Posts Tagged ‘Pigments’

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!

wyoming_waterfall-2d2_800

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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.

1914.680_w

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!

How to Make Madder Lake, part 2

January 9, 2015

Previous post: How to Make Madder Lake, part 1.

The second secret.

There’s actually another little ‘secret’ to making madder lake, this one a bit more of an open secret, but something very important to keep in mind. It is this: you can’t just boil madder up the way you can with carmine lake or most other dyestuffs. The alizarin color in madder is destroyed by high heat, so you can’t turn the temperature up over 170ºF or thereabouts. However, the dye will not emerge from the roots unless it’s heated, so your job is to get the temperature up to between 120ºF and 140ºF, and keep it there.

(Note: the vulnerability of madder to high heat is something I’ve read from numerous sources. However, more than once I’ve accidentally allowed the temperature of the dyebath to briefly stray up toward 200 degrees, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt the resulting color much. There are many different experiments I have in mind for madder lake production in the future; one of those experiments is to give the dyebath a really good boil, to see if it really does kill the color or not. But for the time being, I’m following the recommendations about temperature control as well as I can.)

Here’s the procedure:

After the last soak and straining, put the wet roots into a cooking pot big enough to hold them, and cover the roots with water – this will be henceforth referred to as the ‘dye bath’. Water: the first time I did this, I used distilled water for everything. It wound up being a lot of distilled water! Nowadays I just use tap water, and it seems to be fine. If you want to be a bit more careful, use distilled water for the initial dye bath, and then regular old tap water for everything else.

Then make a double boiler by putting this pot into a larger pot that also contains water. This way you’ll be able to control the temperature more easily. Also: the bigger the pots in question – and more specifically, the more water is in them – the easier it is to control temperature and keep it steady. Here I have this contraption cooking low on a gas stove:

Madder Double Cooker

Madder Double Cooker

A thermometer goes into the dye bath. Here I’m using a big thermometer I bought at a beer brewing supply shop – another activity that requires good temperature control! (I have acquired a slow cooker with temperature control, at some point I will try making madder lake in this, rather than the makeshift double boiler.)

Yet another little ‘secret’ to making madder: it takes a while! Cooking up carmine or weld lake takes an hour, maybe two; madder takes a couple of days at its lower temperature. At night, or when I’m out of the house, I cover the pot and turn the stove off, and turn it back on first thing when I wake up or return home. You may need to add extra water periodically to one pot or the other.

I cook the roots for about a day, then add alum to the dye bath. Alum: in my previous posts, I wrote that we were beginning with 10g of alum, but that was an error – I was confusing two different recipes in my head. I’m actually using 30g of alum here. I’ve corrected the other posts.

Take the 30g of alum and pour it into the dye bath. I like to dissolve the alum in its own warm water before adding it in, but this isn’t necessary. Then cook the dye for another day or so.

When you dip a piece of paper or paper towel into the dye bath after a few days, it should now come out a juicy, rich red. In the pic below, you can see how red the bath looks after a couple of days. This is the red you want, the alizarin! Time for the next step.

Madder Dye Bath

Madder Dye Bath

How to Make Madder Lake, part 1

December 26, 2014

Previous post: Preparation for Making Madder Lake.

In the last post, I wrote that we’re beginning with about 100g of madder root and about 30g of potash alum. I also wrote that there was a big secret coming in this one. Well, read on!

Most madder recipes I’ve seen online – including this one from Rubio Violins, which is the one I think most home chemists follow – have us putting the madder roots into water and cooking them up directly. These recipes leave out a crucial step, which is to wash the roots beforehand. One or two sources actually mention this washing, but do not mention the purpose of it, which is to remove extraneous dyes and other colors that the roots contain, and which will contaminate our lovely rose color if we leave them in there. So ‘washing’, in this case, means giving them a good soak, and then throwing out the bath water (without the baby, which is the rose dye that will not emerge until the roots are heated). Here I’ve got my roots soaking in water out of doors.

