— BLOG —

The Metals Run Dry

David Hand (dir.), still from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” 1937

Arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium.  What do these things have in common?  They are all heavy metals, the kind of metals that we most associate with poison.  They are also deliciously colorful to the eye.  This tension between the seduction of these metals as colorful paints and their biological harm has changed over time.  Once, especially in the early industrial period, color won out over biology.  Today, the situation has reversed.  We are approaching a period in which none of these metals may ever be used commonly in paint.  Rather than quickly cheer this change, I think it is worth examining each of these metals a little more closely and asking the more complicated question of why it took so long for us to faze them out.   Some of these paints containing heavy metals cannot be truly replaced.  Rather than scold the painters that wish to continue to use these metals, I want to explain to a larger, non-painter audience what the fuss is about.  For the painters, I want to look forward to find alternative paints that, while not a true replacement, come close.


Arsenic, a powerful toxin, was once used as a pesticide and occasional assassins’ tool.  The beautiful Paris green (copper acetoarsenite), a popular paint color in the 19thcentury, was also one of the most toxic pigments ever used (Douma).  Even today, in our silliest children’s cartoons, the visual trope that we use to indicate that the wily villain is about to poison the hero is by way of pouring something emerald green into a drink.  In Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the evil queen poisons her apple in a green potion.  This poison’s emerald green color is identical to copper acetoarsenite.  Quite a few other green paints of similar hue are in current use.  None of them are nearly as toxic.

Brian Kelley, Mercury, 2009 (vermilion is the primary red pigment in this painting)

If arsenic is associated with green, mercury is often associated with the color of silver.  Mercury poisoning is best remembered today in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” with the character of the Mad Hatter.   A few of us might still have mercury thermometers that we are careful to not drop, lest the beads of mercury spill out and scatter like so many tiny marbles on a floor.  Far earlier than the association of the Mad Hatter or thermometer, mercury was considered one of the most important alchemical elements, critical in turning lead into gold.  Mercury was highly important to painting prior to the 19th century as it gave us a brilliant scarlet red when no other comparable alternative existed.  Cinnabar/vermilion (mercury sulfide) was used since antiquity, and was often costly (Wogan).  The introduction of cadmium red (cadmium sulfoselenide) in the early 19thcentury largely rendered vermillion obsolete, in as much as any historical pigment can ever be obsolete.  Cadmium red is very close in color, slightly more opaque, and mixes significantly more cleanly than vermilion.  Mix the two reds with a blue and the cadmium red will produce a weak violet.  Vermilion will produce mud.  As mercury can be absorbed through the skin, vermilion is perhaps the only oil color which requires the painter to wear gloves while handling.  Other heavy metals, while liable to be inhaled in pigment form, absorbed through cuts in the skin, or accidentally ingested by contact of the hand to mouth, are not dangerous in this way.

John Currin, Head Study, 21st century (Currin uses lead white in his paintings (Lifting the Veil))

Philip Pearlstein, Head of George Klauber, 1976 (Pearlstein’s cool, opaque whites are very likely titanium white)

Lead, that bogey-man of parents with young children in old houses with flakey, painted walls, is the slow killer of the heavy metals.  Small doses of arsenic can be fatal, but to die of lead one needs chronic exposure.  Interestingly, while many of the other heavy metals will eventually leave the body over time, lead will not.  Lead can be absorbed into our bones in place of calcium (Tarrangó).  Though I have not dared to try it myself, I’m told lead white (basic lead carbonate) has a sweet taste.  While lead white now competes with nontoxic zinc white (zinc oxide) and titanium white (titanium dioxide) in the paint market, it still has a special spot in the hearts of many painters (figuratively!).  When put in mixtures with other colors, lead mixes warm.  Titanium and zinc white both mix cold.  This can be a real problem for a painter trying to make warm color, warm light, warm flesh-tones, etc.  I include the example of the Currin and Pearlstein as a comparison for how much the chosen white paint can change the overall tone of color in the total piece.  Finally, lead white is one of the least brittle, quickest-drying oil colors, which makes it ideal as a primer.  Oil painters absolutely love this color, and, frankly, as few painters make their own paint anymore, there is very little chance any one of them is going to accidentally poison themselves sometime soon.  Lead is also the metal most oil painters would want to keep, as white finds its way into mixtures with nearly every other color on the palette.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911 (cadmium red is the primary red pigment used in this painting)

Cadmium, the same metal that helped save us from vermilion, is also a potent toxin.  A small amount of cadmium, like arsenic, can be fatal, and it seems that the main reason we might think of it as less toxic than arsenic is because by the 20th century many precautions were taken to limit the level of exposure for industrial workers.  Cadmium is used in a range of colors that include green, yellow, orange, red, and violet, though painters are most familiar with cadmiums that run from yellow to red.  All of the colors are opaque, strong mixers.  A good tube of cadmium red is likely a stronger mixing red than just about any other red, with the possible exception of a quinacridone red.  Cadmium yellows are also a very in-demand paint, as so few yellows are strong mixers.  Cadmium paints are punchy, bold, and quick stars in a palette.  In case of Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” the pure tube color of the red comes close to fully upstaging all other aspects of the composition.


