Posts Tagged ‘art materials’

Death of a Pigment

August 16, 2016

As I have posted before, we artists are at the mercy of much larger industries in terms of what art materials we have at out disposal. The art materials industry is minuscule compared to textiles, architecture, automotive, etc. It does not have enough clout to leverage economies of scale.

Without these larger industries to manufacture our pigments and other materials for us, these things would be much more expensive for us than they are. Without them, artists might have to actually make and mull their own pigments again – as artists and their apprentices from past centuries have done, as I and others have at times done.

A few pigments are still made by the art materials industry, for instance Winsor & Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine, and those tend to be the more expensive colors. But the vast majority of them are not made for artists at all. We just buy the leftovers from the bigger boys, and that’s how we get our pigments on the cheap.

To some extent, this has always been true. Even in the Middle Ages, the copper blue pigment (blue verditer) that was used by artists was manufactured as a by-product of silver production. But it is truer at this point in history than it ever has been before.

One of the results of this situation is that when a pigment is no longer deemed useful for the larger industries, its manufacture will cease. Cerulean blue (PB35), for example, may wind up on the chopping block at some point. If it does, it will not matter that many artists love this color: it will go away, for all except those who have managed to stockpile some for themselves.

This has happened to a pigment I happen to love: ultramarine green, PG24. PG24 is not considered useful any longer to the large industries, and as far as I can learn it has stopped being made. It is an extinct pigment.

It used to be available as a tube color in oil from Rembrandt. But the tube they call “Ultramarine Green” is no longer PG24, but a convenience mix of PB29 and PY129. It used to be available as a powder pigment from Kremer. No more. (They still have some of their PG24 watercolor pans left, I believe.)

In the next post, I will post some pictures to show what this wonderful pigment looks like, and why I love it so much and was so sorry to see it go – and what might be done to bring its production back online.

In the meantime, here is a closeup of a painting I did a couple of years ago, in which PG24 was used extensively, especially for that aqua foam on the water. To be continued!


Ancient Paint Box

February 2, 2016

I came across this ancient palette of colors through a post on Tumblr by Ancient Peoples. It’s a palette of pigments from the second century b.c.e, in New Kingdom Egypt.


This from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I guess from a quick perusal of their website that this is in their permanent collection. That would make at least two things from Cleveland I really like, along with the Cleveland String Quartet (loved their recordings of the late Beethoven quartets!)

Here’s a description of the pigments:

This paint box still preserves its original cakes of pigment: one cake each of red (red ocher), blue (Egyptian blue), green (a mixture of Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment) and two of black (carbon black, from charcoal). It belonged to Amenemope, who was vizier, or prime minister, under Amenhotep II. Amenemope probably used his paint box for recreation.

As I posted on my new tumblr microblog, I question the description of the green in the image as “Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment” (not really – I’m sure the folks at the museum know what they’re about). It sure looks like plain old malachite to me.

Anyway, I really like this palette. As some of you know, I’m a fan of earth colors, and a great blue to add to yellow and red ochre is Egyptian blue, which is copper bound up in silica. With the addition of black and white, it would make for a great subdued portrait palette, though the blue would have to be used a bit judiciously due to its cost. And in place of that green I could add in my own copper green.

As a reminder, here’s what Egyptian blue looks like in oil:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Nice glazer, that. I think I’ll try out that palette soon.

And: If I ever visit Cleveland, I’ll have to try out that museum!

Daniel Smith Primatek Oil Paints Review – Part 2

May 31, 2014

Here is a somewhat better pic of the cool colors of the paint swatches (from left: ultramarine, turquoise, amazonite, malachite) from the last post:

Daniel Smith Primatek

Daniel Smith Primatek

Still having trouble photographing that amazonite – it’s really quite saturated out of the tube, but you’d never know it from looking at this.

The paints themselves: overall they were fine to use. Upon first opening, some of them (especially the malachite) gave off a distinctly rancid oil aroma, even though they were bought directly from Daniel Smith. Not a big deal, of course, though the smell of linseed oil is normally one of the (many) pleasures of working with oil paint.

The paints are very smooth, which personally I don’t particularly like; part of the joy of working with natural pigments is the sometimes grainier texture, which seems completely absent from these paints. I personally would like to feel the “naturalness” of these natural pigments under the brush; of course, other painters might disagree (in fact, I know at least one personally who does disagree). For me, missing out on that is missing part of the point of using natural pigments in the first place.

The vehicle for these paints is alkali-refined linseed oil (alkali-refined means it’s chemically processed), with the exception of the two blues (Turquoise and Lapis), which use alkali-refined safflower oil instead. Again, the choice of binders seems to me to miss the point of the paints: if you’re making a big deal out of using natural pigments, wouldn’t you want to use a natural oil to go along with them? (It’s not nearly as bad as wasting natural pigments in a thoroughly synthetic medium like acrylic, of course, but still.) Maybe it’s just me, as an enthusiast of natural art materials: but having these paints in a natural, raw, cold-pressed linseed oil, along with some greater variation in pigment particle size, would make these paints much more exciting.

