The Safety of Paint Pigments
The Big Boo: A Tutorial
A Goddess's Gift
News for November!
The Safety of Paint PigmentsHealthy Green Artists
by Janet Chui
This month's installment is the perfect sequel to the discussion of paint vehicles. For all traditional artists, we can't work without pigment! All digital pixel-pushing artists reading this can once again snicker and move along. Traditional artists do have one item up on digital artists - the colors on our paint tubes (or physical-world weapon of choice) are way more interesting than those Pantone, RGB, and CYMK series of numbers. Whereas digital artists have to use #ff0033, us traditional painters get to call it sexy Rose Madder! Take that! Haha! Because the color is named right on the label (and also comes from the plant from which the original pigment was obtained). Traditional artists get to talk about Cobalt versus Ultramarine versus Prussian versus Pthalo, and those are just the some of the different types of blue.
Quick recap: All traditional coloring media are pigments mixed with a vehicle. Last month's column tackled the vehicles of various media - and there's no need to do that this month, since the properties of various media mainly come from the vehicles or binders. The pigment that goes into making, say, Scarlet Lake watercolor will roughly the same as that going into Scarlet Lake oil or acrylic paint. But, I do have to emphasize the word roughly. We'll tackle that in a bit. First we're going to introduce what pigment is, and give quick summary of its history.
Pigment is a colorant that in its purest, rawest form is powder. The earliest cave paintings were executed with naturally occurring iron oxides, ochres and ashes. Before the Industrial Revolution, cloth-makers and artists obtained their pigment for dyes and paints from ground down minerals, shellfish, and parts of plants. With all the known pigments coming from vegetable, animal, or vegetable sources only, some certain pigments (like royal purple and blue) were rare depending on their source, and became symbols of wealth and power. Us modern artists (should I say modern "traditional" artists?) can be thankful we no longer need cow urine to obtain Indian Yellow, or need mercury-laced compounds for Vermillion. With the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, the field of organic chemistry was a sexy, sexy scientific field in which a chemist could make a fortune by discovering synthetic alternatives to rare or toxic pigments.
Which leads us to the present day. Pigments can be categorized into inorganic and organic pigments. (Synthetic pigments fall under organic pigments - confusing if you're an organic food person, huh?)
Inorganic pigments tend to be quite light-fast, coming from the earth, and/or manufactured from metals or minerals. (The original "Lead White" paint being a great example of an inorganic pigment. The cadmium colors are inorganic too.)
Organic pigments come from plant or animal sources, or they can also be synthesized - though some people note that not enough of the synthesized pigments have been studied for long-term effects. The pigments from plant and animal sources tend to be safe - but the colors do fade, making them "fugitive" colors. (Not unlike the changing colors in nature!)
Knowing the safety of artist pigments requires knowledge of the toxic or hazardous minerals that make them. Let's quickly go over the elements we know are bad for human health: Mercury, Lead, Cadmium, Chromium VI. Hazardous compounds to note: Copper and Cobalt compounds (and of course, compounds of all the elements in the previous list). Common effects from these various substances include cancer, nerve and organ damage. And just to remember for a moment that we're also trying to be green (I mean, environmentally conscious) here, pigments with hazard substances are hell on factory workers and the living environment to produce too.
Before you start viewing all your inorganic paints with trepidation, note that not all your Cobalt and Cadmium and Chrome colors may be unsafe... a giveaway is if your paint comes with the word "Hue" in it, indicating a synthetic equivalent. If the word is absent or present, you should still also notice your paint's safety label.
But the second best thing to do is to go to the website of your paint (or crayon) manufacturer, and find their MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets). Some synthetics still use the original name of the color even though the formula used is no longer the original non-synthetic pigment. Ultramarine colors are an example. At the same time, toxic original pigments in paint are still available in stores, though the most toxic pigments, like the original lead carbonate that made Lead White, are rare (but not outlawed from artist's paints). You'll know that your paint is the original hazardous inorganic stuff if the MSDS for your specific paint product is covered in warnings. (In the immortal words from the HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy, don't panic. Follow the MSDS instructions for safe use. Or if you choose to dispose of a toxic substance, follow the guidelines of your local government on how to dispose of toxic substances.
You can also be more mindful when buying replacement paint tubes (or crayons) of your favorite colors that you've used up. Online search engines (or WIKIpedia) make it easy to determine if your favorite color was/is originally an organic or inorganic color. Manufacturers regularly put out different grades of paints - with student grade colors frequently using the new synthetic pigments. Crazy purists (I'm one to an extent) and professional artists sometimes find it worth it to fork out more money for professional grade colors (you get greater brilliance and transparency for certain colors) - some of which use the original toxic pigments. Well, a lazy way to be safer about this is to only purchase organic pigments when paying for professional grade.
But the best thing to do, in addition to reading and familiarizing yourself with MSDS, is regularly looking up if there are health concerns related to the ingredients of your paints. Because the MSDS won't cover everything either! (Some paint brands also do not put their MSDS online - you may have to contact them for the MSDS for a specific product.
Take care to minimize exposure through inhalation (a prime concern for those people who mix their own paints or dyes), skin contact, and ingestion. To be safe, this should apply to paint of inorganic and synthetic pigments - because synthesized pigments are no gaurantee a pigment is safe - just that it is safer in relation to its original predecessor!
I highly recommend the following list:
Health & Safety in the Arts: Painting & Drawing Pigments (Bookmark it!)
Here's another, though older, and not too HTML-friendly:
And to start you off the journey of reading Materials Safety Data Sheets, some quick jump-off points to a few paint websites that have their MSDS libraries available online!
Happy and safe painting to you!
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