Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Last of the Old Masters

September 9, 2014

Robert Henri - Dorita - WikiArt

Robert Henri – Dorita – WikiArt

“Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.”
– Robert Henri.

This morning I went once more to see the Robert Henri “Spanish Sojourns” exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art. This was the fourth time I’ve gone to see this particular exhibit. The other three times it was paired with the fantastic “Sorolla in America” exhibit; this time I went for the Henri alone.

I almost didn’t go. I’m pressed for time these days, and I only had about an hour to see the paintings before beginning the drive up to work. And I felt I had already seen what I needed to on my previous trips. But I had been planning to go once more by myself, and I figured this kind of Henri show would probably never happen again.

This is the last day of the show in San Diego. If you happen to catch this post within the next few minutes – and unfortunately, I mean the very next few – get yourself over there. Drop everything and just do it. You won’t regret it, I promise.

I saw in the news that the exhibit will be stopping in Jackson, Mississippi next. Same message for folks in that part of the country – if you are at all a fan of portraiture, this is not a show to be missed.

This last visit was amazing, but a bit sad, too – looking at paintings I knew I would probably never see again. I had a particularly difficult time saying goodbye to Dorita, the painting at the top of this post. She has long been a favorite of mine, and I’d been overjoyed to discover that she was a part of this exhibit. I do hope I get to see her again someday.

Every time I look at Henri’s paintings up close, I am further blown away by them. I’ve long been a fan of Henri’s, and I’ve long had the suspicion that he was grossly underrated. My suspicion was given some legs when I read Richard Schmid’s good opinion of him in his book Alla Prima. This last visit… I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and what so many others seem to be missing, if Henri’s limited fame is any measure. Henri’s paintings are so like the paintings of the Baroque, with his dark palette and glowing light… The brushstrokes are those of a modernist, but the compositions are those of an old master. I am beyond suspicion now, and I can make the following three statements about the artist:

One: Robert Henri is one of the truly great portrait artists of the last century.

Two: Robert Henri is as of now, bar none, my favorite portrait artist.

Three: I am ready to give Henri a certain title. This title has been given to different artists before; it was first given to David, I believe, and has since been given to different artists from Goya to Renoir. I personally will stake my own claim and give this title to Robert Henri,

Last of the Old Masters.


The Oldest Art Studio

October 17, 2011
Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Here’s some news that blew me away: The oldest art studio ever discovered (National Geographic). In Africa, a cave was unearthed that included all the basics required for making pigments: natural colorants, tools for grinding them (stones), and bowls for holding the pigments (abalone shells) – as well as some evidence of some fairly complex chemistry in their making, and even color mixing. Which is all extremely cool. But here’s the really cool thing: These art materials are 100,000 years old. Yep, a tenth of a million years is how long (at least) we humans have been making art materials – which means, of course, that we’ve been making art for at least that long as well. I’ve always had a younger date in mind, and have often shared that with my students: say, 30,000 to 40,000 years. But clearly, it’s been much longer than that.

I’m excited by the news of this discovery for a few reasons. One, this means that we homo sapiens have probably been making art ever since we’ve been homo sapiens. One related article at CNN mentioned that fragments of pigment have been found from even longer ago than those in this find, though without the related tools found there. Longer than a hundred thousand years is how long we’ve been painting. In a very real way, I think, making art is a part of what it means to be human – as much as tracking, or storytelling, funeral rites, or any other part of our deepest shared culture.

Second has to do with the pigments themselves. The pigments discovered were ochres and other minerals, charcoal, and bone. None of these is unexpected – but what has an impact on me is the feeling that when I paint with a natural earth pigment, I am a part of a hundred-thousand-year-old tradition. That makes me feel differently about what I’m doing when I use these pigments, in a wide but not-quite-definable way. It makes me feel – human. Really a part of our culture, not our modern veneer and glitz, but the real deal. It feels good.

