Pigments are the colorants composed of particles that are insoluble in the application medium [2]. Pigments are colored, colorless, or fluorescent particulate organic or inorganic finely divided solids which are usually insoluble in, and essentially chemically unaffected by, the vehicle or medium in which they are incorporated. They alter appearance either by selective absorption and/or scattering of light. Organic and inorganic pigment powders are finely divided crystalline solids that are essentially insoluble in application media such as ink or paint [11].

Ever since prehistoric time, man has been fascinated to color the objects of daily use employing inorganic salts or natural pigments of vegetable, animal, and mineral origins [6]. The first known pigment from prehistoric time are minerals limonite and hematite (red ochre, yellow ochre and umber), charcoal from the fire (carbon black), burnt bones (bone black), and white from grounded calcite (lime white). In Antiquity time, the first inorganic pigments known are Iron oxide pigments (red ochre, yellow ochre and umber), Lead pigments (lead white and red lead), and mercury sulfide mineral (Vermilion) [4]. Nowadays, many kinds of organic and inorganic pigments are available. even though it has many benefit in our life, some pigments have negative effect to human body. During the antiquity time, many toxic pigments were made and used until 19th century, but some of the toxic pigments still being used until now.

There are three most deadly pigments, there are Lead White, Scheele Green, and Radium Orange [9]. Lead white has the warmest masstone of all the whites. It has a very subtle reddish-yellow undertone that is almost unnoticeable, or comparing lead white side by side with other kinds of white. This undertone is minimal in the best quality of lead whites. Lead white (native mineral is cerussite) is a carbonate of lead which was in use since antiquity and was prepared from metallic lead and vinegar. It was the only white used in European easel paintings until the 19th century when its poisonous lead content restricted its manufacture and sale as an artist’s pigment. Lead white is also the fastest drying of all of the whites because of the drying action of the lead pigment upon the oil. This makes lead white particularly valuable for painters who need a relatively fast drying time for underpainting or Alla Prima techniques [4].

Scheele's Green, also called Schloss Green, is chemically a cupric hydrogen arsenite (also called copper arsenite or acidic copper arsenite), CuHAsO₃. It is chemically related to Paris Green. It is a yellowish-green pigment which in the past was used in some paints, but has since fallen out of use because of its toxicity and the instability of its color in the presence of sulfides and various chemical pollutants. Scheele's Green was invented in 1775 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele [14]. Emerald Green is a poisonous copper-acetoarsenite developed in an attempt to improve Scheele's green in 1808 and commercially available from 1814. This became known in England as emerald green, and for a time it was the finest green pigment known, rapidly displacing Scheele's Green. Unusually it has a brilliant blue-green to green color with fair hiding power. Unfortunately, it is also chemically not stable and very poisonous and therefore was used just until early 1900s. Because it was quite cheap to manufacture, emerald green was used not only as an artist’s paint but as a household paint: it was widely used on patterned wallpaper. This made damp rooms death traps, and in the 1860s the British Times newspaper expressed alarm about the possibility that young children were being killed by the deadly fumes emanating from their bedroom walls. It is believed that Napoleon’s death in exile on St Helena was hastened this way. It can be seen more in water color medium particularly sea and landscapes [4].

Uranium oxide (main material of Radium Orange) was used to color glass and ceramics prior to World War II, and until the applications of radioactivity were discovered this was its main use. In 1958 the military in both the USA and Europe allowed its commercial use again as depleted uranium, and its use began again on a more limited scale. Urania-based ceramic glazes are dark green or black when fired in a reduction or when UO2 is used; more commonly it is used in oxidation to produce bright yellow, orange and red glazes [13].

Pigments are the basis of all paints, and have been used for millennia. They are ground colored material. Early pigments were simply as ground earth or clay, and were made into paint with spit or fat. Modern pigments are often sophisticated masterpieces of chemical engineering. In a microscope, paintings and other painted objects consist simply of pigments suspended in a substance – like chips in a chocolate chip cookie. The "substance" can vary, from oil or egg yolk in paintings, to plaster in frescos, or sophisticated plastics in automobile finishes [4].

Today pigments are mostly safe for human, although there are still many toxic pigment that being used until now, the use of toxic pigments are done safely and controlled. But for some art pigment there is ambiguity of the pigment material. Hazards in the arts have been an issue for artists for centuries. Artists' pigments should be handled with care, as some of them are poisonous and can have serious effects on the health of the painter. Many artists may feel that they are exposed to toxic painting pigments in such small quantities that no danger to their health is likely. However, it is important to understand that repeated small doses of hazardous materials may prove to have a cumulative effect on the painter's health that may become evident at a later date. The body may be able to rid itself of the poison, but it may take a long time to do so. If toxic material is absorbed at a faster rate than it can be excreted, the accumulation may cause serious illness [7].

