I’ve been painting for about a decade. During that time I haven’t developed an affinity for any brands, but I have reached a point where I prefer the middle-of-the-road paints in terms of price. Spending some extra on a heavy body acrylic or a paint that contains higher quality pigments is an expense I’m willing to take on even though I’m far from a professional. When I was in college an employee at All Media Art Supply in Kent explained to me how to compare different brands together based on the pigments that are added to the paints. Up to that point I hadn't given much thought to why so many paints are named after a particular ingredient like “Titanium White”, “Quinacridone Magenta”, and “Phthalocyanine Blue”.
“Cadmium” is used to name a variety of colors: cadmium red, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow. It’s used in the name of more colors than other pigments. But lately I’ve started to notice brands abandoning cadmium altogether and renaming their colors to “Cadmium-Free Such-and-Such”.
Why is cadmium being ousted? Is it because cadmium, like several other pigments, is an expensive material to stuff into paint tubes? As it turns out, it’s a safety concern.
Cadmium is a naturally occurring metal that forms bright, yellow salts when bonded with other elements. These salts are used as pigments that are so strong they often need to be weakened when added to a paint. Cadmium, historically, gave warm colors their vibrancy in paints and pastels and it’s also lightfast, meaning it doesn’t fade easily when exposed to light. There are paintings over a century old that have maintained their vibrancy and color because of cadmium-based pigments.
Unfortunately, cadmium is also highly toxic and carcinogenic. Inhaling cadmium dust can cause chronic lung conditions. The dust is a serious hazard of working with chalk pastels that contain cadmium (thankfully, most consumer pastels do not). Cadmium poisoning can also affect the bones and kidneys with kidney failure being a potentially lethal outcome of cadmium exposure. There is also an environmental concern with cadmium as it tends to make its way into our waters and fish.
Since cadmium has been a common ingredient in paints for decades (similar to how lead was commonly added to almost all paints before the 1970s), cadmium ingestion is also a concern when it’s used to color dishware, glassware, and toys. There have been a number of product recalls related to cadmium being found in otherwise food-safe items.
Liquitex’s FAQ recognizes there is debate about the dangers of cadmium pigments, but their switch to cadmium-free pigments entitles their paints to receive the AP symbol from ACMI. Meaning for the first time, possibly in the company’s history, they are selling red and yellow acrylic paints that have been deemed non-toxic. Golden, another paint company, ran an article in defense of cadmium, arguing that it's safe when used properly by professionals and that alternative pigments don't cut it.
I’m going to use up my last remaining tubes of cadmium-based paint (paint is not exactly cheap), but I have no problems with switching to the cadmium-free alternatives that many of the brands on the market have turned to. Most are still in a stage where their promotional materials offer a side-by-side comparison of their colors with and without cadmium and the vibrancy is there, but they may look a little different. What do you think? Is cadmium an unmatched pigment that the art market needs or can it go the way of “mummy brown” (I may write a separate article on that one)?