Pigments vs Dyes – What is the Difference?

Learn the difference between pigments and dyes and how they affect your art. What are they and what is the difference?The arts and crafts world can sometimes be rather confusing because terms get tossed around with the assumption that the reader knows the meaning, but the terms are seldom defined. The terms “pigment” and “dye” are two such terms. What is the difference between pigments and dyes? What, actually, are they? And why does it matter which one you use?

Pigment Suspensions vs Dye Solutions

In a nutshell, the difference between pigments and dyes boils down to mud vs sugar-water. When you scoop a cup full of muddy water from a puddle, the water is brown. There is silt and dirt and mud particles suspended in the water. Given enough time, without being disturbed, the particles will settle out of the water and collect on the bottom of the cup. The larger particles will settle first and it might take many weeks or months for the finer particles to settle out. Chemically, this is called a suspension.

However, if you mix a spoonful of sugar into a cup of water, the sugar will completely dissolve into the water. If you let the cup of sugar-water sit, capped to avoid evaporation, on the shelf for a long time you will never get a layer of sugar particles settling on the bottom of the container. Chemically, this is called a solution. The sugar (solute) is dissolved in the water (solvent) to form a solution. (Remember it now? And you said you’d never have to use high school chemistry again! Ha!)

You intuitively know this about muddy water and sugar-water, and it helps to think of pigments and dyes the same way. Pigments, like mud, are finely ground particles of color which are suspended in a medium (such as water) to create a paint or coloring agent. Dyes are chemicals, like sugar, that are dissolved in a medium (such as water) to create a paint or coloring agent. Notice the difference in words there…suspended vs dissolved. Mud vs sugar. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

A pigment paint, when applied to a base such as paper, will lay on top of the paper. It will form a coating over the paper. Of course the fine particles of the pigment can get stuck in between the paper fibers and will stain the paper in much the same way that dirt will get ground into the knees of a 6 year old’s jeans. But the particles are physically, not chemically bound. It’s painted on. (And it’s the medium, such as the paint carrier, that makes it stick to the paper.)

A dye, on the other hand, will chemically bind to the paper. Some dyes might need another chemical, called a mordant, to make that happen. If you’ve ever dyed fabric you know that some types of dyes only chemically bind to some types of fibers. But in general a dye will bind to the material you’re using it on. It’s not painted on the surface. It becomes part of the material.

Origins of Pigments and Dyes

Pigments are created from all kinds of natural substances, and historically our first pigments were created from natural materials. Like mud. I’m sure you’ve noticed that mud comes in many colors and you might even know that mud from certain regions of the earth are known for creating certain colors. The name of the artist’s pigment umber comes from Umbria, a region in central Italy. Finely ground mud was mixed with oil to create raw umber paint. If the mud pigment was heated first, the resulting pigment was called burnt umber. Similar earthen pigments include ochre and sienna. Our resourceful ancestors found pigments in all sorts of ways. The black soot from an oil lamp was used to create lamp black. Chalk was used to make white. Ultramarine blue was made by grinding lapiz lazuli, a blue stone. The complex history of pigments is fascinating and well worth exploring if this interests you.

Dyes, on the other hand, are colored chemicals that are either a liquid themselves or are easily dissolved in a liquid. Our ancestors made dyes from natural materials such as bark, berries, roots and even (gasp) insects. Not all dyes are soluble in water. Another factor is that many dyes are not stable in light and will fade, sometimes quite rapidly, when exposed to light. Especially sunlight. (This is true for some pigments as well, which is why art museums keep the lights very low to protect the paintings.)

Nowadays, pigments are mostly synthetically produced and we have a wide range to choose from. Modern chemistry has provided us with a huge array of clear colored, bright, stable, and generally non-toxic pigments to use for our artwork. Sometimes the better pigments are quite expensive, though, and so cheaper materials will often contain lower quality pigments or even use dye coated pigments.

Learn the difference between pigments and dyes in art and craft materials.

Use of Pigments vs Dyes

Artist’s paints are made from pigments. Watercolor paints are created from very finely ground pigments suspended in a carrier which is packaged either in a tube or pressed into a cake or pan. Artist’s oil paints are made from pigments which are suspended in linseed oil. And artist’s acrylic paints are pigments which are suspended in an acrylic medium.

We are, of course, familiar with using dyes to dye fabrics. But we actually use dyes in surprising ways in the arts and crafts industry. Permanent markers, such as Sharpie brand markers, are made with dyes. Alcohol inks and markers are made with dyes. And some stamp pads are made with dyes.