Caroline Roberts state in the website that, “Health and safety isn't often mentioned in connection with fine arts, but we are exposed to more toxins than we may be aware of. You may know that the cadmiums are toxic but what about your other paint colors? Are they toxic? I am not saying do not use toxic paints. In fact, my research leads me to believe that would be pretty much impossible, but you should know what you are handling and take care. A little chemistry: most, but not all, of the toxicity issues are associated with heavy, or toxic, metals such as copper, cobalt, cadmium, lead. Over time these poison that are inside the body and many are known or suspected to be carcinogens. If you remember your periodic table from chemistry, these are transition metals from that central section. So, a quick rule of thumb is that if there's a heavy metal in the pigment name, it's probably toxic. Below are lists of highly toxic and moderately toxic pigments used in acrylic and oil paints, possibly in pastels and other dry media too. Since color names can be inconsistent, the pigment name follows in parentheses. The pigment used is usually listed somewhere on the tube. Some of the 'hue' colors contain less toxic pigments, e.g. my Cadmium Red Hue contains Toluidine Red (moderately toxic) in place of Cadmium Red (highly toxic), however it is not as opaque as a true cadmium red.

Highly Toxic Pigments

  • antimony white (antimony trioxide)
  • barium yellow (barium chromate)
  • burnt or raw umber (iron oxides, manganese silicates or dioxide)
  • cadmium red, orange or yellow (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide)
  • chrome green (Prussian blue, lead chromate)
  • chrome orange (lead carbonate)
  • chrome yellow (lead chromate)
  • cobalt violet (cobalt arsenate or cobalt phosphate)
  • cobalt yellow (potassium cobalt nitrate)
  • lead or flake white (lead carbonate)
  • lithol red (sodium, barium and calcium salts of azo pigments)
  • manganese violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)
  • molybdate orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate, lead sulfate)
  • naples yellow (lead antimonate)
  • strontium yellow (strontium chromate)
  • vermilion (mercuric sulfide)
  • zinc sulfide
  • zinc yellow (zinc chromate)

Moderately Toxic Pigments

  • alizarin crimson
  • carbon black
  • cerulean blue (cobalt stannate)
  • cobalt blue (cobalt stannate)
  • cobalt green (calcined cobalt, zinc and aluminum oxides)
  • chromium oxide green (chromic oxide)
  • Phthalo blue and greens (copper phthalocyanine)
  • manganese blue (barium manganate, barium sulfate)
  • Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide)
  • toluidine red and yellow (insoluble azo pigment)
  • viridian (hydrated chromic oxide)
  • zinc white (zinc oxide).” [12]

From Caroline Robert’s explanation about “Toxicity of Pigment”, it can be concluded that about the recent situation of art pigments, many of art pigments are still contain harmful substances for human being. But is there any effort from any institution to handle the art pigment that contained harmful substances for human? Why are the art pigments that contain harmful substance for human still being used? This will be discussed further.

Many art materials produced today are safe to use, but only if reasonable precautions are taken. Artists’ materials may contain volatile solvents, lead, harmful dust, or other toxic substances. As an example, cadmium is an extremely toxic metal found in today’s oil paints (cadmium red, cadmium yellow, etc.). Lead, arsenic, chromium, silica dust, etc., can also be found in selected art materials. These art supplies can be purchased but with the caveat that their availability in the marketplace assumes proper manufacturing techniques, use, disposal, and so on [8].

There are several institutions that were aware of the importance of safety of art equipment especially the art pigment, one of them is The Art & Creative Materials Institute. The Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) states: "The Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc. (ACMI) is an international association, composed of a diverse and involved membership, and is recognized as the leading authority on art and creative materials. Founded in 1936, ACMI was organized to assist its members in providing the public with art and creative materials for children and artists that are non-toxic. The Institute's members are art and creative material manufacturers, and currently there are over 210 members. Of the 60,000 art and creative material formulations evaluated to date, 100% of the children's products and 85% of those meant for the adult artist are certified as non-toxic. All products in the program undergo extensive toxicological evaluation and testing before they are granted the right to bear the ACMI certification seals." [1]

E.L. Kinnelly state in the website that “You should also be aware that the word "non-toxic" is unregulated and not covered under any US federal law. Something can rightly be called "non-toxic" when it has been tested, and its ingredients tested separately, and then the test methods and test results are available to consumers. There are more than 150,000 art materials products on the market - not all of them have been tested.” [8]

Even though there are many untested art materials such as art pigment, there is an institution that can provide comprehensive, up-to-date, accurate information about the art material. The Art Materials Information and Education Network (AMIEN) states they are "a resource for artists dedicated to providing the most comprehensive, up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased factual information about artists' materials… …information is based on the most current scientific knowledge from peer-reviewed sources regarding quality, durability, and health hazards, and on original research conducted at AMIEN." [5]

They provide lectures and workshops on a variety of topics including health and safety, artist’s tools, solvents, thinners, varnishes, coatings, tempera, encaustic, pastels, and so on [8].

