What Are Paints Made From?

We often get customers in the shop asking what the pigments in our paints are made from such as Cadmium Red and Ultramarine and what the difference is between artist and student quality paint. Artist quality paints are mainly made from pigments ground from the earth such as Yellow Ochre, others are manufactured chemically from the metal cadmium such as Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow.

Student quality paint however, is a synthetic mixture that closely mimics the real pigment, but is often not as bright or permanent. A student quality paint can be identified by the word ‘hue’ written after a colour. I thought I would share with you a brief, interesting and sometimes amusing history of the lengths artists would go to make the colours they needed.

Historically, artists would make their own paint in their studios by mixing the pigment with either gum Arabic for watercolour or linseed oil to make an oil paint. Traditionally, Sepia was made from the ink sacks of cuttle fish, Indian Yellow was (allegedly) made from the urine of cows who has been fed on mango leaves, and Vermillion was made from the highly toxic Mercuric Sulphide. Egyptian Brown was historically made by grinding the remains of Egyptian mummies! Some greens were created by mixing copper sulphide and arsenic, but when the colour got damp it gave off a toxic gas. Thankfully, these colours are either no longer made or have safer modern alternatives.

In years gone by, artists could be identified by their pallor; their sunken cheeks and dark rings under the eyes weren’t from a late night painting, but from the chemicals inhaled or absorbed into the skin as they mixed their colours or painted on their canvases. How thankful we are that the tube of paint was created along with the legislation to makes paints safer! Even today, owing to where pigments are found or how they are made, there are still some high quality paints manufactured that do carry a warning due to the pigments used. The better the quality of paint, the higher the chance of it being slightly toxic. These paints give brighter, stronger more permanent colour and are perfectly fine to use as long as you don’t suck your brushes!

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