Third, of course, is the fact that I’m a handcrafter of pigments myself. When I read the article, I immediately felt a strong connection, a kinship even, between myself and those color-makers from long ago. I felt part of a string. I thought about myself, and about some artist grinding earth pigments 100,000 years from now, and about those ancient color-makers from so long ago. I wished they could have known about me somehow, grinding earth pigments so long after they did. And I wondered if they felt the same excitement in the gathering and making of the colors, the same satisfaction with the finished pigments, and the same joy in using them for their art.

I bet they did.

Sap green

July 10, 2011

I’ve been neglecting the blog, because I’ve been insanely busy with getting my portfolio together, building my site, etc. But I’ve been experimenting with this and that as I’ve had time. Some of my recent adventures: an anthocyanin blue from geranium blossoms; an iron weld lake; shopping for a dragon’s blood tree; studying carmine in the wild; the first really successful madder lake from my garden plants (and figuring out how to make a dark and a light madder lake from the same batch); and the finding and purchasing of a natural-lake oil paint, from a very mainstream company, that has been out of circulation for most of a decade. I’ll share all that stuff with you, but for today I’ve prepared an article about sap green:

Sap green is a traditional color that enjoyed popularity from medieval illumination all the way through the Romantic era of watercolor painting. It is a warm, yellowish green, transparent, tending toward olive in masstone and a brighter, livelier green in tints. As an artist’s color it has been quite useful to many artists, filling in a difficult mixing area of the color wheel, supplying beautiful and interesting transparent green shadows, and lovely mixtures for foliage. It is fugitive, of course, like most natural organic colors, which is why it fell from vogue in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern synthetic greens that were more lightfast became widely available.

The color sap green is derived from the berries of the buckthorn plant. The usual plant used was rhamnus cathartica, or common buckthorn, which is found in the British Isles. The cathartica part of the species name refers to the fact that the buckthorn berries can be used as an emetic, and the plant is often mentioned in older medicinal treatises.

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

The dyestuff in Northern Europe is common and economical, and yields a beautiful color – small wonder it was popular for so long. The plant has been naturalized in parts of North America, and has become quite a problem in those areas, because common buckthorn can be very invasive. It spreads rapidly and aggressively, has no natural enemies on this continent, and quickly takes over an area of woodland, squeezing out the natural flora, and in the process some of the natural fauna as well, as they lose their traditional food sources to the invader. My original excitement to try growing this plant was dampened considerably upon learning of the problems associated with it.

I’m quite a fanatic about natural colors, of course; so, while I am an adamantly against risking introducing an invasive species into the ecolocality in which I live, I nevertheless spent some time in negotiations with myself. The common buckthorn is invasive in much cooler and wetter areas than southern Californa; there is little way the plant could be as successful here. In any case, the plant reproduces sexually and needs both a male and a female plant to spread; I’ll just get one plant, I reasoned, and so I’ll be safe. But in the end, I decided sadly that it just wasn’t worth the risks. I want to grow plants that can have a future in my garden and others – common buckthorn clearly doesn’t fit the mold, at least not on this continent. (The closest thing I have to an invasive species is madder, which is spreads agressively through root runners. But madder I feel confident I can control by killing it off if necessary, mainly because the birds and other animals of the area are not interested in its berries or seeds, so the chances of it spreading without my knowledge are greatly reduced. Common buckthorn does not have that element of safety; its berries are enjoyed and spread by many varieties of bird.)

If you happen to live in an area that has been invaded by common buckthorn, you have every opportunity to make some real sap green; for goodness sake go out and pick some berries. Every berry you use is one that cannot spread the species further.

There is another, non-invasive species of buckthorn that is actually much better suited for the hot and dry weather of California, being from the Mediterranean area of the Old World: rhamnus infectoria (or rhamnus saxatilis), the same buckthorn that is used to make stil de grain yellow lake. While a green can be made from the berries of this plant (depending on how ripe they are), it is much better used as a source of the lovely yellow stil-de-grain. You can get the berries from dye shops. I’ve been thinking of getting some seeds and growing a shrub in my garden plot; unfortunately, they seem a bit difficult to come by.

This is one of several posts I’ll make concerning the importance of localism in thinking about the sustainability of artist’s colors. If I lived in Northern Europe, sap green would be a primary color on my watercolor palette. Here in the American Southwest, it can’t be.

Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder

May 1, 2011

I think it is very beneficial to learn as much as possible about art materials, and how to construct a sound oil painting, and which commercial materials are to be preferred or avoided for this purpose. The last thing you or your buyer wants is a painting that crumbles to the floor when someone slams the front door too hard. But I also sometimes feel that artists of today are rather more concerned about “permanence” than they need to be. That’s putting it a bit mildly; at times it seems that many artists’ concern over lightfastness in particular has reached a fever pitch. And yet, the fact is that real permanence in an oil painting is impossible! No matter what colors you use, your oil painting will not last forever. If you’re painting on stretched canvas, your painting will probably not last more than a few centuries at most. If you’re adding many adjunct ingredients as mediums, then quite possibly considerably less than that. If future generations decide that your painting doesn’t merit conservation efforts, then almost certainly less than that. Many oil paintings created this year will likely crumble and be thrown out before the permanence of any color commercially sold today becomes a real issue. And yet, so many artists today are worried about lightfastness. I sometimes, with affectionate exasperation, refer to this obsession as Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder (LAD).

Artists of the past don’t seem to have suffered from this disorder. It was common for artists of the past to use colors that today are widely considered to be impermanent, fugitive, and even “unfit for artistic use.” This doesn’t mean that artists of the past didn’t know what they were doing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they didn’t care about their art. Quite the opposite. I personally think that they were focused on the right things, and didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about trying to make an oil painting last forever.

At Ivy Ranch

At Ivy Ranch

Just as importantly, many artists of past eras simply knew how to use less permanent colors in the safest possible ways. Take the natural lake pigments: madder, carmine, weld, etc. In oil paintings the natural lake pigments were most commonly used as glazes, over underpaintings that had been completely modeled using more permanent colors. This way, if or when they faded, their doing so would not break the painting in any fundamental way. Take a look at the painting on the right, At Ivy Ranch, which I recently completed. The forms of the couch were glazed with two coats of rose madder genuine by Winsor & Newton. If the lake color ever fades, the drapery will still be there, because it was painted in very permanent earth colors, bone black and lead white. Then, if a conservator (or any reasonably competent professional artist, hired by some future owner of this painting) wishes to retouch or even completely reapply the glaze, it will be an easy matter to do so: no modeling required, just slap another glaze layer on there. (In the case of the conservator, this reapplied glaze would be done with a removable resin paint, rather than an oil paint.)

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

A benefit to working like this is that I can see exactly what the painting will look like if the glaze happens to fade entirely at any time in the future. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I used the lake as a regular mixing color. At right is a photo taken from quite early on in the painting process – just some basic value and temperature separations slapped in, the only parts that had been worked up at all were the skirt and the couch. The couch wound up going a bit farther than this before the glazes were applied, particularly in that the area behind the girl became a much darker shadow accent. But aside from that, this is somewhat like what the painting would look like if the madder glaze were to fade completely from the picture. Unlikely to ever happen, of course; rose madder, for all its notoriety lately among those afflicted with LAD, is actually a fairly durable pigment. (Surprise!) More likely is that the madder, over the course of decades and centuries, will fade to some extent; and so much later on you might instead see something like this:

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

Not my first preference – but not the end of the world either. And again, that madder glaze could be rather easily reapplied at any point in the future, and even more than once if need be.

Certainly the safest natural lake pigment to use is madder, and the safest way to apply it is in a full-strength glaze, as I’ve done in this painting. Many artists of the past were quite content to regularly use colors far less permanent than madder; but even for artists of today, with higher standards of lightfastness, there really should be no problem in my opinion with using madder as I’ve used it here. This is a very safe use of a pigment that is actually reasonably lightfast (ASTM II, suitable for artistic work).

