Primer on Paint Picks: Price, Performance and Pigments

Benjamin Moore Paint and Tools
photo: Benjamin Moore

A gallon of paint can cost as little as $15 or well over $100. What's the difference? The paint-can labels are not very informative. Many companies don't list their ingredients. Even when they do, you have to be a chemist to understand them.

For most people, the only indicator of quality is the price. If you want to know why a $60-a-gallon paint performs better than the $15-a-gallon stuff, you have to ask questions. But first you should know a few paint facts.

From the time the cave murals in France were made, about 30,000 years ago, paint has had three basic components: pigments, binder and solvent. The pigments, usually ground into powder, provide the color. The binder is the glue that holds the pigment particles together and to the wall. The solvent is the liquid in which the binder and pigment are mixed so that they can be applied to a wall. When the solvent dries, a thin, colored film remains.

The cave muralists used powdered pigments made from minerals and charcoal. Their binder was animal fat, their solvent water. Today some pigments are still made from minerals, but most are synthetic compounds. For latex, the most commonly used interior house paint, the binder is a synthetic resin, but the solvent is still water.

Although some paint companies might suggest that the water from a nearby mineral spring enhances their product, all water used in today's latex paints is essentially the same. The variables that determine quality and price are the binders and pigments.

At first, both the cheap and the pricey paints will look fine. The more expensive ones may offer more color choices, but most paint manufacturers offer more than enough for most people.

The differences begin to emerge after the job is finished and you start using the space. No matter how conscientious you are, the walls will get dirty. There will be smudges around the light switches, those errant bits of mustard that went everywhere when you tried to squeeze the last drop out of the bottle, and those dirty little splatters from your dog shaking off rain before you could grab a towel.

In 10 years, the $60-a-gallon wall, which can be cleaned, will still look good. The $15-a-gallon one may have been repainted three times because when you tried to clean it, the color came off or the stain couldn't be removed.

How do the binders and pigments produce these results? Latex paints at both ends of the price spectrum have a white pigment base to which colorants are added. At the low end, the white pigment is made of titanium dioxide with clay, calcium carbonate (commonly called chalk) or some other inexpensive filler. It can have good "hide" and completely obscure whatever was on the wall before, but it wears off easily, as you will discover if you accidentally rub up against it or try to clean it.

At the high end, the pigment will be made entirely of titanium dioxide, which is much more durable but much more expensive. Titanium dioxide also reflects light better; to the discerning eye, the color looks brighter and more vibrant. Latex binders at the high end are made of pure acrylic, which adheres well and holds the pigment particles tightly against the wall. The labels of the cheaper paints may say "latex acrylic," but the binder is largely or entirely vinyl acrylic, which does not adhere as well. The cheapest paints use less binder, so they adhere even more poorly.

Within the categories of pigments and binders, there are gradations of quality. The acrylic binders in the most expensive paints will be more finely ground and more tightly packed, which makes the paint more stain-resistant and better-adhering.

Graham's Aqua Borne Ceramic, which sells for about $60 a gallon, adheres so well that "it's hard to get off your skin," said Bruce Dondero, a house painter in Ann Arbor, Mich., who specializes in high-end residential work. On the East Coast, Graham's parent firm, Muralo, sells Ultra Ceramic, a similar product.

Dutch-made Eurolux, which is sold in the United States by Fine Paints of Europe for $90 a "Euro-gallon" (this works out to about $125 for a U.S. gallon), has such finely ground pigments and binders that "a finished wall starts to look and feel like the body of a new car," Dondero said.

Even the best paints are not perfect. Darker colors can be problematic at every price because their production requires less pigment base and more colorant. As a result, the finished paint film will be soft, with less staying power. When you try to remove a spot, you may leave burnish marks, and some color may come off. The problem lies in the colorants, which were originally formulated to be used with oil-based paints. These paints, once a staple, are not commonly used anymore in many areas for environmental reasons. Benjamin Moore's new $60-a-gallon Aura line claims to have solved this problem with a new colorant system that was formulated to be used with water-based paint.

The distinctions between binders, pigments and colorants are not the ones that you are likely to hear when you go to buy paint. The differences emphasized by most salespeople are the finishes — flat, eggshell and satin. Those are produced by using different sizes of pigment and binder particles.

A flat finish is more porous, while eggshell and satin finishes are more impermeable and cleanable, though this is a relative term. A cheaper satin is more impermeable than a cheaper flat, but the pricey flat will perform better than either of the cheap ones. In kitchens and bathrooms, where there will most certainly be water and dirt, you are always advised to use the more impermeable eggshell or satin, even with the $60-a-gallon paint, said Jim Norton, president of Muralo.

The salespeople may also talk about "coverage" — the area of wall that a gallon will cover. The industry average is 400 square feet, but the more expensive paints can cover more area, so you may need fewer gallons to do the job.

Shopping information:

• Graham’s Aqua Borne Ceramic is sold in the Midwest.

• Muralo’s Ultra, a similar product, is sold on the East Coast by Graham’s parent firm.

• Fine Paints of Europe sells through selected dealers or by direct shipping from its headquarters in Woodstock, Vt.


There are many books on paint, but most focus on either color or the paint job (prep work, brushes, drop cloths, etc.). The only book I found that discusses paint ingredients is Judy Ostrow’s “Painting Rooms” (Rockport, 2001).

December 2007