Madder Roots Soaking

Madder Roots Soaking

I soak these roots for several days. It’s best to do this when it is relatively cool outdoors, as I’m doing here. As the madder roots rest, they ferment, so you’re likely to see some bubbles or foam on the surface at some point. If it’s too warm out, a lot of mold will be generated as well. I don’t think this mold actually interferes with the making of the pigment, but it does make it a little difficult to see what’s going on in there. (Also, if it’s really hot, it might actually start cooking some of the alizarin dye out of the roots, and you definitely don’t want that yet.) So if it’s really warm out when you’re making your lake, consider moving the roots out of the sun – maybe even put them in the garage or something.

When the roots have been sitting for several days, the water should look reddish gold. At this point, dump out the water. Yes, you read that right – dump it out! Do it! I know it looks like there’s a lot of color in there that you want to be saving and using. Trust me: it’s no good. It’s just contamination. It is exactly this stuff you’re looking at that makes the finished madder lake brown instead of rose. So dump it.

This is the big secret.

Keep going at this point: refill the pot with water and strain a few times, until it comes out fairly colorless. Then soak overnight again. Then empty and strain, then soak overnight. Keep doing this until there’s not much color coming out of the water. (The purple gunk doesn’t matter – that’s from the root bark.) This entire process may take a week, or even longer. Be patient: a good madder lake is worth the wait. At some point the emptied water will start to look clearer and more pink. Once that happens, we’re ready to make our madder lake.

To be continued!

Preparation for Making Madder Lake

December 1, 2014

(The good stuff!)

It’s time to make these posts at last, after many delays: How to Make Madder Lake.

I’ve posted before about how to make a lake pigment – check this post here – and will make more posts about it in the future: about the different varieties of carmine lake, and how to make a proper yellow lake from weld, and so on. But madder lake is, well, different. It’s more involved to make a quality red lake from this dyestuff. Many have tried making madder lakes, only to be disappointed in the reddish-brown color that results, and have wondered how to make that exciting rose color we all love. As it turns out, there is one little secret that makes all the difference.

Some history: madder lake is one of the older lake pigments, found to have been used on some rather ancient objects. But for most of the Middle Ages, some of the other red lakes – lac, brazilwood, etc. – were often preferred over madder. As Daniel Thompson puts it: “To make as good a lake from madder as any beginner can make from brazil wood calls for a good deal of expert chemical knowldege and careful manipulation; and there is no evidence to suggest that medieval colour-makers possessed the knowledge necessary to making good madder lakes.” (The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Daniel V. Thompson.) Madder lake, as an artist’s material, really came into its own in the Renaissance, being used as a glazing color for drapery and so on. Its popularity continued through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras; one of its popular functions was as a glaze over vermilion in drapery, creating an intense and fairly stable red.

In the Nineteenth Century, a process was discovered to make a very rich and powerful rose color from madder, using sulfuric acid. (There are some sources that report that this is when madder lake was invented; this is not true. It was this more powerful madder lake that was created at this time, a color named rose madder. It is this recipe, given by George Fields, that Winsor & Newton claim to still be using today.) We won’t be using sulfuric acid in this recipe, but we will still be able to make a nice rose-red madder lake by taking our time and following a procedure.

Making madder lake may be more involved and time-consuming than some of the other lake pigments, but the results can be well worth the investment. Not only is it one of the most beautiful lakes, and an absolute joy for skin tones, but it is also, by all accounts, far more lightfast than any other natural lake pigment. It is the only natural lake, as far as I am aware, that is still in general use by artists, because it is the only one that is considered permanent enough for artistic use (at least as an oil paint). The stuff may not last forever, but it will last, as the man said, a goodish while. And, unlike the synthetic alizarin crimson, when it does fade it appears to fade slowly and gracefully over time, rather than disappearing all at once.