Why does this matter? Well, knowing if you’re dealing with a dye or a pigment does help you understand how to use the material. An example would be opacity. In general, because pigments are particles, pigment based colors are more opaque. Because dyes are not made from particles that coat a material, light transmission is not affected and using dye-based colors will make a more translucent effect. Therefore, if I need to make a clear piece of glass completely opaque, it helps to know that black acrylic paint will block the light but a black Sharpie will not.

Also, because light goes through a dye rather than bouncing off it like with a pigment, mixing colors of dyes usually gives a more light-friendly result. That’s a fancy way of saying that mixed pigments often look muddy, but mixed dyes create clear colors.

Stamp Pads

Basic colored stamp pads tend to come in two broad types, pigment based and dye based. Now that you know a bit more about pigments vs dyes, the difference between these two becomes more clear. Pigment based stamp pads are more opaque, the color doesn’t fade, it doesn’t bleed through the paper, and you can paint over them with watercolors or other inks without bleeding. Dye based stamp pads don’t have these qualities, but do dry much faster because they absorb into the paper. The qualities of a dye based stamp design might be favorable if you’re doing a mixed media work and need the color to bleed. The key to use is knowing what qualities you need for your final result.

Markers

Markers are also pigment vs dye based. Permanent markers are almost all dye based. Sharpie, Copic, Spectrum Noir, dry erase markers, children’s markers, Microperm markers, and even ball point pens are all dye based. But there are some noted exceptions. Paint markers are, of course, pigment based. The PITT series of drawing pens is pigment based as are Pigma Micro drawing pens. And relatively new on the market are a whole line of acrylic markers such as Montana markers. These gems look and act like any marker but are more opaque, do not bleed, and don’t fade in sunlight. Those qualities make them a favorite of graffiti artists.

Ink

India Ink is a pigment based ink. Both Ranger and Pinata alcohol inks are dye based. The rich, but fugitive (fades in light) colors of Dr. Ph. Martin’s Radiant Concentrated Watercolors are a dye. But there are colored inks which are created from pigments. Both Liquitex Acrylic Ink and Daler Rowney FW Acrylic Ink are pigment based.

As an interesting aside, you can buy empty Copic markers. And you can fill them with Liquitex Acrylic Ink. Yes, I have a lovely acrylic marker with a Copic brush tip. It’s very nice for drawing on polymer clay. If you’re looking to draw on polymer clay, I did a comparison of several brands and types of markers that might interest you.

Do you know if your ink is made from pigment vs dye? What is the difference?

A Word about Vehicle

Vehicle is the carrier, or medium that a dye or pigment is dissolved or suspended in. The waterproof quality of a paint or product has nothing to do with the colorant and everything to do with the vehicle. Raw Umber is a pigment that’s basically dirt. You can wash it off with water. But when mixed with linseed oil, as in artist’s oil paint, it becomes waterproof. Dried raw umber acrylic paint, although water based and water washable, is waterproof once dried. But raw umber watercolor paint will wash right off your brushes, even after drying. It has to do with the medium.

Pigments and dyes can both be carried in a vehicle.  If the dye is dissolved in a medium, such as water or alcohol, you can “paint” with a dye. After all, that’s what a Copic marker is!

Some dyes will not dissolve in some liquids. Or need to be dissolved in one liquid before being mixed with another. There’s a whole area of chemistry that has to do with solubility constants and math and I’ll spare you that part. But keep in mind this is why you sometimes get unexpected results when working with polymer clay. The chemistry can be a bit…interesting at times.

Artistic earrings made with dangling blue squares made from translucent polymer clay tinted with alcohol inks.

Why this Matters in Polymer Clay

Polymer clay is colored with pigment. That is why it is opaque. Translucent polymer clay doesn’t have (much) pigment, that’s why light can shine through it. If you mix a pigment based colorant into your translucent polymer clay,  you will be decreasing the translucency (a bit like creating muddy water). For some colors, such as yellow, you won’t use very much color and it won’t create much light blockage. But when you tint translucent polymer clay with a dye, such as alcohol inks, you are able to color the clay quite vividly without affecting the translucent quality (except at high levels or with very dark colors). Also, because pigment colors can get muddy when the colors are mixed, polymer clay colored with dyes can give you more vibrant color mixes and gradients than if you try to create them with pigmented colors.