Professional artists have a certain financial responsibility to use quality materials and sound painting practices; but this emphasis on “permanence,” I feel, has gone a bit far. And it almost always seems to revolve around lightfastness, and so seldom around other factors of durability in art materials. It has often amazed me that so many artists eschew the use of madder for “archival” reasons, but then turn around and mix large amounts of natural resins or balsams into their paint layers! … or buy and use the cheapest acrylic-primed canvases they can find, ones which will certainly not hold onto an oil paint layer for very long. I encourage my fellow artists to learn more about the structural aspects of longevity in a painting, and to lighten up – just a little – about lightfastness, and learn some of the ways in which less lightfast colors may be used in relative safety. Rose madder is certainly one of the most gorgeous colors ever to grace the medium of oil painting; and it is, unlike the quinacridones and pyrroles, a sustainable artist’s color. The madder lakes have been used by many, perhaps even most, of the greatest and most celebrated oil painters in history. So go ahead and use a rich glaze of madder on that drapery – why not! You’ll be in very good company.

Take the plunge. You won’t regret it.

Which white?

February 14, 2011

The topic of sustainability has come up here (and hopefully will some more). Which artist’s colorants are more sustainable, and which are less? My thinking on this has changed quite a bit from the early days of my explorations, and turned decidedly unconventional. I now think primarily of which materials depend upon modern industry, and which do not. For instance, consider titanium white. Between lead white and titanium white, two of the few bright white pigments available to the oil painter, titanium white would probably be considered by most to the be more sustainable than the very toxic lead white. Titanium white is completely non-toxic: one of the things it is commonly used for is toothpaste – another is cake frosting. Yet I have chosen to use mostly lead white in my work. Why?

Let’s take a look at titanium oxide for a moment. Known as titanium white, this pigment is really titanium dioxide. It is generally referred to as a natural pigment, because it is found in nature in prodigious quantities in ores such as ilmenite and anatase. However, a little digging reveals that this “natural” pigment was not in widespread use, nor as far as I can tell any use at all, until the twentieth century. Why not? If it’s such an abundant, natural material – and non-toxic to boot – then it should have a much longer tradition of use, right?

Well, it turns out that this “natural” pigment requires a rather complex and energy-gobbling process to capture and purify. Yes, there is plenty of the titanium ores around – but to get the stuff into a usable bright white pigment requires extensive facilities and power. Even though the oxide of titanium was discovered and observed in the late eighteenth century, this pigment was not capable of being manufactured before the 1920s, when a hydrocarbon-driven modern industrial process finally got it done. And unless I am mistaken, that is the only way to do it on a reasonably productive scale.

(Many, many sources list this pigment, without any further explanation, as natural – including the Natural Products Association, which sets standards for “naturalness” in personal care products. I wrote an E-mail to the Natural Products Association, asking them about their inclusion of titanium dioxide, and whether it can truly be considered a natural material after the complex, modern industrial processes to which it must be subjected. I received back a very nice form letter with a little blurb describing what titanium white is, which I already knew (which should have been clear from the E-mail I sent), and which answered my question not at all. A subsequent attempt went unanswered. Now, I don’t really care any longer whether a pigment is “natural” or not – but really, in light of that response and other discussions, I have wondered if folks are perhaps a little unwilling to question titanium white too closely – just because it’s so mind-bogglingly useful. Believe me, I was more than a bit disappointed myself when I started learning about this stuff.)

Lead white, on the other hand: now this pigment does not require modern industry for its manufacture. How do I know? Because it has the track record to prove it. Lead white has been made and used for thousands of years, demonstrating it quite handily. And this is one of the main things I ask about an art material: has it proven its non-reliance on petroleum? As a general thing, I believe that if a material was commonly made and used before hydrocarbons, then it will still have the possibility to be made and used after hydrocarbons. (There are one or two major exceptions to this rule, to be discussed later.)

So, asked in shorthand:

  1. Which of these two white pigments – lead, or titanium – requires a hydrocarbon-driven industry for its manufacture?
  2. Is our hydrocarbon-driven industry sustainable?

Personally, I answer these two questions: 1., titanium; and 2., no.

