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A watercolor is the medium or the resulting artwork, in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water soluble vehicle. The term watercolor refers to paints that use water soluble, complex carbohydrates as a binder. Originally (16th to 18th centuries) watercolor binders were sugars and/or hide glues, but since the 19th century the preferred binder is natural gum arabic, with glycerin and/or honey as additives to improve plasticity and dissolvability of the binder, and with other chemicals added to improve product shelf life. Watercolor paint consists of four principal ingredients:
pigments, natural or synthetic, mineral or organic;
arabic gum as a binder to hold the pigment in suspension and fix the pigment to the painting surface;
additives like glycerin, ox gall, honey, preservatives: to alter the viscosity, hiding, durability or color of the pigment and vehicle mixture; and
solvent, the substance used to thin or dilute the paint for application and that evaporates when the paint hardens or dries.
Commercial watercolor paints come in two grades: "Artist" (or "Professional") and "Student".
Artist quality paints are usually formulated with fewer fillers (kaolin or chalk) which results in richer color and vibrant mixes.
Student grade paints have less pigment, and often are formulated using two or more less expensive pigments. Artist and Professional paints are more expensive but many consider the quality worth the higher cost.
Bodycolor is a watercolor made as opaque as possible by a heavy pigment concentration, and gouache is a watercolor made opaque by the addition of a colorless opacifier (such as chalk or zinc oxide). Modern acrylic paints are based on a completely different chemistry that uses water soluble acrylic resin as a binder.
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