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Fluorescent Colors – Bottling a Shooting Star

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It’s dead quiet, the cello, with a low and constant hum, emerges in the space followed by a violin entering with the same subtlety and delicateness. The instruments gently ride the nuanced waves of a slow and lazy river hypnotically guiding listeners to a place of calmness and refinement and then…a toddler, naked and newly walking, quickly totters across the room half running, half catching himself with every new step, shrieking as his mother, red faced and quick, chases him, knowing the drill. In the world of pigments there is history, consistency and refinement, and in this world fluorescent colors are the toddler. They exist and while they are not always on the program, when they show up they make waves, they make themselves known and while they can be jarring and upsetting to some, they make the rest of us appreciate deviation.

Fluorescent colors are valued for a brightness that standard pigments don’t possess. While, as their name suggests, they do fluoresce under a black light it is often their high chroma that entices artists to utilize them as tools to emphasize, contradict and compare the other elements within the work without the use of specialized lighting. These high chroma colors are often referred to as neon or dayglow and are typically seen on running and safety gear. They are head turners and attention grabbers and have somehow managed to simultaneously suggest safety and excitement at the same time.

The suggestion of excitement is an actual phenomenon, an effect ultraviolet light has on fluorescent color. When ultraviolet light hits the color it raises the energy of the electrons of the molecules to what is called an excited state. Once in this excited state it does lose some energy to vibrations but the rest of the energy is emitted in longer visible glowing wavelengths. It is possible for these pigments to glow under light other than ultraviolet as long as the absorbed light has a higher energy than what is emitted and the specific color has the ability to absorb that particular color of light. The ability they have to fluoresce under a black light creates a controllable and alternative avenue otherwise unrealized by the viewer and can act as a hidden secret.

The ASTM rates pigments for lightfastness so there exists a standard based on the chemical makeup of a pigment. We do conform to that testing and in addition, we perform our own extensive research and testing of all of the pigments we carry regardless of whether or not the ASTM has rated the pigment. In compliance with their testing we know that all of our pigments can stand up to the lightfastness testing done through the ASTM and falls into one of two categories: Lightfastness I (excellent) or Lightfastness II (very good). Fluorescents, in general, do not perform well in regards to lightfastness. Foremost, fluorescents are not pigments. The fluorescent colors we make are organic dye based fluorescents that are dissolved in a transparent solid polymer carrier. In general, pigments are solid particles while dyes are fluids and overall, due to the physical structure the solid pigment has greater durability and less surface area exposed, resulting in greater lighfastness.

This may lead someone to ask why we carry colors that do not fall within our high standards of longevity. The simple answer is because artists have asked for it. One of our philosophies is to delight the customer. We have built our reputation on creating what the artist needs and base that on actual requests. What we offer despite poor lightfastness, is a product that is the best within its class. We also offer an accurate assessment of performance so that artists can make their own choices as to whether a particular material suits their needs.

When choosing colors to make into paint we examine all of the options available and look at the color in regards to its masstone, tint, opacity, durability, sensitivity, lightfastness and in this case, its ability to fluoresce. This gives us the knowledge to choose the best of what is available and although the color does not have the greatest permanency in comparison to our other pigments, it is the best of what is available.

When fluorescents fade they not only lose their power to fluoresce but they also lose their high chroma. They do not all fade similarly nor do they fade to the same degree. When exposed to UV, Yellow goes green, orange goes more yellow and dull, pink goes to a light earthy orange color, green goes very blue and dull, and blue goes much darker. They all get duller and either fade or shift.

In addition to a less than acceptable lightfastness, fluorescent colors possess traits that can require some getting used to or manipulation to make them work exactly as the artist intends. Fluorescent colors have a tendency to be more transparent than a fair amount of other artist paints. This can be bothersome if one is trying to achieve an opaque application but conversely can be advantageous if the colors are being used for their fluorescing properties. There are some practical measures that can be utilized when working with fluorescent colors.

If the fluorescent colors are used for their fluorescing properties, then the thickness of the paint applied and what it is applied over top of will make a significant difference. They will behave differently over each color. Over matte black (Black Gesso) the color will almost be imperceptible due to its transparency with a single coat but as the amount of coats are increased, the color will emerge. When placed under a black light the background will completely disappear making the fluorescing color the only visible element. When the fluorescent color is painted over white, its initial color is very bright as the white behind the transparent color is helping by allowing more light to bounce off of the surface. However, as the coats increase and the opacity increases, less of the white shows through actually leading to a diminished glow in comparison to one coat over white. If an intensely bright fluorescing color is desired over a matte black surface, it would be achieved best by starting with a matte black background and painting the areas to fluoresce in white prior to applying the fluorescent color.

Transparency of fluorescent colors will require some finessing if an opaque passage is desired. Often choosing a similar opaque color and applying it under the fluorescent color will allow for far greater opacity without losing the chroma or intensity. They can also be mixed together, although the fluorescent color can get lost within the strength of an artist’s pigmented paint color. Stippling techniques used by decorative painters can also help break down the brush marks so that an even application can be achieved.

Varnishing can save your intensely high chromatic colors from fading and dulling to a color that is unrecognizable to its younger self. When MSA Varnish and Polymer Varnish were applied to the fluorescent paints in one, two and three brush coats we saw minimal change in their exposure but they no longer fluoresced. They did fluoresce slightly at one coat of the varnish and just slightly under two coats of Polymer Varnish. At two coats of MSA Varnish there was absolutely no fluorescing. The reason varnish works to not only save but hinder the fluorescent colors is because the varnish contains UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers) which block UV light from entering through to the paint film. While varnish will save a painting from fading it will also prevent it from passing light from the source back to your eye.

Like the toddler cutting through the silence, fluorescence will always command attention but there are ways to compose what could otherwise be considered a cacophony. The most exciting thing is when the energy, the fire and excitement of something uncontrollable is not controlled but understood, manipulated and utilized for the very quality that first excited your eyes.

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