Now, I admit: it doesn’t hurt that lead white is also one of the most beautiful colors in oil I’ve ever had the pleasure to apply to canvas. Really, it’s just a wonder to paint with. But that’s not the main reason I use it. I actually resisted the switch to lead white mightily at first, because I just didn’t want something that toxic on my palette. But I did believe it would more closely fit my philosophy, and so I made the switch. Haven’t regretted it once.

Iris rhizomes

Still got a ton of these, as told in the previous post. I’m giving them away to friends and neighbors at this point. About another week and they’ll be gone. Let me know if you want some…

What is a sustainable color?

January 30, 2011

Or: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Despite more than a bit of misuse in popular culture, what the word “sustainable” actually means is simple – though the implications are quite profound for us all – and it’s this (from

  1. : capable of being sustained
  2. a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
    b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

So here’s my interpretation for the purposes of this discussion (and my own philosophy):

An activity is sustainable if it in no way impedes the ability of future generations to live their lives or to engage in the same activity or other activities – for all intents and purposes forever.

If an activity does not meet that test, then it is unsustainable. Can’t keep it up forever. Can’t sustain the activity indefinitely. If you try to keep up that activity forever, then eventually you crash. It’s a fail.

Sustainability is not a nicety. It’s a requirement and a hard fact. If an activity is unsustainable, then that means we will stop doing it – eventually. The only question is whether we cease the activity voluntarily, or are forced out of it through diminishing options – or whether we ourselves will meet our end before it becomes an issue. (As one cynic put it: We will keep doing what we do until we can’t any more, and then we won’t.)

So that’s my strict definition. But “forever” is a little hard for the human brain (at least my human brain) to comprehend and plan for. When I think about this stuff, I tend to think in more discrete chunks of time, because it’s easier for me, and it clarifies my thinking: five thousand years from now, ten thousand. Will our heavy industry still be consuming at its present rate in ten thousand years? Will the Three Gorges Dam still be standing? Will we still be mining for cobalt?

This, of course, is a blog about art materials, and more than anything else it’s about colors. So which colors are sustainable? Which are not? Which are finite, but nevertheless are abundant enough to probably last the long millenia?

The good

These are the materials that really could last pretty much until the end of the world. Non-destructive, renewable, natural organic colors (definition here) that can be raised or wildcrafted in one’s own bioregion (geographic backyard), and can replenish themselves, through careful horticulture or natural propagation, and can be prepared over a simple fire using abundant, locally available ingredients – these are probably the only colors that can be considered truly sustainable by our strict definition above. One can conceivably at least keep up that activity pretty much forever, so it does pass that test, assuming it’s done with care. (However, it should definitely be noted here that not all natural organic sources pass the test. More on that in the next post.)

Also, I think we can go a little easy on ourselves here and throw the natural earths into this category. Although technically they are finite (especially the nice brightly-colored ones), well, there’s just a heck of a lot of the stuff out there. It’s a little hard to imagine artists ever managing to use up all the red earth in Arizona – or Brazil.

The bad

The pigments that are most clearly unsustainable, for various reasons that should be fairly obvious, are the ones that are manufactured from petroleum or other hydrocarbons. These synthetic organics (definition here) are going to go away sooner or later – more likely sooner. For me this is the most easily identifiable group. Flatly not sustainable, because petroleum isn’t. End of story. I’ll actually be rather surprised if they manage to still be around for much longer than another decade or two.

Perhaps slightly less obvious are the pigments that merely require a hydrocarbon-driven industrial process for their manufacture. They may not have petroleum as their basic feedstock, but they are just as dependent upon it for their existence. I don’t see how this group can make it out of the cellar either. I’ll be going through a few examples in later articles.

The ugly

Any material which is finite is therefore, strictly speaking, unsustainable. However, common sense and a little research indicate that there are certain natural inorganic materials that are so plentiful (and in some cases highly recyclable as well) that we probably don’t really need to worry about them, at least not for a very, very long time. Iron and alum in particular, which can be used to make Mars pigments and lake pigments, will almost certainly not deplete completely from the major regions of the earth in any time scale meaningful to this discussion. Also, the minerals calcium, sodium, potassium and sulfur – also used in the creation of lake pigments and some other pigments – are in abundant supply as well. There are a few other materials that I also count as reasonable candidates for this group, depending on other factors.

