Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why are watercolor prices going up?

I recently received an order of seven Winsor & Newton Professional watercolor tubes, all 14 ml (Sept 2016) and compared this cost to an order from about 1 ½ year earlier (April 2015). The totals (without sales tax) came to $115.85 and $97.02 respectively, a price increase of about 20%!

Already in early 2015, an art supply store owner was quoted in Huffington Post stating that art supply prices have increased between 10-20% over the past several years.

This gave me the idea to dig deeper into the world of pigment manufacturing and what could be behind continuously rising art supply costs.

Consumer price index and inflation

First, a comparison. During this same time period (4/15-9/16), the consumer price index went up 4.8%. Inflation was 1.5% during the past year (10/15-9/16).

Watercolor tube price comparison
© 2016 Anna C./See. Be. Draw.


Did you know that the pigments used in watercolors are the same as those used in other industries? Examples are paints and varnishes, automotive finishes, plastics, textiles, printing inks, and construction, although the exact formulas, pigment sizes and treatments, and therefore costs, vary with the intended use.

These pigments are mostly produced by large chemical companies, such as Sun Chemical in the United States and BASF in Germany. (There are also a few smaller companies, such as Kremer Pigments, that sell pigments directly to artists.)

These companies, in turn, rely on suppliers, often located in other parts of the world such as China and India, for pigments and intermediates needed. This global supply chain means that pigment prices are very sensitive to global events.

Factors affecting pigment costs

As with most commodities, such as cotton, wheat – or cobalt -, in a global world everything affects everything. Here are a few of the many factors and events that affect pigment costs.

Global events
  • Any global or political unrest
  • Global trade agreements
  • Political events and elections, e.g. presidential elections, Brexit
  • Fluctuating currency rates, e.g. the Euro declined 20% in 2015
  • Rising oil prices and transportation costs
  • Climate changes and weather related catastrophes

Supply and demand
  • Pigment demands by the above mentioned sectors, such as the automotive industry. Automotive finishes are one of the biggest pigment uses and as the trends keep favoring black, white, and gray colors, less reds and yellows are manufactured
  • Less demand for, and use of, heavy metals in pigment manufacturing, such as lead and cadmium
  • More demand for, and use of, a certain metal. For example, cobalt went up from $13/lb to over $50/lb from 2006 to 2008 (and later went back down to $13) due to increased demand (for instance for rechargeable car batteries) coupled with a moratorium on export from the DR Congo
  • Changes in demand, such as increased demand for new, customized pigments and colors with special features based on new technologies

Regulations and legislation
  • Environmental regulations of plants, e.g. in China, where much of the production takes place. Plants that refuse or cannot afford to comply are closed
  • New legislation and regulations, such as the REACH Regulation in the European Union
  • Varying compliance regulations by country governments or even large brands and end users

 Business decisions
  • Consolidations, mergers and acquisitions, or sales of companies and plants, in attempts to increase profitability, which reduce the supply base, limit choices, and drive up prices
  • Plant closures due to lack of enough profitability
  • Reduction in inventory by the supply chain due to less global demand

What’s an artist to do?

As I see it, there are two sides to this question.

First, how do we cope with constantly rising art supply prices?

Solutions range from buying less art supplies and smaller tubes or do smaller paintings, to switching to cheaper brands or substitute colors. (Or switching from professional to student grade colors, but this is nothing I would recommend due to increased use of fillers and less vibrant colors.)

Still, as the entire industry faces the same challenges, comparable products often have comparable prices. In addition, it is important to remember that the performance may differ between brands and colors.

The second, and perhaps more critical, issue is, how can we artists help ensure that our favorite art supplies stay on the market?

The answer here is to keep supporting our favorite brands and colors! I, for example, don’t know what I would do without Winsor & Newton’s Cobalt Blue, so I will keep buying it, writing about it(!), and using it. Ditto my other favorite palette colors, papers, and brushes.

Perhaps we should also contact the manufacturers and let them know how important their products are.

In the extension, may I recommend that those of you with deep pockets start purchasing colorful cars if you want to keep that red or yellow pigment on the market! ☺


Översättning. Varför blir akvarellfärger allt dyrare? Svaret ligger i den globala försörjningskedjan. Det mesta som händer i världen påverkar utvinning och framställning av pigment och färger.

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