A drawback of this, though, is that dye mixed with polymer clay can bleed. So if you make a cane with dye-tinted colors of polymer clay, the colors can diffuse and get blurry over time. It’s just something to keep in mind. Baking the polymer clay does seem to fully stabilize the dye colors, though. I have not seen evidence of dye bleeding in baked clay.

See how differently dyes and pigments act when working with polymer clay.
This sheet of clay was decorated with alcohol inks in a batik pattern. The oval was cut out and baked. The rest of the sheet has been stored, unbaked, for 16 months. As you can see, the colors have bled and diffused throughout the piece. What used to be pearl clay with an orange surface is now a fairly uniform light orange pearl.

So Is My Craft Product a Pigment or a Dye?

How can you tell if a specific product is made with a pigment or a dye? Well, it can be confusing. The best way to know what you’re dealing with is to read the label and the manufacturer’s literature. If it’s very important to you to know what’s in your art materials, I suggest that you stick with professional and artist’s quality materials. Artist’s paints, for instance, will typically tell you exactly what the pigment is and how transparent it is, its lightfastness, and other things like hue, value, and saturation of the pigment. Craft paints will not tell you this and will often change formulation often without any standardization of color. Some brands of polymer clay are notorious for doing this, by the way.

Bottom line, if you’re getting unpredictable results with your materials, give some thought to the chemistry of it. And whether or not you’re working with a pigment vs a dye might very well be affecting your results.

47 thoughts on “Pigments vs Dyes – What is the Difference?”

  1. Clear as mud! (I confess, the only chemistry I was ever interested in involved color theory, and so your comparison was fascinating to me.)

  2. Guessing it’s time to take a trip to Portland and check out some pro supplies. Thank you, Ginger. You are one of my favorite resources for “What’s New” and “How To”!. 😉

  3. Wendy Jorre de St Jorre

    Thanks Ginger you have a real knack for explaining things simply, I really enjoyed reading that.

  4. Excellent, informative, clear, useful post. Well worth the time to read, absorb and file away for future reference.

  5. Claire Fairweather

    Thank you, Ginger, for such an informative and well explained post. This is really useful and you made it so easy to understand. Thank you again for taking the time to share this information.

  6. Thank you all for such great comments. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I didn’t even realize it was going to be so big until I started writing it and there was more…and more to say!!

  7. Thank you Ginger. This the best and easiest to understand explanation of the difference between dye and pigment I have ever read. `

  8. question.what is the difference between the chalk pastels and the teachers colored chalk?will both have the same effect?teachers chalk is 10x cheaper.im a beginner and im looking for inexpensive alternatives.

    1. The difference is mostly one of color density. Chalkboard chalk doesn’t have much color (comparatively) so it gives a rather pale effect. You can often find student sets of artist pastels quite cheaply. You don’t have to go for the big name artist pastels. Some of those are jaw droppingly expensive. I know Michaels has a range of student quality sets…Reeves is the name, I think.

  9. I enjoyed this article a lot, thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’m a complete newbie to polymer clay, so your site has been a God send! Do you ever make and color your own clay? I’ve seen recipes on line and it seems so much cheaper. If you do, do you generally stick to using pigments to color opaque clay and dyes to color translucent ones

    1. Hi Kate, I’m not sure why it would be cheaper? In the better brands of clay the colors are the same price as the white or translucent packages. You can buy plain white original Sculpey in the large brick, but it’s really a craft clay that’s best used for sculpting and more bulky, less detailed pieces. It’s a weaker clay. I do, however, color my clay from time to time. Remember that you can mix any color clay that you want by mixing packages, you don’t have to stick with the color in the package. And I often use alcohol inks to color translucent clay. It gives colors that I can’t get with opaque clays. You can read more about that here.

  10. Ginger, i am impressed!!
    Your dominion about pigment and dye are wonderful.
    I studied Chemistry in the University, here in Spain, before spending my time to polymerclay and your explication about this items is exact and forceful.
    🙂

    Thanks for share with us, the readers.
    Kisses,

    1. Thank you! I also studied chemistry in university, so I did try to be clear with what I said. I’m glad that it made sense and I didn’t make mistakes! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  11. Very informative. I use Alcohol Ink with translucent Premo with a great result. The depth you can get is amazing. Love your posts!