So, luckily, I doubt we will ever be restricted to using natural inks and earths only, even though they’re the only materials that actually made it into our “good” category. (As much as I love natural inks, I do like to make an oil painting once in a while.) We’ll be collecting earths, and making lake pigments and a few synthetic inorganic pigments (definition here), for a long, long time to come.

Forever? Can’t answer that. Ten thousand years from now? Almost certainly.

Details to follow…

Pigment categories – the blurry lines

December 26, 2010

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve let my blog go for five whole weeks. I never thought I’d be one of those authors who had to post “Sorry it’s been so long since my last post” – and yet, here I am. Sorry, folks. It’s been a tough month. I’m abandoning for this post, and maybe the next post or two, the discussion of classical underpainting techniques; but I am continuing to research and experiment, faithful reader, and I’ll return to the topic soon.

Back to art materials philosophy. Some time back I listed some basic definitions for the four categories of artist’s pigments: natural inorganic, natural organic, synthetic inorganic, and synthetic organic. (See the posts here, here and here.) The categories seem straightforward enough once you become familiar with them. However, things can get a bit weird if you start trying to nail down certain pigments.

Take Prussian blue, which is considered a synthetic inorganic pigment, in fact the first modern synthetic pigment. This is a pigment discovered accidentally in the early eighteenth century while attempting to create a carmine lake pigment with what turned out to be some tainted substances. What happened was that some potash contaminated with animal blood was used to precipitate the iron-based lake pigment, accidentally forming iron ferrocyanine, which makes a powerful blue. (Lucky accident!) So, but here’s the question: how is it that when a natural organic lake pigment received an additional natural organic element, it turned into something that is considered a synthetic inorganic? Weird – why is this pigment not considered a natural organic, like the carmine lake? I suppose it’s because in Prussian blue there is no actual dye involved – but still, it seems arbitrary.

A lake pigment is generally thought of as a dye precipitated onto a base of alum; but as indicated above, not all lake pigments are based on alum. They can be based on iron or copper instead, or even other metal salts such as chrome or zinc. Sometimes, even when a natural dye is used, these lakes based on other metals are viewed as synthetic, or semi-synthetic, rather than natural. Why? Why is a natural dye laked onto alum considered a natural pigment, but the same natural dye laked onto copper may not be? Alum is potassium aluminum sulfate, the copper mordant is copper sulfate pentahydrate. Both are metal sulfates, pretty similar stuff. A dyer would consider any dye obtained from natural sources to be a natural dye, regardless of what mordant were used to bind it to fabric, be it alum, iron, copper, tin, chrome or other, and I would agree – and I don’t really think of natural dyes laked onto different metal substrates as being categorically different from one another.

Precipitating copper blue

Precipitating copper blue

But I can easily get myself into more trouble. Green and blue pigments can be made from copper without the addition of a natural dye, and yellow and red pigments can be made from iron – and these are also considered to be synthetic pigments. But why? If laking a natural dye onto alum, iron or copper results in a natural pigment, then why does it become synthetic if I follow exactly the same procedure, but only leave out the organic ingredient?

It’s at this point that the whole question starts to break down. One person to whom I mentioned my interest in natural pigments immediately quipped, “Well, what’s natural”? At the time I confess I was a little irritated by such a flippant-sounding dismissal of what has been a passion for me – but now I see the wisdom in it, regardless of how it may have been intended. What is natural, anyway? Don’t get me wrong: the words “natural” and “artificial” are opposites with real definitions; but as soon as we start trying to identify categories, we have to start drawing lines, and that’s where things get messy. At some point you have to chalk it up to useless semantics and move on to another aspect of the discussion.