This is the problem with cadmium red and lead white:  they are too good for painters not to want to use and too toxic for society not to want to ban.  Unlike Paris green and vermilion, there is no easy replacement.  Government regulation from the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century has increasingly banned the production and shipping of heavy metals of all kinds, as these metals really do pollute the air, water, and soil.  Painters, in response, have increasingly begun hoarding prized tubes of cadmium and lead, and the market price for the colors has dramatically increased.  Lead white, once cheap, is consistently one of the most expensive pigments on the market.  While the US banned the use of lead in house paint in the 1970s, exceptions were made for artist oil colors.  Even now, every single one of the toxic paints I have mentioned so far can be bought legally for artistic use.  They may be hard to find and very pricey, but there are a few pigment houses that specialize in historical pigments for art conservation.


Lead white is in decline largely because very few companies still manufacture the pigment.  The last US manufacturer, Halstab, ceased production around 2008.  I know this as I managed to personally buy some before they sold out.  Currently, the major lead white manufacturers all seem to be in China, and the AAA grade of lead white (whiter, less yellow, finer grain) that Halstab made doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  Some painters have gone truly medieval, making flake white the pre-industrial way, with lead scraps, vinegar, and horse manure (Groff).  While the technology is simple, the materials cheap, and the quality of pigment is high, the process is slow, labor intensive, and smelly!


New legal rules may soon end this grandfathering of heavy metals for artistic purposes.  The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the EU counterpart to America’s EPA, is currently considering a ban on all cadmium paints (Shaw).  As of writing this, a conclusive ruling from the ECHA is expected any day now.  This has led some painters to hoard tubes and others to petition against the change (Hollingshead).  Hoarding might be a viable strategy for an established middle-aged painter with the income to buy large amounts of paint and a life span expected to only last another few decades.  For young, emerging painters, they have too little money and too much time.  The fear is that if a ban on cadmium is successful, other heavy metals will follow.  As much as I personally love these colors myself, I think we are quickly approaching a time in which these colors will be used nearly exclusively for art conservation and not for contemporary art.


So, what can be done?  I’m glad you asked.  I offer, by way of triage, a few suggestions for those younger painters of limited means.  Replacement mixtures are a very tricky thing as no two pigments are alike.  Two red pigments might look identical in a glass jar, but by the time they go into paint, one will be opaque and the other will be transparent.  One will mix warm and the other will mix cold.  One will fade over time while the other will not.   I predict that over time many painters will abandon cadmiums for some of the newer arylides and pyrroles.  A generation ago, most synthetic organic pigments that were the right color matches for cadmium replacements were weak mixers, transparent, and not lightfast.  This underwhelmed oil painters, who were more than content to stick with the same heavy metal palette that Monet and Van Gogh loved so much.  Many of these newer colors have names that sound alien and awkward to speak or spell.  Acrylic painters have largely gotten over this, but many oil painters continue to refuse to buys these pigments unless they are marketed as “lead white replacement” or “cadmium red hue.”  I am specifically indebted to Bruce MacEvoy of Handprint.com and to the staff at Golden Artist Colors’ Just Paint magazine in my research to find pigments worthy of replacing the line of cadmium colors.


Painters, when shopping, make sure to look up the pigment index numbers listed on the backs of tubes.  PR 254, whatever it is called on the front of the tube, will still be listed as “PR 254” on the back.  Also, as many of the synthetic organic pigments tend to be somewhat less opaque than the heavy metal pigments, I do recommend small additions of opaque whites, specifically titanium white.  Just as some painters like to lighten deep blues with a small amount of white to increase saturation without making the color look like a tint, a small amount of titanium white can significantly increase the opacity of the paint before dramatically lightening the value of the color.  Earth colors (iron oxides:  yellow ochre, raw siena, burnt siena) can also be used in small amounts if the colors need to be desaturated or warmed.