There are a host of sites devoted to the topic of artist materials and artist health issues on the Internet, one of them is State of California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has a list of art and craft materials that cannot be legally purchased for children in grades K-6 for California schools [8]. The State of California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment state that “The California Education Code Section 32064 prohibits schools from ordering or purchasing any product that contains toxic or carcinogenic substances for use in grades K-6. The law also restricts the purchase of such products in grades 7-12, allowing the use only if the product bears a label informing the user of the presence of hazardous ingredients, the potential health effects, and instructions for the safe use. This restriction applies whether or not the product is included on the list of unacceptable art and crafts supplies.” [10]



From the explanation about the current condition of art pigment, it can be concluded that:

  • There are many institutions that aware of the dangers of toxic substances in art pigment. Much effort from the institution that have done to overcome the dangers of toxic substances in art pigment, such as creating a safe art pigment, classifying the dangers and safe art pigment, making instruction how to use art pigment safely, etc.  
  • Toxic pigments are still being used because the toxic substance that is contained in the toxic pigment had some beneficial properties that are wanted by any artist, such as white lead, or lead (II) carbonate (PbCO3), it was once widely used to paint wooden surfaces in homes. Other lead compounds, like vivid yellow lead chromate (PbCrO4), were used as colored pigments. As well as giving the paint its tint, lead pigments are highly opaque, so that a relatively small amount of the compound can cover a large area. White lead is very insoluble in water, making the paint highly water-resistant with a durable, washable finish. Lead carbonate can also neutralize the acidic decomposition products of some of the oils that make up the paint, so the coating stays tough, yet flexible and crack-resistant, for longer [3].
  • Even though there are several laws that ban the existence of the toxic pigment, many toxic pigment still exist and still being used. it is because in the nineteenth century, many of toxic pigment produced. until today some of toxic pigment existence still remains unknown, whether it still exists or not.
  • Today, some of art pigment that is being produced still contain a harmful substance, but in limited quantity and the hazardous sign is labeled on the container. So, the only way to use the art pigment safely is by using it properly, following the instruction that is given, and dumps it carefully.

Written by Aditya Widhi W / 2001611831



  1. ACMI. (2011). Retrieved from acmiart.org: https://acmiart.org/
  2. Broadbent, A. (2001). Basic principles of textile coloration. West Yorkshire: Society of Dyers and Colourists.
  3. Crow, J. M. (2007, August 21). Why use lead in paint? Retrieved from chemistryworld.com: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/why-use-lead-in-paint/3004319.article
  4. Douma, M. (2017, October 25). webexhibits.org. Retrieved from webexhibits: http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/
  5. Golden Artist Colors, I. (2007, January 1). AMIEN: The Art Materials Information and Education Network. Retrieved from justpaint.org: http://www.justpaint.org/amien-the-art-materials-information-and-education-network/
  6. Gürses, A., Açıkyıldız, M., Güneş, K., & Gürses, M. S. (2016). Dyes and Pigments. Springer International Publishing.
  7. Kay, R. (1983). The Painter's Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  8. Kinnally, E. L. (2011). Art Materials Safety Painting Safety; Painting Hazards. Retrieved from pixelatedpalette.com: http://www.pixelatedpalette.com/artmaterialssafety.html
  9. Maranto, J. V. (2017, May 9). TED-Ed. Retrieved from ed.ted.com: https://ed.ted.com/lessons/history-s-deadliest-colors-j-v-maranto
  10. OEHHA. (2016). Art Hazards and Children's Health at OEHHA. Retrieved from oehha.ca.gov: https://oehha.ca.gov/risk-assessment/art-hazards
  11. Othmer, K. (1998). Encyclopedia of chemical technology fourth edition, vol 19. New York: Wiley.
  12. Roberts, C. (2009, February 2). Toxicity of Pigments. Retrieved from carolineroberts.blogspot.co.id: http://carolineroberts.blogspot.co.id/2009/01/toxicity-of-pigments.html
  13. Stefan. (2017). Uran in der Keramik . Retrieved from uranglasuren.com.
  14. Szalajda, M. F. (1999). ARTISTS' PIGMENTS 1780-1880: HISTORY AND USES. Retrieved from StudioMara.com: http://www.lilinks.com/mara/history.html