Disclaimer: I am not a chemist, and I don’t work in paint production or healthcare. I am merely relaying the information I could find about safety regarding artist’s materials. If you have concerns about any of the topics covered, please make sure to research them further. You can also ask manufacturers for their MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets). Most reputable paint companies will have them available online. Also, I know toxic tends to be a buzzword and anything can be toxic, given the right dose. Here I’m looking into paint that could potentially be harmful in even small amounts. Exposure over time and frequency of use can also be a factor.
Pigments are fascinating. The hunt for cheaper and new colors helped push along the history of chemistry. While we no longer use paint laced with arsenic (I’m looking at you, Scheele’s green) there are still some colors that present potential health hazards. Let’s talk about what you should look for in your palette. But first, a quick lesson on what exactly paint is.
Getting Into the Chemistry of Paint
There Are Two Main Components to Paint
There is pigment, which is the color itself. Most pigments are dry materials that are milled down to extremely fine particles.
And there is a binder, which holds the pigment in suspension. A binder is meant to keep the pigment fluid and workable. It also offers some protection and sealing properties, so once the paint has dried the pigment doesn’t simply fall off the canvas. This takes longer with oils, as the binder in oil paint dries through oxidation. Water-based paints will dry through evaporation.
There are also solvents and mediums that you can add to your paint to alter its fluidity or drying rate, but because of the variety available I’m keeping my focus mostly on pigments for this post.
If you want to do a deep and nerdy dive into what’s in your paint tube, here’s a great article by Bruce MacEvoy on paint composition for watercolors.
What Are Pigments Made Of?
Originally, most pigments were made from various minerals, earths or plant sources. Burnt sienna was once earth mined from Sienna that was heated to achieve its rich ruddy color. Nowadays, it’s manufactured from a mixture of iron oxide and manganese oxide. Ultramarine blue was once ground up lapis lazuli, giving it a brilliant blue hue. Today, it’s often made using iron-free clay, sodium sulfate, soda ash, sulfur, and charcoal. Most pigments today are synthetic as it allows for better quality control than in naturally occurring materials. Synthetics also tend to have better lightfastness and strength of color as there are fewer impurities in the mixture.
So What is Dangerous in Paint?
If you want to be especially safe, handle paint using gloves. Assume that for the health of the environment you shouldn’t pour anything down the drain. Some pigments may be harmful if inhaled, but as long as they aren’t sanded or sprayed then inhalation won’t be a concern for artists using paints. If you are considering using an airbrush, definitely look at the MSDS.
Of most concern are metals being washed down the drain. That water we clean our brushes in has to go somewhere, taking the paint along with it for the ride. Barium, cadmium, chromium, selenium, copper, nickel and zinc are common in certain paints, even if they’re not in the color’s name. The levels of these in our water systems are monitored by the EPA. Of course, manufacturers are going to have a far greater impact on the water system than artists, but it’s still best practices to minimize the harm that we do.
What Paints Should We be Cautious Of?
Yeah, cobalt isn’t great for you. It’s also a very expensive pigment, making cobalt hues much more accessible to most painters. These are usually a mix of phthalo blue, ultramarine blue and/or white).
Lead or Flake White
One of the oldest paint colors, its potential connection with mental illness in artists of the past has been speculated about. Goya would occasionally apply his paints with his hands and fingers. One of the multiple theories surrounding his turn into madness is that he may have been suffering from lead poisoning, leading to hallucinations, vertigo, convulsions, and partial blindness.
Lead makes for a brilliant white. It also reacts with oil to create a film that is flexible and unlikely to crack. As far as I know, flake white is only available in oil colors and is no longer easy to find. It has mostly been replaced with a lead-free color called lead white hue or flake white replacement.
If you do chance onto any lead-containing paints, definitely don’t eat it, smear it all over your face or use it for finger painting. Check with hazardous waste to see how to dispose of rags and any solvent that comes into contact with it. I don’t personally know any painters who work with lead white, but every painter I know has the following in their kits:
Cadmium is a heavy metal that can cause neurological issues, given enough exposure. It will accumulate in the body and is very difficult to remove. This is usually a concern for people who work in manufacturing with cadmium. I was always taught not to even touch these paints, but through research, I’ve found that dermal absorption is minimal. The greater concern for your personal safety is inhalation and ingestion. Don’t sand cadmium painted surfaces and don’t eat in the studio to minimize those risks.
