Heavy Metals Be Damned: Cadmium Orange Gouache Is Fun!

March 6, 2010

Thinking about Cadmium Orange on my gouache palette.

Above: A Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch of resident Life-Model Gert, with gouache (Schmincke and M. Graham) in the current journal which I made with Magnani Annigoni Designo paper—which is a lovely tan color and flecked with dark fibers. I used Cadmium Orange (still on my large travel palette of gouache—a square Schmincke half-pan box that holds 27 colors after modification) and had so much fun with it that I started spattering it all  over the image. Collaged paper at the head and tail of the page spread (Gert's body covers some of it) is 90 lb. watercolor paper left over from covering books that. I stuck it down before painting on this page spread.

OK, the resident safety officer says Cadmium is three (3) times more toxic than LEAD!

"Cadmium is dangerous shit and you have to deal with it with respect," he said as I ended our consult.

That said, it is also damn fun to play with it. Cadmium Orange is a bright and vibrant color, deliciously opaque and creamy in M. Graham's manifestation. Sure you can make orange by mixing red and yellow—and there is a wide and interesting variety to be mixed for any ocassion. Yet there is something about Cadmium Orange in gouache that I just can't ignore. It makes me smile. Especially when splattering it over a tan page.

I had intended to take all the cadmiums out of my palette, and then I had this stressful afternoon where Cadmium Orange turned it all around (well Gert helped too).

I no longer use Cadmium Orange in watercolor. Instead I use a variety of yellows and reds to create orange. If I am using my Schmincke pan watercolor palette then I use my beloved Translucent Orange which is Diketo-Pyrrolo-Pyrrol according to the catalog: PO 71.

100225GertDetail Left: Detail of Gert's head, just for fun—the better to view some of the splattering.

If I'm using fluid acrylics I have to Pyrrol oranges—one is Transparent Pyrrol Orange and is as yummy as the pan watercolor from Schmincke.

With tube acrylics I've still got some Cadmium paints on hand, but will replace them with substitutes when they are gone.

The point is I'm always very careful. I don't eat or drink in the studio. I don't put my fingers or tools in my mouth. If I spatter something somewhere I clean it up right then.

But for all these precautions there needs to be more. If you spatter by rubbing your thumb across the top of a paint-loaded brush you need to glove your hands when spattering. Simply washing right away isn't enough, especially if you have cuts on your hands—and do you know an artist who doesn't? If you deal with ANY pigments in powder form you need to wear a respirator when you open the jars and mix. And you have to find out how your local municipality will handle disposal of paints.

M. Graham has this to say about the Cadmium they use:

CADMIUM- Cadmium Compounds are classified by IARC, NTP and OSHA as probably carcinogenic in humans through inhalation. Professional product. Not intended for use by children. OSHA also classifies such compounds as causing lung and kidney disease. Pigmentary cadmium compounds have been shown to be significantly less biologically available and active than other compounds. Adverse effects of this mixture as an artists’ color have not been demonstrated. All cadmium pigments used by M. Graham & Co. are selected and monitored to ensure low solubility. All Cadmium pigments used by M. Graham & Co. are certified as meeting all current EPA requirements for NON-HAZARDOUS disposable waste. This material should not be applied by spray due to potential for harmful effects in the lungs if inhaled. Reportable under 40 CFR 372-SARA TITLE III, Section 313. (You can find their complete material safety data sheet on their website.)

Selecting a palette of colors in any medium is a lot to think about. There are other health risks beyond Cadmium paints. Don't make a knee jerk reaction. But do make a health inspection of your art materials today. Maybe it's time to get rid of all the cadmiums, maybe not? Make an informed decision. (And clean up your act!)

    • anne
    • March 6, 2010

    oh, I could not function without the cadmiums in my palette (I use oil paint and use all of them, from lemon yellow through red dark)… even if it kills me…

    • Roz
    • March 6, 2010

    Anne, I know how you feel, but I KNOW you’re taking precautions too! Aren’t you? And if so, heck, we have to use colors we love and which work for us. So many things can “kill” us, we have to make choices.

    Many people who read the blog are new to art materials and don’t know that they need to do a little looking into things and make some choices.

    I’m always amazed that some teachers don’t spend time on safety issues. I’ve talked with people who’ve been in classes where toxic materials are used without any discussion or precautions and I’m always stunned!

    • Roz
    • March 6, 2010

    Maggie, definitely research it—No Knee Jerk Reactions, as I write in the post. I just want everyone to think about all their choices. (I’m keeping my cadmium orange, but I have reds that I like better than cad red, ditto on the yellows.)

    I use more than a little bit of paint so I have to be careful about that impact. I don’t drive to work so I have that on the balance sheet. The car puts lead in the environment and people breathe it. The paint could end up in the water…that’s why I’m suggesting people think about it.

    It’s fun to paint but if we are painting after 7 p.m. as you say, with the lights on—WELL EVERYTHING COSTS us and the environment.

    So if you elect to stay with those cadmiums I’m glad you’re thinking it through and hope you’ll spread the thought!

    If we all make even small changes it can be better for all of us.

    • Bre
    • September 7, 2010

    I am a middle school teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about the periodic table for my chemistry class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information.

    We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, but I understand if your busy so a link to some of the current articles would be very helpful as well to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers. I have included a link to our page about cadmium and its toxic effects in case you would like to help us out by linking to it, tweeting it, or adding it to your Facebook profile.

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming

    Bre Matthews

  1. Reply

    Bre, thanks for writing, I’m glad the post was useful to you. I’m not a chemist so I’m going to have to pass on writing articles for your site. You can list a link to my post if you like so that your chemistry students see how working people in the arts deal with cadmium, if you like.

    The sooner young people interested in art find out about the related health issues the better. I was horrified last spring to be at an art show and hear a woman talk about how she was taught to use encaustics. Don’t get me started.

    • Marysu Bennett
    • March 29, 2011

    So many things are out to get us (and out to get everything else because of us). But we still get in our cars every day as if they are not lethal as hell. Having just wrecked mine I have a new found fear of the car. Cadmium? Not so much…

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