Pigments vs Dyes – 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 are 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 that 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.

Pigments, mica, and powders are magical

Don’t be intimidated by those little jars and packets of colorful powders. Learn to use them effectively in your projects.

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 is 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 (Affiliate Link – learn more here) 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 that are suspended in linseed oil. And artist’s acrylic paints are pigments that 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 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 (Affiliate Links – learn more here) markers, and even ballpoint pens are all dye-based. But there are some noted exceptions.

Paint markers are, of course, pigment-based. The PITT (Affiliate Link – learn more here) series of drawing pens are pigment-based as are Pigma Micron drawing pens. And relatively new on the market is 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 that are created from pigments. Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay India Inks, on the other hand, are pigment-based inks. Both Liquitex Acrylic Ink and Daler Rowney FW Acrylic Ink are pigment-based.

As an interesting aside, you can buy empty Copic markers. (Affiliate Link – learn more here) 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 (Affiliate Link – learn more here) 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 for 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 the 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.

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

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Natural Dyes & Pigments

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

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

  6. Concise and factual, this was a great help without a bunch of extra nonsense………Many thanks

  7. 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.

  8. An excellent tutorial on dye vs pigment, well written, thank you for sharing your knowledge

  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. 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.

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

  12. 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!!

  13. 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.

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

  15. Wendy Jorre de St Jorre

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

  16. 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”!. 😉

  17. Excellent post, full of interesting and needed information. Great job Ginger….thanks

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

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