by Chris Woodford. Last updated: February 15, 2018.
If you don't like it, paint over it. It's certainly true that paint has the power to change things. You can brighten up a room with a colorful picture in much the same way that you can make your house look more attractive with a fresh coat of paint. This is probably why we think of painting as a kind of "alchemy"—a way of using chemicals to change something we don't like into something we do. But have you ever stopped to think what paint is or how it works, what chemicals it contains and what they actually do? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: An artist's oil painting palette is as much a chemistry set as a playful collection of colors. "Artistic" paints are much more about color than anything else. If you're painting the outside of your home, it's a whole different story: here, you're much more concerned with applying a surface protective coating to wood or metal, which needs to look attractive only as a secondary consideration.
What is paint?
Paint is protection—much more than just color in a tin or a tube. You don't necessarily paint things to make them look better. You paint the outside of your home to keep the rain out. We paint cars and bicycles partly to make them look good, but also to stop the metal inside them from going rusty. On airplanes and the Space Shuttle, paint is one of the things that protects the structure when air, rushing past at high speed, creates friction and heat.
What sort of chemicals are inside paint?
You might think paint is just a color chemical dissolved in a liquid to make it spread, but it's a bit more than that. Most paints actually have three main components called the pigment, the binder, and the solvent. (The binder and solvent are sometimes collectively called the vehicle.) There are also typically a number of additives to improve the paint's properties in various ways, depending on where and how it's going to be used.
The pigment is the color chemical in a paint. It looks a certain color because it reflects some wavelengths of light and absorbs others (see our article on light for an explanation of how colors work). Traditionally, metal compounds (salts) are used to create different colors so, for example, titanium dioxide (a bright white chemical often found in sand) is used to make white paint, iron oxide makes yellow, red, brown, or orange paint (think of how iron turns rusty red), and chromium oxide makes paint that's green. Black (arguably not a color) comes from particles of carbon (think what your burned toast looks like and you're getting close to a color chemical known as "carbon black"). Different pigments are mixed together to make paint of any color you can imagine.
Photo: You might think white paint doesn't contain any color so it doesn't need any pigment. Actually, it needs as much pigment as any other paint. Titanium white paint is so-called because it's made with titanium dioxide pigment.
Pigments are typically solids, so you couldn't use them to paint by themselves. They'd be difficult to apply, they wouldn't spread evenly, they wouldn't stick to paper or a wall, and they'd wash straight off if they got wet. That's why paints also contain substances called binders. Their job is to glue the pigment particles to one another, but also to make them stick to the surface you're painting. Some binders are made from natural oils such as linseed oil, but most are now made from synthetic plastics (originally they were made from rubber, which is why we still talk about "latex paints" today). Visualize the binder as an invisible skin of plastic with a colorful pigment dispersed through it and you can see just how a paint gives a layer of protection.
Mix a pigment and a binder and you get a thick gloopy substance that's difficult to spread. Ever tried painting a wall with treacle? That's what using a pigment and a binder is like. It's the reason why paints have a third major chemical component called the solvent. As its name suggests, a solvent is something that dissolves something else. The solvent's job is to make the pigment and binder into a thinner and less viscous (more easily flowing) liquid that will spread evenly (that's why paint solvents are sometimes called thinners). Once the paint has spread out, the solvent evaporates into the air, leaving the paint evenly applied and dry beneath it. When you apply a really nasty paint and there's a smell lingering for days while it dries, that's the solvent evaporating into the air.
Photo: Gloss paint uses oil-based solvents so it spreads evenly. It's usually much thicker and more opaque than water-based emulsion and the oily solvents have a powerful smell that can linger for days afterward. Photo by Brian M. Brooks courtesy of US Navy.
Water is the best-known and most versatile solvent we have and it's widely used in water-based paints, including emulsions (for walls) and watercolor paints (for paintings). When you paint a picture with watercolors, you're using water as a solvent to dissolve some pigment on your brush that you can easily spread on the paper. One big advantage of water-based paints is that they're relatively easy to clean up if you spill them (and generally they wash out of clothes).
Other paints (including oil and gloss paints) use solvents made from strong organic (carbon-based) chemicals extracted from petroleum, such as naptha. If you leave paints sitting in tins and jars, gravity gradually separates them into their different chemical components. Typically you find the solvent sitting on top as a reasonably clear, thin fluid with the binder and pigment making up a thick, opaque sludge underneath. That's why it's always important to stir tins of paint before you use them. Oil-based paints are harder to clean up if you spill them on things like clothes or carpet. (Water won't be much use; you'll need an organic solvent to dissolve them, such as white spirit.)
Apart from the pigment, binder, and solvent, most paints also have chemical additives of various kinds. For example, ceramic substances can be added to paints to improve their strength and durability. Fluorescent pigments added to paints make them glow in the dark. Additives in paint designed for outdoor use can help to make things waterproof and rustproof, protect against frost or sunlight, and keep them free of mold and mildew.