The ingredients are simple and few: some madder root; potash alum; sodium carbonate (washing soda) or potassium carbonate (potash); and water. We’ll also need a slow cooker – or a little double-boiler setup that I’ll show later on – a thermometer, a large jar or two, some coffee filters and a funnel. The coffee filters: get some of the big flat-bottomed basket filters, not the cone-shaped ones – those have a tendency to spring leaks.

We will begin with about 100g of roots, and about 30g of alum. This will make a small amount of lake pigment. Stay tuned – the big secret comes in the next post!

Madder roots

Madder roots

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.

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…

How to make a lake pigment

January 10, 2011

A basic lake pigment is pretty easy to make. Some lake pigments are more complex – there’s a reason madder lake took a while to catch on, historically – but most of them are easy as pie. It was noted recently in a comment that there is a dearth of comprehensible recipes online, and it’s true. It took me a bit of searching to figure out what things like “base,” “thrown down,” “precipitated onto,” and so on actually mean. But here is the basic process in all its simplicity. Let’s go:

Alum, washing soda

Alum, washing soda

First, what you’ll need. You’ll need alum, for starters – that’s potassium aluminum sulfate. This is the basic material that’s going to grab onto the dye color, just as it does when used as a mordant in fabric dyeing. You used to be able to get the stuff in the spice aisles of grocery stores, and apparently in some parts of the country you still can (it’s used in pickling cucumbers). I purchased mine from a dye shop. Also, you’ll need some kind of alkali to precipitate the alum (turn it into an insoluble powder). Some possibilities are potash (potassium carbonate), washing soda (sodium carbonate) or chalk (calcium carbonate). I use washing soda most often. You can get it from dye shops as well; but for a better deal grab a big container at Home Depot or Lowe’s in the pool section. On the right are these two items.

You’ll need the dyestuff itself. It’s worth noting here that not all dyes will grab onto alum to form a lake pigment; but if you’ve done a little research, you’ll have some idea at least of some of the ones used in the past. Here I’ll use some ripe buckthorn berries. These were most often inspissated to make the watercolor sap green; but the dye from them will make a lake pigment.

Cooking buckthorn berries

Cooking buckthorn berries

Equipment you’ll need: a pot and something to heat it with. On the right you see me heating up the berries in water on the stove. Some dyes, such as carmine, need to be boiled; for others, such as madder, boiling can ruin the color. Research and/or experiment. Other stuff: a funnel, some coffee filters and two jars of some sort (preserving jars work the best, because you don’t have to worry about pouring hot water into them). I usually have various jars around, so I can pour back and forth as needed. You’ll also need some distilled water – this is what should be used whenever the recipe calls for water. A mortar and pestle. And: a turkey baster. No, really.

Filtering the dye

Filtering the dye

Once your dye is extracted from the dyestuff, filter it, using the funnel and a coffee filter, over one of your jars. You need to get all the gunk out of there. Now that you’ve got some extracted and filtered dye, the magic can begin. Dissolve some alum in water on the stove (a pic of this can be seen here), then pour the warm alum solution into the dye jar. With some dyes, such as weld, this will immediately bring out the color; with others, you won’t see any difference.

Lake pigment precipitating

Lake pigment precipitating

Now, do the same thing with the alkali (be a little careful with potash or washing soda – these are alkaline enough to cause a burn, make sure to keep the stuff out of your eyes): dissolve some in water on the stove, then pour some of the solution into the dye. Right away you should get a fizzing reaction as the alum encounters the alkali: as the alkali precipitates the alum, it releases carbon dioxide (or something like that). How much of each, alum and alkali, should be used? Well, it’ll be different for each dye and each recipe. As a general thing it’s better to add too little than to add too much, as more can always be added later.

Precipitate settling

Precipitate settling

Let the jar sit – sometimes for a few hours, sometimes overnight – and the precipitate will eventually settle to the bottom. Now it should be washed a few times. Take your turkey baster (told ya) and siphon off the clear water on top, as much of it as you can without losing too much pigment. Then fill the jar back up with water and allow it to settle again. Do this as many times as it takes for the clear water to be colorless (or as near to that as your patience and water supply can handle!).