Patented in 1919, cadmium red took over as a replacement for vermilion, which is a far more toxic paint. Vermilion was made from ground up mercury sulfide, aka cinnabar, which had a nasty habit of giving its users mercury poisoning.
There are now cadmium-free cadmiums available. Winsor and Newton list diboron trioxide, pyrithione zinc and zinc oxide as ingredients in their cad-free cadmium red.
What If I Want to Completely Avoid
Toxic Substances in my Art?
Golden has a list of products that can be disposed of down the drain. And as always, check the MSDS. Winsor Newton has made it easy to reference these. Click on any color here and you’ll find a link to its product safety data sheets. Keep in mind these may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. You also have the option of using hues, which tend to be safer than their original counterparts.
What’s the Difference Between
Cobalt Blue and Cobalt Blue Hue?
For those unfamiliar, if a paint is called a “hue” that means it was manufactured to replicate an existing color. This is usually done either because the original color is no longer available or viable to produce, if the original has toxicity concerns, or if the original pigment is expensive and the paint manufacturer wants to offer a cheaper option.
So Why Don’t We Just Use Hues?
Because of concerns over lightfastness and intensity, mostly. These issues pop up more with student quality paint than artist’s quality, though. Cadmiums will last for a hundred years or more without fading, while hues may fade in less time. On the plus side, hues are much more affordable, so they tend to be used by students and artists trying to cut down on the cost of materials. A hue isn’t always a lower quality or a bad option. Check the opacity and lightfastness against the original and look up test swatches online. Often the difference is small enough not to hinder anyone but the most particular painters.
Safety Precautions in the Studio
Don’t Put Your Brush in Your Mouth
Okay, okay, no one reading this is going to be pointing their brush tips with their saliva. I hope. (Did you learn nothing from the Radium Girls!?) But I can’t tell you how hard I cringe when I see artsy photoshoots of models with a brush held to their lips or held in their mouth. Don’t put your brush in your mouth. Unless you have mobility issues that prevent you from using your hands or your feet. Or unless you’re a goat, then I guess that’s okay, too.
Consider the Sand Disposal Method
I mentioned in my post on making art outdoors that you should pack out whatever water you used for painting, especially if you’re following Leave No Trace as an artist. But what do you do with it after you’ve packed it up? And how do you prevent adding hazardous materials to the water system when you pour paint down the drain?
If you’re working with water-based paints and want to minimize impact on our environment, consider the sand disposal method. Fill bucket with sand. Dump paint water inside. Let water evaporate, leaving the dried paint mixed into the sand. Down the road, if your material is completely saturated with dried paint, it can be taken to hazardous waste disposal.
Remember that the more surface area you have, the more that will evaporate out of your container. If you’re in a humid environment, consider using a shallow, wide tray. Unglazed clay pots without drain holes are another good option as the ceramic is porous, allowing more moisture to escape.
This is a new, clean jar- my other bucket isn’t clear and I wanted to show the layers. Plus, I’ve been doing more painting, so having two means I can alternate and prevent one from getting waterlogged. I do two layers in my jar, the top being sand and the bottom perlite. The perlite will help lighten up the container, making it easier to move and handle, along with increasing ventilation to help with evaporation.
Perlite is awesome. It’s like volcano popcorn. It’s actually a volcanic glass that contains water in its raw form. When heated, the water vaporizes explosively and expands out the glass, letting it takes up more space with much less weight. The stuff you buy has already been heat treated. You can find it at any garden center next to the potting soil.
I tend to use no more than a pint or two of H2O in every sitting. I also live is a very dry and warm environment, so evaporation isn’t an issue for me. This may not be as effective if you’re going through gallons of water. I’d recommend against turning over the sand to encourage drying. But if you must, cover the lid and wear a NIOSH mask so you don’t inhale any fine dust that the pigments might have bound to. Treat it the same as if you were spraying that paint through an airbrush or if you were sanding it off a surface. If you have the space, it might be better to make as many buckets as needed. Let them dry rather than disturbing the materials and kicking up potentially hazardous dust.
Need more info? Check out The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol.
Curious about pigments? I recommend Philip Ball’s Bright Earth if you have any interest in the history of color.