This is all a little illustration of why, though my original direction (years ago, now) was almost entirely about natural pigments, and though I still write about my love for colors from natural sources, I now pay little attention to such distinctions when considering my philosophy of materials, just as I now pay little attention to toxicity (other than as a necessary practical concern). Natural, synthetic, doesn’t really matter. What does matter, to me, is whether a particular art material is sustainable – meaning that I think we artists will pretty much never be forced to stop using it. That means no industrial processes required in that material’s production, no hydrocarbon feedstocks are used, no destruction of landbases necessary – and we aren’t dependent for our materials upon the needs of the giant automobile, plastics and textiles industries. In a perfect world, that would mean art materials that could be made locally, from regionally common materials, and without harming the ecolocality in any drastic way. The only pigments that are categorically excluded from my list are the synthetic organics; they are derived from hydrocarbons, and really can’t be considered sustainable no matter how they’re sliced. Also excluded would be any other pigments that absolutely require an industrial process for production. The ones that would not be excluded are the natural earths; the natural organic colors; and artificial pigments easily synthesized from common metals and minerals.

Yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my time thinking about. I think it’s important.

– L. Lawrence

Non-toxic pigments part II

September 6, 2010

Aside from the common tendency to conflate non-toxic materials with sustainability, there is also the natural concern over one’s personal health and safety when using toxic pigments based on lead and cadmium and so on. Personally, and I am not alone in this, I think the aversion to using toxic pigments can at times be taken to extremes – and I have to admit, the first time I used lead white I was a bit trepidatious. But, as I knew, irrationally so: common sense indicates that most pigments, even lead-based ones, are perfectly safe when bound up in oil, as long as one takes reasonable precautions, such as not eating or drinking in the painting studio, washing one’s hands well after painting, cleaning the palette carefully, disposing of rags responsibly, etc. And that’s what I do now. In fact, I’d say the addition of lead white to my palette has made me safer than before, because of these habits I’ve developed. I used to have cadmium red on my hands all the time; now, I respect my materials and work more cleanly.

There are, however, cases in which a greater concern for the toxicity of pigments is well warranted, and one of those is when an artist is working with them in their raw powdered form. Dry pigments have a much greater chance of getting into one’s body, since the pigment particles can and do drift into the air, and from there they can be breathed in, or can settle onto surfaces in thin layers that might not be readily apparent, there to be picked up by fingers or utensils. I work with powdered pigments all the time, but I won’t work with lead in any of its dry pigment forms, nor cadmium, mercury, or cobalt. The thought of getting lead carbonate dust around the house is intolerable to me.

In addition to pigment nuts like me, there are also many artists who regularly work in egg tempera. Egg tempera, properly speaking, is not available as a tubed paint because it spoils so quickly, so artists of that medium must grind their own paints from dry pigments and use them fresh. (The “egg tempera” tubed paints offered by companies like Shiva are actually tempera grassa, whose binder is an emulsion of egg yolk and a drying oil.) Those artists tend to be more aware of the toxicity their materials, since they must work with them more intimately. There is also the case of women who are pregnant. I understand the desire for greater-than-normal safety measures in that situation, so pregnant women may be more concerned about even tubed paints, wanting to take no unnecessary chances at all. And rightly so.

So, which pigments are non-toxic, if one is really concerned about such a thing? Well, earth colors and iron oxides are all pigments that might fairly be considered non-toxic – it’s just dirt after all – except for the raw and burnt umbers, which are partly manganese oxides (manganese is toxic). Next up is titanium white, which is definitely on the safe list. It is used in toothpaste, sunscreen and lip gloss. Zinc white is safe as well: it is used in calamine lotion and in supplements. If you’re working in watercolors or pastels, chalk works great as a white too. For blacks, bone black should be fine.

Ultramarine blue is very safe. This color has actually been approved for use in food: that blue icing on your kid’s birthday cake is probably ultramarine (the white frosting is titanium white). There are other ultramarines as well, green, violet and pink, and all of them should be safe.

Homemade lake pigments, such as those made from madder, cochineal or weld, are fairly non-toxic (only “fairly,” because their main component is aluminum hydroxide, which is iffy). However, you should be careful of other ingredients might be included in commercial artists colors – some commercial natural lake paints may contain tin, which is toxic. Indigo, another natural organic pigment, has low toxicity.

