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 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.


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. Anthony Clayton

    Thankyou for this breakdown ,I’m actually trying to learn how to make dye and paints 100% from the ground up and that knowledge is extremely hard to find it seems , this is a good sum up

  2. Thank you so much for making this easy to understand and visualize. You’ve provided such a gift by simplifying it. Usually my eyes glaze over or my need to create kicks in before the words sink in.

    I’m not sure which inks are alcohol soluble and am wasting money like crazy. I’m trying to figure out how to make opaque alcohol ink (like the Pinata Blanco) with colors other than white. I recreated it with white oxide pigment but that seems to be the only one that works. I know this is an old article but any help would be appreciated.

    1. Ranger, pinata, ironlak, copic, staz-on are all alcohol soluble inks. A keyword to look for is “solvent”.

      Pinata blanco contains white pigment. You could use any pigment (such as ultramarine blue or iron oxide) to make an ink, but the pigment would have to be SUPER fine and you’d likely need something to carry the pigment, making it more like a paint than an ink. Pigments are like dirt, so imagine mixing dirt with alcohol. Pigments are not soluble in alcohol. In fact, that’s why there’s a shaker ball in the bottle of white and pearl alcohol inks. That’s because they’re suspensions that contain pigment. They’re not dissolved in the alcohol.

      Anything that’s soluble in alcohol would be a dye, not a pigment, and therefore won’t be opaque.

      N.B…Nitpickers’ note…Lake pigments can sometimes be soluble in alcohol, but then they’re being used as a dye. That’s beyond the scope of this article.

  3. I just wanted to say, that is was a fantastic article! Very easy to understand! You covered a lot of ground and kept me engrossed. Thank you

  4. I realize this us- an older post, but I’m wondering if you know if the Micador watercolor paints are pigment, or dye that has been put into a compressed disc form. I find the marketing info unclear, and have not been successful getting a clear response from them via email.

    I really appreciated this very informative article anna will be using information gleaned from it for educational purposes. I find myself often expressing my concerns about their fugitive nature when I hear people are using liquid watercolors and selling their. Frequently the response is that all watercolor fades in time, arms/or they will be spraying it with UV spray top prevent or retard the fading. This leads me to my next question, will this help? I know fabric will eventually fade, but there are quilts and other fabric pieces that have survived the century mark. Is it all about the mordant?

    1. Mica is not a dye. (Many listings on marketplaces like Amazon or ebay use keyword stuffing and use terms that are not relevant.) Mica is a mineral particle. Dyes are…well…dyes. But most of the ones you can buy are water soluble because they’re used with paper arts or to dye fabrics. Alcohol inks require alcohol-soluble dyes. I’m not aware of any commercial products that provide this same dye in concentrated form. You can take apart Sharpies and use the “guts” to make alcohol inks. But you can’t use RIT fabric dye.

  5. Jayne Traeger-Bliss

    Thank you once again Ginger! Excellent, useful and important information in a fun-to-read format.

    This Great info will be a literacy assignment for our alternative high school students!
    Wonderful to cause their minds to GRASP differences, new news, develop a under the surface thought, etc.

  7. 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

  8. Jean-ann Lawrence

    Can you use powdered Rit dye with linseed oil to make oil paint for a student art class?

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. bernadette consilio

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

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

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