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  • Jenny Gilchrist


Cadmium is one of our most beloved colour pigments in painting. Glowing oils, delicious acrylics and divine watercolour paints all have their cadmium colours. From a fiery red, to a buttery yellow, deep maroon and incredible orange, these colours have danced their way solo, across our papers and canvasses for hundreds of years. We love them. Because they’re bright and happy. They sing.

The cadmiums in watercolour prefer to be solo artists. They prefer to sing their opera alone, not mixing very well with other colours (in watercolour) due to their relative warmth and opacity. They’re best used sparingly and glaringly. The ‘old guys’ loved them. Matisse, Monet, Dali, Van Gogh, Cezanne….all adored the cads. If we have any hope of painting a masterpiece, shouldn’t we use them too? (PR 108 Cadmium Red.)

The cadmiums have been in solid use for 160+ years, being first discovered around 1850. Our current artist quality brands of cadmium watercolour paint contain genuine pigment, so are not hues or facsimiles of the colour. They therefore contain actual cadmium, in the form of a soluble pigment. Cadmium is naturally a soft silvery white metal, and the colour is generally produced by heating it with other materials, for example red contains acids, sodium sulphide, and selenium, which itself is a metal. While cadmium is a heavy metal, is toxic and has been discovered to be a human carcinogen, cadmium pigments have not been ‘deemed’ dangerous enough to be classified unuseable. The level of cadmium is currently so low in paint that no warnings are apparently needed, and in the past it was decided that they pose no more threat than any other pigment type. Other VERY toxic metals have been removed from our paints, such as lead and manganese. However, studies show that cadmium paints being washed down kitchen sinks, going into landfill, and trace elements being around artist workshops are of real concern. Concern enough to be reconsidered, and potentially facing a ban in the European Union. You may wish to try the Cadmium hues instead of genuine pigments, however, they do seem to lack the intense brightness of the real thing. While it may not be necessary to boycott the glorious cads, it can be sensible to take these easy precautions when handling these prima-donna pigments. 1. ALWAYS wash your hands after handling a tube of, or painting with, a cadmium colour. 2. Avoid touching the paint, breathing in the fumes, and touching the water that cad brushes have rinsed in. 3. Do NOT tip your cadmium rinsing water down the kitchen sink. The toilet or an outside drain would seem the best option. Wash your rinsing container before it’s next use. 4. Do not deal with your cadmium paints in your kitchen or use kitchen vessels as rinsing containers. 5. Dispose of your empty cadmium paint tube thoughtfully, along with other toxic chemicals such as house paint, and building chemicals when you have a cleanup. Do not put it in normal landfill garbage.


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