Lead White Replacement


Mix titanium white with a small amount of yellow ochre (hydrated iron oxide).  The small addition of the ochre will counteract the titanium white’s tendency to mix cold.  Additionally, mixing in chalk (calcium carbonate) or really any colorless filler will make the titanium white less opaque and less dominant in mixtures.  Quite a few old masters, unhappy with how opaque lead white was, used chalk in this way.  A few paint companies already sell variations of this mixture.  Try to avoid any mixtures that use zinc white, as this paint is brittle.  This replacement mixture is by no means as good as your favorite tube of lead white, but it mixes significantly more like lead white than titanium or zinc white would in a pure form.


Cadmium Yellow Light Replacement


Mix arylide yellow 5GX (PY 74) with a smallamount of white for increased opacity.  While the arylide/hansa family is composed mostly of colors known for weak lightfastness, arylide yellow 5GX has a lightfastness rating of I.  Alternatively, consider using bismuth yellow (bismuth vandanate), a slightly weaker, more transparent metal-based color that otherwise mixes a lot like cadmium yellow.  Add yellow ochre if color is too saturated.  Arylide yellow 10G (PY 3) is a very cool yellow, should you want something even more lemony, though it is far more transparent and has a lightfastness rating of II.


Cadmium Yellow Deep Replacement


Mix diarylide yellow (PY 83) with a small amount of white for increased opacity.  Diarylide yellow has a lightfastness of I and may actually be the most lightfast organic yellow in common use.  Add yellow ochre if color is too saturated.


Cadmium Orange Replacement


Mix pyrrole orange (PO 73) with a small amount of white for increased opacity.  This color for whatever reason is relatively easy to find in acrylics but not oils.  It may also be labeled vaguely.  Winsor & Newton’s Winsor Orange is currently pyrrole orange.  The color currently has no ASTM lightfastness rating, though it is often considered to have a rating of I.  Alternatively,  mix perinone orange (PO 43) with a small amount of white for increased opacity and a small amount of yellow ochre to push the color away from being too red.  Perinone orange is not currently rated by the ASTM for lightfastness.  Depending on the manufacturer it may rate at I or II.    Add raw siena if color is too saturated.


Cadmium Red Light Replacement


Mix pyrrole red (diketopyrrole-pyrrole red, PR 254) with a smallamount of white for increased opacity.  For oil colors, it may come under different names (ex:  Winsor Red), though it is commonly referred to as pyrrole red in acrylic paint lines.  There is no ASTM lightfast rating, though it is considered to have a rating of I.  Add burnt siena if color is too saturated.


Cadmium Red Dark Replacement


Mix pyrrole red (diketopyrrole-pyrrole rubine, PR264) with a small amount of white for increased opacity.  This pyrrole (PR 264) is very similar to PR 254 (and also PR 255), except it is darker and more red-violet.  Like PR 254, you will have to hunt a little to find a tube of if you are buying it in oil.  There is no ASTM lightfast rating, though it is considered to have a rating of I.  Add burnt siena if color is too saturated.


I look forward to hearing from you about what you think of these substitutions, or if you think you have even better suggestions.




Clark, Nick, and Sarah Allidina.  “Cadmium:  The Rare Paint Pigment Faces a Europe-Wide Ban and Artists Are Seeing Red.”  The Independent.  Web.  25 September 2014.

Douma, Michael, curator. “Emerald Green.”  Pigments through the Ages.  Web.  Institute for Educational Development.  2008.  19 December 2014.

Groff, Larry.  “The Great Lead White Shortage.”  Painting Perceptions.  Web.  1 January 2012.

Hand, David.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Walt Disney Productions.  1937.  Film.

Hollingshead, Josh.  “Stop the EU Ban of Cadmium in Artist’s Paints.”  38 Degrees.  Web.  19 December 2014.

“Lifting The Veil:  Old Masters, Pornography, and the Work of John Currin.” The New Yorker.  28 January 2008.  Print.

MacEvoy, Bruce.  “Guide to Watercolor Pigments.”  Handprint.  Web.  2013.  19 December 2014.

Matisse, Henri.  The Red Studio.  1911.  Museum of Modern Art.  Web.  19 December 2014.

Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena.  “Ban on Cadmium Pigments Could Change Art Forever.”  Artnet News.  Web.  25 September 2014.

Pearlstein, Philip.  Head of George Klauber.  1976.  Brooklyn Museum.  Web.  19 December 2014.

Shaw, Anny.  “Artists See Red Over Cadmium Ban.”  The Art Newspaper.  Web.  25 September 2014.

Tarrangó, Oscar.  “Lead Toxicity:  What is the Biological Fate of Lead?” Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.  Web.  15 August 2010.

“Will Cadmium Always Be On the Palette?  Alternative Pigments Are Becoming Available.”  Just Paint.  Issue 4.  October 1996.  Print.

Wogan, Tim.  “Mercury’s Dark Influence on Art.”  Chemistry World.  Web.  29 October 2013.