Lightfastness: For some reason, the only one of these paints that has lightfastness information listed on the Daniel Smith website is the Malachite Genuine, which is listed as having “Lightfastness Rating: I.” Others of these pigments are available in watercolors and do have lightfastness ratings listed: Rhodonite Genuine, Purpurite Genuine, Lapis Lazuli Genuine, Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine, Amazonite Genuine, and Malachite Genuine are all listed as “ASTM Lightfastness Rating: Excellent” in watercolor. However, there have been some lightfastness problems noted by various artists who have done their own tests. Note the changes in the Rhodonite, for instance, here by on WetCanvas. Again note the Rhodonite here on Jane Blundell’s blog, and also the Sleeping Beauty Turquoise. These two posts seem to indicate there may be some question about those lightfastness ratings provided by Daniel Smith. (At the same time, I’ll note a general consensus that many pigments have greater lightfastness in oil than in watercolor, possibly mostly because of the thicker paint layers used).

Here are two test paintings done with the Daniel Smith Primatek paints. This first one is a sketch of some of the blue irises blooming in the backyard (the same irises from which I get the green ink). The background was done with some paints from Da Vinci and Rublev; the flower and plant parts were done with the Primateks, with some help from Rublev’s Blue Ridge Yellow Ochre and Lemon Ochre.

Irises Still Life © Bispo

Irises Still Life © Bispo

I was expecting to be able to use the Purpurite for the flowers, but that color loses too much saturation in tints. As I mentioned earlier, I was able to get better violet tints with a mix of the Rhodonite and the Lapis. (I still had to steer the tints more toward the magenta, since the Rhodonite is so much stronger than the Lapis.) The Purpurite was fine for the darker violets. Amazonite, Malachite and a bit of Turquoise did a fine job for the green plant parts, and in fact were more saturated than I needed – except for the brighter chartreuse bits, which were helped along with some of that lemon ochre.

Here is another test, a portrait of my wife Joy. For this one I used the Primatek Sedona, Pipestone, Rhodonite and Turquoise; Rublev supplied the yellow ochre, black and white.

Joy Naomi © Bispo 2014

Joy Naomi © Bispo 2014

I went a bit mad with color on this one; it’s actually quite scandalous for me, who usually uses just earth colors (and maybe a touch of madder) for skin tones. A bit of a color theory experiment, really, that was only partially sucessful. Early in the painting I got the urge to use some of the Turquoise for the flesh tones, and it worked very well for that. The Rhodonite worked fine as well, mixing nice oranges with the yellow ochre, and rose tints with white. You can see how rich the color is in the shirt; if it were just a touch redder in hue I’d probably use this paint regularly.

Overall these Primatek oil paints will be a welcome, if occasional, addition to my palette; and I have to give a lot of credit to Daniel Smith for choosing some of these unusual pigments. I’ve been wanting to try painting with natural turquoise for a long time, and it was a pleasure to finally do so, especially in the portrait. Along with that paint, the clear winners here are the Amazonite Genuine and the Rhodonite Genuine – both stunning paints that can actually compete with some of the modern synthetic organics. The Purpurite is also fun for those dark violets, and the Sedona Genuine is a good-quality, if fairly ordinary, natural red ochre. Even the three disappointments in my set – the Minnesota Pipestone, the Genuine Lapis Lazuli, and the Malachite Genuine – are still useful paints (although the Pipestone may be relegated to underpaintings, since it’s such a weak tinter). At the end of the day, I can recommend Daniel Smith’s Primatek line of oil paints for those interested in painting with natural pigments. Give them a try; and feel free to post the results back here!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel Smith Primatek Oil Paints Review – Part 1

May 5, 2014

This is a review of Daniel Smith’s Primatek line of oil paints, which I’ll post in two parts. These are a set of natural-pigment paints, some of them quite unconventional. They have this line of oil paints, and also (and perhaps more popularly) watercolors. I haven’t tried any of the watercolors yet; I probably will someday, some of them look amazing (the garnet!).

First, an overview. The colors I tried in oil are:

Sedona Genuine, a red ochre from Arizona;
Minnesota Pipestone (Catlinite), pink pipestone;
Rhodonite Genuine, a rose-colored gemstone;
Purpurite Genuine, a violet mineral;
Genuine Lapis Lazuli, natural ultramarine blue;
Natural Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine;
Amazonite Genuine, a lovely green stone;
Malachite Genuine, natural copper carbonate green.

Here are the swatches. Each color is painted from the tube (some with a bit of poppy oil added) and approximately 50/50 with zinc white (Winsor & Newton). You can see which ones are the strong tinters. There are also three other paints included for comparison.

