about.

She decided several years ago to do her own lightfast tests under extreme conditions. In short, she made color swatches from several brands and exposed them to direct sunlight in Israel for up to a year at a time. Pencil Topics posted the results, and you can see them for yourself here.

She’s not the only artist to do something like this. I’ve made my own color swatches and taped them into south- or west-facing windows for a year or more, too. Just to see what happened. I’ve even written about the results.

The Colored Pencil Society of America also does their own color testing using environmental light. They place their samples in a outdoor box that faces the sun at a 45-degree angle. At the end of testing, samples are compared to the same colors tested by the Blue Wool method. You can read a little bit more about this process here. CPSA members get the results of these tests as a benefit of membership.

So this kind of testing is neither unique nor unusual.

A Word About Most Lightfast Tests

Most manufacturer lightfast tests take place in a controlled setting. There are two basic testing methods.

In Europe, the standard test is the Blue Wool test. The results are divided into eight categories. The lowest colors earning the lowest numbers are the most likely to fade.

Faber-Castell and other companies use the Blue Wool method, but combine categories into three. They rate their pencils on a star system. A color with one star is more likely to fade than two- or three-star colors.

Prismacolor pencils are made by a US-based company, so they’re tested according to the ASTM D6901 standard.

The results are divided into five categories. However, in this case, the lowest number rating is the best and the highest is the worst. The categories are labeled with Roman numerals and look like this. I (1,) II (2,) III (3,) IV (4,) and V (5.)

Fears about Fading Colors

Most of these ratings are assigned based on ideal conditions. What are ideal conditions?

No direct sunlight.
Framing with UV resistant glazing
Lighted by non-UV lighting.

In other words, the conditions you would expect to find in a high-end museum!

So What’s the Problem?

There is a purpose for the kind of testing I’ve done and that Judith Crown did. It exposes the likely outcomes of worst case scenario situations.

What does that mean in real life? If you leave your artwork exposed to desert light, you could expect the colors to fade the same way they faded in these tests.

Most of us find that idea unacceptable.

Most artists who take the time to create artwork, take great care of the finished artwork. They store or display finished work out of direct sunlight. They use the best available (and affordable) framing materials, and frame the work according to the best framing practices.

What Should You Do?

You should be aware of the colors that fade (or are most likely to fade) in each brand you use. These tests show you which colors those are.

But you should also take these tests with a cautionary grain of salt. Remember, they are worst case, and you are not likely to expose your artwork to a worst-case scenario.

Take precautions when drawing. Stay away from the colors that fade badly. Combine brands as you’re able to in order to increase your selection of colors. Use the best papers, and apply colors in ways that do not decrease their vulnerability to fading.

Store it or frame your finished in ways that keeps harmful ultra-violet (UV) light away from the drawing. Don’t display it in places where direct sunlight will reach it.

Fears about Fading Colors

But the best advice I can offer is to let extreme-case test results frighten you. They have a purpose, but they are not a true representation of what happens with most colored pencil artwork.

Even Judith Crown doesn’t tell her readers to abandon all the colors that faded. Instead, she encourages artists to use the information wisely and carefully.

What do I do? I use only the best rated colors in every brand of pencil I own. That means I stay away from one-star ratings on European pencils such as Faber-Castell, and 4 and 5 rated pencils on American pencils such as Prismacolor.

Yes, I have to mix colors to replace those fading colors when necessary, but peace of mind about the longevity of my work is worth the effort.

I use the fading colors for sketching and for practice, but not much else.

Conclusion

The fact of the matter is that most pigments lose vitality given enough time. But most artist-grade colors last for decades when used properly and if the artwork is displayed properly. I’ve had several original drawings hanging on the walls in my home for many years and I’ve seen no evidence of fading. Granted, I would have to take the frames and mats off to know for sure, but the artwork itself still looks good.

Is there cause to be concerned about fading colors. Absolutely. Some colors fading quickly even in good conditions.

But will every color fade to nothingness in five or ten years? No. In fact, many colors are rated to last for up to 100 years or more.

It’s up to each artist to choose with discretion the colors they use, and how they display the resulting artwork.

It’s also important to remember that very little in this world is truly permanent. If an artist were to use only tools that lasted for centuries, they would most likely be using chalk on stone walls, or carving their art out of stone blocks.

So stay informed. Evaluate the information you gather. Apply that information in a careful and thoughtful way.

Fears about fading colors are legitimate, but if you follow the guidelines in the previous paragraph, you should have no problems.

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7 Comments

  1. Gail Jones

    Just another viewpoint that I heard from Cynthia Knox who likes working with Prisma Pencils. She doesn’t worry about fading colors because she puts in so many different layers of varied colors, that she says that any fading of a color isn’t noticeable with all the other colors mixed in.

    1. Gail,

      I’ve heard other artists say that, and if I weren’t doing work for clients or hoping to sell originals, I’d do the same thing.

      But colored pencils are translucent so even if a fading color is “buried” in multiple layers, any loss of color or vibrancy would still affect the other colors. It might not be as noticeable, but it would still happen. So I choose not to use fading colors for anything except illustrations and for sketching.

      Having said that, it really is a personal decision and every artist has to decide what they’re comfortable with.

      Thank you for your comment!

    2. Milt Michailidis

      In the June 2019 issue of CSPA’s magazine, To the Point, they explored this with detailed testing. It turns out that this is a myth. Lightfast colors over fugitive colors offer little or no protection from fading.

      1. Milt,

        Thank you for the information. Not being a member of CPSA, I hadn’t seen that article, but I’m not surprised by the findings of CPSA testing. Since the pigment fades, it didn’t make much sense to me that covering a fading pigment with a non-fading pigment would prevent fading. Especially since colored pencils are translucent. Light does pass through all the layers of color, so ultra-violet light would reach those fading colors. Even if it was a reduced amount of UV light, there would still be fading.

        Even so, it’s good to have that logic confirmed by reliable testing.

        So thank you for taking the time to read this article, and to respond!

  2. Milt Michailidis

    Don’t discount all your Prismas! There are 85 pencils that Prismacolor rates at * or **, which are usable. In addition to those, CPSA does their own independent lightfast testing and rates 114 of the 150 colors as lightfast (Blue Wool rating of 5.5 or higher). I’m not allowed to reveal what those are, since CPSA prohibits members from divulging that information. You may want to consider joining, since the lightfast ratings include many different lines of pencils. Also, their biannual magazine contains some pretty good articles.

    1. Milt,

      I quite agree with you on using the lightfast colors of Prismacolor. Unless an artist just don’t like the way they perform, there’s no reason not to use those lightfast colors.

      Thank you also for the tip on the additional colors. That exclusive information is a great reason to join the CPSA.

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