Non-toxic pigments

I’ve engaged in a couple of online discussions lately concerning non-toxic pigments. I have a slightly different take on toxic pigments than might be usual, though I do think it’s a topic worth exploring. First, many people who care about environmental issues seem to equate “non-toxic” with “sustainable.” I think this is far from the truth, or at least far from a useful definition, and can possibly indicate a certain laziness in how we’re using the word “sustainable.” I’m certain I’ll talk about that word and what it means more later on, but it is a complex subject which nevertheless has a fairly straightforward definition. Here are the first two definitions given by

  1. capable of being sustained
  2. … capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage …

… Nowhere is toxicity mentioned. I think people may have the idea that if a substance is toxic, then it must be less healthy for ecosystems, and is therefore less sustainable – but that’s only partly true. Take copper, for instance. Copper-based pigments are considered somewhat toxic; and it’s certainly true that if a large amount of copper substance is dumped into, say, a wetland or river, it can wreak havoc with those systems. However, in a larger sphere: copper is a very abundant material in nature – it’s all over the place – and in addition, it’s highly recyclable, and is even a necessary trace element for human health. So: sustainable? Who knows? – it would take a pretty in-depth study to arrive at any reasonably solid conclusion.

On the other hand, what about pigments that are derived from petroleum feedstock, the synthetic organics? Some of those aren’t considered directly toxic, and yet consider their source. When it comes to ecological systems – and, incidentally, human health – hydrocarbons are overall the most toxic substance I can think of. That’s more the way I tend to think of it: what is the toxicity of a material – but all the way through its extraction, manufacture, processing, use and disposal? If you approach it that way, nothing can really compare with petroleum and coal.

However: the more direct toxicity of art materials can be considered ecologically important, at least in a local sense, if one is concerned about the disposal of waste from those pigments – brush water, paint-soaked rags, residue in brush-cleaning jars, etc. One poster brought up this subject at the AMIEN forum, since he was planning to travel to the bush in Costa Rica, and wanted to know which pigments might be of least ecological concern when it came to dumping his brush water out in the wild. An interesting question.

The folks at AMIEN have a different view of the topic than I do: they recommend treating all art materials as if they were toxic, and dislike to use the term “non-toxic” at all, since it is an unregulated term. On the other hand, they also suggested that whatever tiny amounts of toxic pigments were present in brush water wouldn’t be enough to worry about – and if one were really concerned about it, she could simply pack an extra bottle to pack out the used brush water. However, when I go camping, I tend to think just the way the original poster did, and only bring those pigments that I feel will be absolutely harmless to whatever area I’m visiting. After all, it is someone’s home.

For those of you who don’t camp, what about the same policy at your home? Do you dump your cadmium brush water down the drain? Should you? Stuff to think about…

The AMIEN folks brought up an interesting point: if you’re talking about commercial paints, you may feel okay about a particular pigment the paint contains, but who knows what other ingredients may be in the paint – fungicides, preservatives, etc. – but not indicated on the label? Yet another reason to make one’s own paint…

Incidentally, if you’re interested in topics concerning art materials but are not yet familiar with the AMIEN forum, you might go ahead and get acquainted. I love that site, I visit it almost daily, and as someone who is interested in art materials I find the information and help there to be extremely useful. (I’m going to go ahead and include a link to the AMIEN [Art Materials Information and Education Network] site on this blog. Look to the link list!)

Van ink drawing

Van ink drawing

More on non-toxic pigments in the next post, including a review of another recent online discussion on the topic. In the meantime, some stuff going on with me: I had intended to post today about my next piambura underpainting, but unfortunately I screwed it up badly. So I won’t. I’ve also put my very first piece of art up for sale on Ebay (the auction is now over – didn’t sell), and have now put the item up for sales of reproductions on Redbubble and ImageKind. It’s an ink drawing made with a quite ordinary ink – acrylic-based – and so isn’t really of interest to the topic of this blog. But since this is currently my only blog, and my very first posting for sale is something of a momentous event for me, I’m posting the pic to the right. At some point I’ll begin another blog just for my artwork. ‘Till next time!



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