Made in America: Finding Healthy Pigments

A Journey Toward Sustainability, Part III

Then there’s the artist’s favorite – color. Way back in the day, artists collected their own minerals. Then they hand-ground them into powder and mixed them with oil/water/egg or whatever delivery medium worked for their craft. It was labor-intensive and time-consuming.

 Manufacturing Artists’ Paint 

Commercial production of artist’s paint began in the mid-1800s. Slowly over the years, heavy metals and other chemicals were introduced to help create a broader range of colors. To an artist, having more colors available is like being a 10-year-old kid in a candy store, so the availability of more colors was celebrated. But until the last couple decades, no one questioned that these additives might be harmful. 

A combination of artificial and natural earth pigments is standard today in manufacturing artists’ pigments ranging from chalk pastels to various paints, inks, and glazes. Some of these pigments are safe, and some are ‘considered safe,’ but there is evidence that long-term exposure to some can be unhealthy.  

The majority of my high-end paints are non-toxic, but one of my favorite blues contains a copper-based pigment created through a chemical process – a big bummer for me. While I always wear gloves when I paint, and the paint isn’t a powder that can be airborne, I’m now researching and testing options for replacing that color. 

There’s also a couple great companies in American that supply natural earth-based pigments to artists. The color ranges are limited, but overall they’re beautiful, clean, and non-toxic.  

Can Pigments Be Sustainable? 

For the sake of sustainability, I buy local, handmade pigment sticks (oil bars). When I became concerned about what type of pigments are in my colors, I asked the maker for Saftey Data Sheets (SDS). Now I know precisely what the colorants are, their source, and what their level of toxicity might be, if any. 

One of the disappointments of all natural pigments is that they come from all over the world. In the US, we don’t have sources for some of the different minerals used to make colorants. To balance this, I buy paint made in the US. There are several American pigment manufacturers, and a simple web search will help any artist find them.