Throwback Thursday - Arts Beat January 2018 - 4
Stephen Near


Arts Hazards Follow-Up - Dirty Old Masters May Have Had Their Fingers in the Pot

January 1990

Craven, David. Aimless. 1975. Art Gallery of Hamilton. Virtual Museum. Online. January 2018.


Quick - what did Rubens, Renoir, Dufy and Klee have in common?

By Ted Rickard, Director of Health and Safety, OCA

You probably will not have guessed that these painters may all have been poisoned by their art materials. So claims a research paper published recently by The Lancet, the prestigious publication of the British Medical Association (see footnote 1).

Rubens, Renoir and Dufy suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, while Klee had progressive systemic sclerosis. The authors of the study analyzed randomly selected paintings of these old masters and compared them to paintings of contemporaries who did not suffer such health problems. They found that the four “used significantly more bright and clear colours based on toxic heavy metals and fewer earth colours containing harmless iron carbon compounds. These four painters may have been heavily exposed to mercury sulphide, cadmium sulphide, arsenic sulphide, lead, antimony, cobalt, manganese and chromium, the metals of the bright and clear colours, and exposure to these metals may be of importance in the development of inflammatory rheumatic diseases.”

Then, as now, poor artists tended to live and cook in the same space in which they painted, and their food could easily have been contaminated by their paint pigments. Many of these were ground by hand in powder form, and ingesting or inhaling toxic powders are very efficient ways of poisoning oneself over a long period. Nothing was known about the dangers of certain pigments, and some artists were very sloppy in their habits. Furthermore, a heating stove would often be fed with paint-soaked rags and old paintings, thus producing toxic fumes from the pigments. The researchers point out that “Artists today ues less toxic pigments, tubes of paint carry warning labels and artists know that they should not lick brushes or burn colours indoors.

This statement may be true for the researchers’ native Denmark, but I wonder whether it is valid in Canada. There are still a number of toxic pigments on the market today, tubes of paint do not always have warnings (and who reads fine print anyway?). Most artists have at some time licked their brushes or pointed them with their lips - haven’t you?

While you may be using toxic pigments, there is no reason to panic if you are reasonably certain that you are keeping them out of your body. Stop and think about your studio practices, the amount of paint on your fingers after a day’s work, and whether you habitually put your fingers or brushes in your mouth. Realize that dusts and powders can be inhaled easily, as can mists from airbrushes and sprays. You can also add small but significant amounts of unexpected “flavouring” to whatever you eat, drink, or smoke if you persist in doing it in your studio, or with dirty fingers.

Take a look at your collection of colours, read the labels carefully, and compare them to the table of toxic pigments below. Names and ingredients will vary sometimes and it is not intended to be a definitive list. For example, automobile paints and canvas primers also contain highly toxic lead pigments. However, when used with common sense and good housekeeping habits none of these materials should cause you problems: just keep them out of your body. The health hazards of solvents are an entirely different problem.

Toxic Paint Pigments

Alternative names are listed after the common name with the major active ingredients in parentheses. This table is adapted from McCann’s Artist Beware (footnote 2) from which more information on most of these pigments can be obtained.


  •  Antimony White (barium sulphate, antimony trioxide)


  • Emerald Green/Paris Green (copper acetoarsenite)

Cadmium -  all pigments containing cadmium


  • Carbon Black/Lamp Black

Chromium     - all pigments containing chromium including:

  • Zinc Yellow (zinc chromate)
  • - Strontium Yellow (strontium chromate)
  • - Barium Yellow (barium chromate)
  • - Lemon Yellow (barium or strontium chromate)
  • - Chromium Oxide Green (chromic oxide)
  • - Molybdate Orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate and lead sulphate)
  • - Viridian (hydrous chromic oxide)


  • Cobalt Violet (cobalt phosphate)
  •  Cobalt Violet (cobalt arsenate)
  • Cobalt Blue/ Thenard’s Blue (cobalt and aluminum oxide)
  • Cobalt Green (cobalt and zinc oxides)


  • Phthalocyanine Blue/Thalo Blue/Cyan Blue (copper phthalocyanine)
  • Phthalocyanine Green/Thalo Green/Cyan Green(copper phthalocyanine)
  • Scheele’s Green (copper arsenite)


  • All pigments containing lead, including Chrome Green, Milori Green (lead chromate, ferric ferrocyanide)
  • Chrome Orange (lead chromate)
  • Chrome Yellow/Primrose (lead chromate)
  • Flake White/White Lead/Cremnitz White (basic lead carbonate and zinc oxide)
  • Mixed White (basic lead carbonate and zinc oxide)
  • True Naples Yellow (lead antimonate)


  • Manganese Blue (barium manganate and barium sulphate)
  • Manganese Violet (manganese ammonium phosphate)
  • Burnt Umber (manganese dioxide)
  • Raw Umber (clay, iron, manganese silicates and oxides)
  • Mars Brown (manganese dioxide)


  • Vermilion/Cinnabar (mercuric sulphide)
  • Cadmium Vermilion Red (cadmium mercuric sulphide)


  • Lithopone (barium sulphate, zinc oxide, zinc sulphide)


Pigments with Slight or No Significant Hazards

Alizarin Crimson/Rose Madder
Alumina (aluminum hydrate, aluminum oxide)
Barium White/Blanc Fixe (barium sulphide)
Burnt Sienna (iron oxides)
Chalk (calcium carbonate)
English Red/ Light Red (iron oxides)
Indian Red (iron oxides)
Ivory Black (charred animal bones)
Mars Black (iron oxide)
Mars Orange (iron and aluminum oxides)
Mars Red (iron oxide)
Mars Violet (iron oxide)
Mars Yellow (iron oxide)
Prussian Blue/Paris Blue/Berlin Blue/Iron Blue (ferric ferrocyanide)
Raw Sienna (clay with iron and aluminum oxides)
Titanium Oxide/Titanium White (titanium dioxide)
Ultramarine Blue (sodium and aluminum silicate with sulphur)
Ultramarine Red/Violet (sodium and aluminum silicate with sulphur)
Venetian Red/Terra Rosa (iron oxides)
Yellow Ochre (iron oxide)
Zinc White/Chinese White (zinc oxide)



  1. Lisbet Milling Pedersen and Henrick Permin. “Rheumatic Disease, Heavy Metal Pigments, and the Great Masters.” The Lancet (June 4, 1988): 1267-1

  2. Michael McCann. Artist Beware. New York: Watson-Cuptill, 1979

This article reprinted with permission from the spring 29189 issue The Ontario College of Art Alumnus magazine.


Rickard, Ted. “Art Hazards Follow-Up - Dirty Old Masters May Have Had Their Fingers in the Pot.” Arts Beat, vol. 3, no. 4, Dec. ‘89 -Jan.1990, p. 13.