Daniel Smith Primatek

Daniel Smith Primatek

The fastest driers were the Malachite (no surprise, as it’s a copper pigment) and Rhodonite, both touch-dry after three days. The Amazonite, Lapis, Sedona and Purpurite were dry after five days, and the Turquoise after seven days. The Sedona, strangely, was the slowest dryer in the bunch, still slightly tacky after a week.

Some of these paints were very impressive, others not so much. I’ll go through them individually here.

Sedona Genuine: red ochre, opaque, medium tinter. This is a pretty standard red ochre – perfectly serviceable and pleasant to use, but nothing out of the ordinary. What makes this paint fun for me is the same thing that makes Da Vinci’s Arizona Red and Arizona Brown Ochre interesting for me: it’s local to my region. I’ll probably keep using it for that reason alone.

Minnesota Pipestone: red ochre with rose tints, semitransparent, weak tinter. I have to say, this one was disappointing. I’ve used a Pink Pipestone pigment from Rublev, ground into oil and tubed by myself, that is a delight – delicate pinks for skin tones or satin highlights on white fabric. I was expecting something similar here, but it was darker and significantly less saturated (and not NEARLY the color as shown on the Daniel Smith website!), both on its own and in tints. Here is a comparison of the Daniel Smith against my own:

Daniel Smith - Pipestone

Daniel Smith – Pipestone

Usable, I suppose, but not the exciting paint that it should be.

Rhodonite Genuine: rich rose color, transparent, strong tinter, fast dryer. This paint is one of the good ones. An amazing rose color that seems as if it must be an organic, it’s so saturated – and yet it’s ground from a stone. I immediately wanted to see if this could be used as an alternative to rose madder. It can’t, not quite – it’s a bit more magenta, and though it’s transparent, it’s definitely less transparent than madder, and therefore not as easy to glaze. But, as I’ll show, it can be used for rich skin tones.

Purpurite Genuine: dark violet, transparent, medium tinter. As many are aware, violet is a color that has long been problematic for artists, as historically there just don’t seem to be all that many usable pigments in this hue range. This one is an interesting attempt to provide another. As it turns out, purpurite is very nice for dark purples, but it loses quite a bit of saturation in tints. I was actually able to get better purple tints by mixing the Rhodonite with the Lapis.

Genuine Lapis Lazuli: natural ultramarine blue, transparent, weak tinter. This paint seemed not bad at all – until I compared it to another brand of natural lapis, Da Vinci:

Daniel Smith Primatek - Lapis

Daniel Smith Primatek – Lapis

Here you can see that the lapis from Da Vinci is significantly more saturated, both neat and in tints. Now it is possible, of course, that the Da Vinci has been enhanced with a bit of modern, synthetic ultramarine to increase saturation; I haven’t had a chance to ask them about it yet. But, assuming that is NOT the case, then that means Daniel Smith is offering a lower grade of natural ultramarine at, as it turns out, about double the price (comparing Daniel Smiths’s website against Da Vinci prices on Dick Blick). Not a great value if so. I will contact Da Vinci at some point and post their response here.

Natural Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine: cyan, opaque, surprisingly strong tinter. I suppose the nearest modern color would be cerulean blue, but the Turquoise is lighter in value. I found this color to be most useful as itself – painted directly onto the canvas without much modification, or as a cool modifier for other light-valued colors to achieve pastel blues, greens, or even violets. It’s not much in the way of a general mixing color, but great as a cyan accent color.

Amazonite Genuine: green-cyan, transparent, medium tinter. This is another of the good ones. (Don’t be fooled by the photograph above – the paint out of the tube is much more saturated than that swatch looks.) Right out of the tube it looks very near to viridian. This works very well as a general mixing green, or as a glazer. An amazing (pun!) paint, really, especially for a natural pigment. On some research, I discovered that despite the name, amazonite is mined right here in the United States, making it almost regional to me. Cool.

Malachite Genuine: pale middle green, opaque, weak tinter, fast dryer. This must be a pretty fine grind of malachite, because it’s high-valued and not very saturated. At the last minute I decided to compare it to my own synthetic copper carbonate green pigment in oil (this is why the swatch on the right is almost hanging off the edge of the canvas). As you can see, the synthetic one is a bit more saturated, both neat and in tints, as well as being slightly bluer (the difference is more marked in person).

Daniel Smith - Malachite

Daniel Smith – Malachite

I think part of the point of using natural malachite is that with the larger particle sizes you can get when grinding a color from stone, you can get a more saturated color than with the smaller particles of the precipitated synthetic malachite. On the other hand, I shouldn’t forget that some of us feel a real pleasure in using a natural pigment, similar to the thrill I get when using a natural earth over a synthetic iron oxide. I also get a thrill from making and using my own copper carbonate pigment, of course, so this one is a toss-up for me.

To be continued!

Lead White: The Real Story.

June 6, 2012

(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.

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.

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.

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.