  12. Debbie Goodrow

    One of the… no… THE best explanation of pigments vs dyes, in clear and concise wording, that I have ever found. And I’ve been looking. Thank you, Ginger. I’ve been annoyed with not knowing which to use where and why for so long. And to include the many formats it comes in, to make it even clearer?… thank you. You ARE my Go-To resource. And my Go-Look-Here suggestion often!

      1. Question, I have been using alcohol inks, pinata and copic on yuppo if I spray a UV finish on this will they fade in normal light
        Thanks
        Loretta

        1. Some dyes fade in the light and some don’t. So it would depend on how readily the dyes fade in light, and of course, how well the UV spray finish actually works. Unfortunately, I don’t really know much more about either. Sorry!

  13. In a distant past (craft) life, I purchased a large selection of powdered dye for dyeing raw silk hankies. Jacquard Procion MX dye. As you mentioned, it requires a carrier–in this case, hot water. I never cracked the seal on these powders and likely, because of the mess I realized I would make! My question is, if I mix the powder with clay, will it behave as a pigment and simply suspend in the clay? Will it be necessary to constitute it in water to achieve color prior to using it with clay? Some of the powders look NOTHING like the color they would become in water. Thanks for your findings or musings Ginger. I ask only on the chance you’ve tried it and if you haven’t, I’ll give it a go and report my findings!

  14. Thank you for this simple explanation! Now, I use copic markers a lot in my drawing and I have been looking around to see if buying Liquitex Acrylic Inks would work well with said markers. The markers are alcohol dye based right? So will the Liquitex Inks bleed if i use them together?

    1. I really don’t know if alcohol inks over acrylic ink will bleed. I think they will because the alcohol dissolves the acrylic binder. Try using the alcohol first, then trace over it with the acrylic inks.

  15. Pingback: Introduction to Natural Dyes & Pigments

  16. Hi ginX….. Thanks for such a colourful post which is really interesting. My query is I want to work with cold porcelain…. Will the water proof colors work on that..???? N which marker to use for drawing.

    1. Cold Porcelain is water-based and therefore is going to have a different behavior than polymer clay when you mix colors with it. I don’t know what you mean by the “water proof colors”. I don’t work with cold porcelain, so I’m not sure what colors work best with it. But I’ll bet that it would be best to stick with things like dyes, watercolor paints, acrylic paint. As for markers…again…the best thing is just to experiment and see. There are cold porcelain groups on the web that might be able to give you more specific information.

  17. This was a delightfully informative article which fully answered my question about dyes vs pigments. It explained so much and got me interested in trying a few new techniques and materials too! Thanks so much for the care and research you put into this article!

  18. Thank you so very much for explaining the differences between dye and paint. I honestly didn’t know. Ann Powell

  19. I have only recently become interested in alcohol inks and have just some samples to try, but have found them great fun (on canvas primed with emulsion paint – think this is called latex in the US). I then remembered that I already have several acrylic inks previously used for a patchwork course that I completed, and was wondering if (a) I could combine the two types and (b) what effects I might expect, and your post about pigment and dyes has totally clarified the situation for me. It was clear and very informative and I am about to splash out (pun intended) on some more alcohol inks to supplement the few I have. So looking forward to expanding my repertoire, thanks to your helpful post.

  20. bernadette consilio

    FINALLY! Thank you! Hours spent searching and got your informative site. Pigments vs dyes, derivatives, chemistry of inks! Thank you

  21. Thank you for all of that information! I was thinking of using Bombay inks in resin, I thought they were light fast and archival. Not so? Do you know if any of their inks would be? Thank you again.

    1. Dr. Ph. Martin is a brand name and their Radiant Watercolors (a dye) are what most people think of in association with the brand, and those are not at all lightfast. Recently, however, they came out with “Bombay India Inks”, which are very different. They are lightfast, but they’re not a dye. They’re a pigmented, water-based, very thin “paint”. They compare to Liquitex and Daler-Rowney F.W. Acrylic Inks.

  22. Absolutely fabulous information to have, and so simply and clearly explained! Now I have so much more information with which to choose the correct pigment or dye ink or paint for my projects! Thank you.

    1. No, most colors of Rit dye are nondescript dark crystals. They only have color once they’re dissolved in water. They will not dissolve in oil. In addition, Rit contains salts necessary for the dying process on fabric and they will make a gritty mess. You’d have to use pigments for this, which are expensive enough on their own that you’d just as well buy student grade oil paints.

  23. Thank you so much for the clear explaination of pigment vs dye!! Your description of their behaviors on different mayerials really, really helped me understand

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