The filtrate

The filtrate

Once the water is colorless to your satisfaction, siphon it off one last time, and then you’ll filter the precipitate through the funnel and another coffee filter, into your other jar. The pigment will usually clog the filter, so you’ll need some patience for this: fill up the funnel, then go do something else for a while as it slowly drains, then come back and fill it up again, etc. If you’re making a larger batch of lake you may need more than one filter. Remove the filter containing lake and lay it flat on a surface – I use plates with paper towels, but bricks are supposed to work nicely – and give it a couple of days to dry (but don’t put it in the sun – these are fugitive colors here!). It will probably shrink in volume quite a bit as it loses moisture. Once the lake is completely dry, you can grind it up, thoroughly, using a mortar and pestle.

lake pigment

The lake pigment!

Now you have your pigment – mull it into linseed oil or gum arabic and give it a go! There’s very little more satisfying than creating a painting with your own pigments and paints. Don’t forget to keep good notes on your process – and feel free to post any questions or comments below.

Verdaccio layer – beginning

October 17, 2010

Chris wrote some questions about the piambura layer examples in this post here. Chris, thanks for the interest and questions. Sorry it took a few days to get back to you, it’s been a… trying week. Your questions:

Is the white layer done in one go. – For these studies the white piambura layer was done in one day. I don’t see any reason why the piambura couldn’t be done in multiple sessions, though, if needed – for instance in a larger or more complex work.

is the white paint thinned at all – The white paint is not thinned with a solvent, but painted quite thinly so that in the darker halftones the imprimatura shows through. The lead white does some interesting optical mixing with the brown underlayer, giving the impression of a blueish tone. From what I’ve been told this can actually help to neutralize subsequent warmer skin tones.

My instructor advocates using a bit of Canada balsam mixed in with the paint for some stages. I didn’t follow his instruction on this, because I think it’s generally a bad idea to incorporate natural soft resins into an oil paint layer. I tried it out on a color comp thumbnail, and I didn’t really like the way it handled anyway. Can’t really see the up side here.

Do i need a smooth surface – We’ve been painting on oil-primed linen, Claessens 13, which is like canvas but a pretty tight weave. So, smoother than regular canvas, but not as smooth as panel. I just picked up a small traditionally gessoed panel, and I plan to try this technique with that. I don’t see any reason why this technique couldn’t be done on any number of different surfaces, but each will give a different effect since the layers of paint are pretty thin, allowing the texture of the ground to show through. Linen is considered by many to be one of the best surfaces for portrait painting, because of the tight weave and fairly smooth surface.

First verdaccio attempt

First verdaccio attempt

When do you think your next post will be. Well, now that you mention it… I’ve begun on the verdaccio layer of the first portrait, which you can see at right. It probably looks pinker than you’d expect a verdaccio to be – after all, verdaccio means green first. However, this style of verdaccio involves both green and red. The green is chromium oxide green, and the red is a complex mix called sinopia. (It isn’t really sinopia, though – more about that later. I mixed up quite a bit of this red and tubed it up to use for the figure next month.) Each color is mixed into the other, making a very grayed warm and cool, one leaning slightly green, the other leaning slightly red. From these two piles ramps of eleven values each are mixed. This is just a little preview; I’ll make sure to post pics of the fully-arranged palette in the next post – it’s a bit of work to set up! – and hopefully the finished verdaccio layer.

This is all stuff I’m learning in class, and painted from life, which always adds to the challenge factor when learning a brand new technique, at least for me. When the class is finished I plan to do one or two studies on my own, working from photographs so that I can really focus on the technique itself, and I’ll try to take those up to fully-rendered classical paintings. I’ll also make some changes to the colors I’m using, simplifying and making more traditional choices. More in two weeks!

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.