Some others: Chromium oxide and viridian, though made from the very toxic potassium dichromate, are in their green pigment form chromium(iii), which is stable and is included in nutritional supplements. Egyptian blue, though made from copper, is supposed to be extremely stable and insoluble. Prussian blue is borderline: though it does contain a cyanide component, it should be stable unless heated. Nevertheless, from what I’ve read in forums, there is less than 100% agreement by chemists on the stability of prussian blue in stomach acid. And you really don’t want cyanide floating around in your system.

Here is another list concerning pigment toxicity and pregnancy posted on the egg tempera forum by artist Alessandra Kelley. I wouldn’t have thought synthetic organic pigments to be directly toxic, but Kelley may change my mind. Here’s a link to the article.

Please do keep in mind with this stuff that I am not an expert, and the information I’ve written above is based only on my own informal research. To put it plainly: I don’t really know what I’m talking about here. If educating yourself about the toxicity of pigments is important to you, then you certainly shouldn’t take my word for anything, but do your own research instead. At the end of the day, I think the only pigments that can be considered truly non-toxic are those that are classified by the FDA as “Exempt from Certification” in food and drugs. The artists’ pigments among those are: ultramarine blue; carmine; iron oxides; saffron; titanium dioxide; calcium carbonate (chalk); chromium oxide greens; logwood; and zinc oxide. FDA It’s worth noting that there are some copper compounds included there: copper is certainly somewhat toxic, but it ain’t as bad as all that. The list of cosmetics should be excluded from consideration here, since they are meant to be taken externally; you’ll notice that lead acetate is in that list (it’s used in hair dye), but I don’t think anyone would call lead acetate a non-toxic pigment.

Non-toxic pigments

August 22, 2010

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!


The material basis of art culture

June 22, 2010

About a week and a half ago or so, soon after I’d made my last blog post about synthetic organic pigments, I noticed an article that ran in the Business section of our local newspaper (yes, the physical kind). It was titled Oil Is Everywhere. (The article is online here.) Since it was relevant, I became interested and looked through. Here is a quote:

Oil is everywhere. It’s in carpeting, furniture, computers and clothing. It’s in the most personal of products such as toothpaste, shaving cream, lipstick and vitamin capsules. Petrochemicals are the glue of our modern lives and even in glue, too.


“It’s the material basis of our society essentially,” said Michael Wilson, a research scientist at the University of California Berkeley. “This is the Petrochemical Age.”

Well, all I can say is that it’s about time someone noticed.

Gasoline is what tends to come to mind when we think of petroleum, but it is only one of the many, many products made from it. The stuff really is everywhere. To see that this is true, we artists need look no further than the materials we use today in the creation of our art. If petroleum is the “material basis of our society,” then it is also the material basis of our art culture. Not only are the synthetic organic pigments discussed in the previous post made from hydrocarbons, but so are modern varnishes, modern “gesso” for our canvas, mediums, inks, dyes, mineral spirits (solvents), paintbrushes, and acrylic and alkyd paints.

In the long term, none of these – nor any other petrochemical product – can be considered sustainable. The current abundance of petroleum is a short-term accident of history and geology; one day its production will decline (or perhaps before that time we will simply decide to quit using so much of it for environmental reasons, but I’m not holding my breath). When petroleum production declines, so will our current art culture.

If you took away our petroleum-supplied art products, many of us would hardly know how to paint any longer. If the modern synthetic inorganic pigments that have only ever been made with hydrocarbon-driven industrial processes were also taken away, we’d be in dire straits indeed. We’ve lost much of the knowledge that would allow us to paint effectively and expressively with simpler materials – “Old Master” knowledge, if you will. Such is the extremity of our reliance upon the industrial machine in this age. Art has always been coupled with industry, since ancient Egypt at least, but now art is almost wholly dependent on it.

Of course, when peak oil passes and world oil production begins to decline, the world will be busy with far larger issues than those revolving around the tiny art materials industry. But personally, I can’t help caring what becomes of our art culture. I don’t want our knowledge of natural and homemade materials to deteriorate to the point where we no longer know what to do without the modern industrial products. This is one reason – one of many, now – that I’m on this path.