Lead White: The Real Story.

(With apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson.)

Lately there has been some hand-wringing over the shortage and high price of lead white artist’s oil paint on the market. Some artists believe that lead white is now illegal or on the verge of being so, and that it will be only a black-market item in the future – or that the artist’s materials companies are being strong-armed behind closed doors to not produce the stuff any more. Others, that the art companies themselves are jacking up the price or discontinuing the pigment voluntarily because of some kind of market disapproval of toxic materials.

That, of course, is not the real story.

Artist’s pigments, with very few exceptions (for instance Winsor and Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine or Rublev’s Stack-process Lead White), are not actually artist’s pigments. They are pigments that are manufactured for much larger industries than our little artist’s corner – for instance the massive auto, plastics, and textiles industries. The art materials industry is too miniscule to manage the economies of scale that make materials inexpensive in the modern world. So we buy pigments that are left over from the big boys and get our tubes of paint on the cheap.

In the United States, lead white was banned from commercial paints all the way back in the 1970s. There were some good reasons for it. Artist’s paints were kindly excluded from this injunction. There has been no banning of lead white in artist’s paints in the United States; nor, as far as I know, any real political discussion of such. Lead ammo, yes. Lead fishing tackle, yes. Artist’s oil paints, no. I believe we are probably safe from Washington in this regard. We’re under the radar. (Europe is, unfortunately, a different story.)

However, since that ban on lead white in commercial applications occurred in the 1970s, the big manufacturers have almost entirely shut down production of the material. Why shouldn’t they? Artists still wanted it, but the larger industries couldn’t use it any more – and again, we’re just way too small of a sector to make it worthwhile for them to keep producing the stuff just for little old us. No economy of scale, in other words.

Without the economy of scale provided by larger industry consumption, materials are going to be more expensive. No way around that. So artist’s paint companies have a choice: Keep selling lead white paint, but at a higher price – or drop the pigment from their lineup. Only a few have chosen the former.

Those interested in reading more should check out this recent article by George O’Hanlon over at Rublev. In it, he describes how basic lead carbonate is still obtainable from Asia, though with some difficulty. His article is what inspired this post.

So, two things: one, lead white will probably still be around for awhile; and two, yes, it’s going be more expensive. And that’s the real story.

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5 Responses to “Lead White: The Real Story.”

  1. Rolf Haerem RGH Artist Oil Paints Inc Says:

    We at RGH Artists Oil Paints make about 12 twelve different versions of Flake White. Not all appear on our website at the present. Also please check our prices which are highly competitive. Most but not all other prices in other companies are over priced. Website http://www.rghartistoilpaints.com. Best Rolf Haerem

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi Rolf, thanks for leaving your comment. Good to know another company with this paint available – and your prices are, as you say, pretty darn good. I’m intrigued by the paint in jars bit – how long does it take for the paint to begin filming over in there? I tried overnighting some leftover paint from my palette in little plastic jars, but it seemed to dry too quickly even in there. I even tried the trick of blowing into them as I closed them – no good. Perhaps they didn’t have a good seal (same action as one of those old film canisters). Anyway, I’ll certainly pick up some of your colors sometime soon. – L.

  2. Rolf Haerem Says:

    Hi Lawrence, If you call 518 446 0425 I can send you a couple of free samples, Best Rolf Haerem

  3. celli Says:

    It’s forbidden in lot of country because of saturnism developped by children (white leaf have a taste of sugar), but in artist paint lot of vendor have removed it because sulfur pigments (ultramarine, cadmium) are not compatible with leaf.

    For painting in traditional art, you can make this pigment yourself, this take some time but it’s easy, you just need leaf and vinegar.

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi celli, thanks for the comment. I do plan to try making lead white at some point, but I’m not really set up for it here. Someday.

      The ease of making lead white is the thing that steered me toward it originally.

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