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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Oversimplification of Art Materials

Summary: Modern life is filled with complex things. Maintaining a basic understanding of the nature of materials provides us with knowledge of their best use and safeguards us from potential harm when we understand the components that are within them.

I am concerned that oversimplifying what art materials are made of and how many commercial paint products are poorly understood leads to complacency about their safety and how they should be employed for making works of art. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.


One of my pet peeves involves overly simplistic descriptions of pigments used to make art materials. An article I read recently calls pigments “finely ground dirt.” In my opinion, what I find disturbing is that it tends to portray pigments as “harmless,” (Who gets overly concerned about health risks associated with dirt, unless you were living in the Midwest during the 1930s Dust Bowl era) and it treats the reader of articles using phrases such as these like children who could not begin to grasp the concept that pigments are complex chemicals.


Long-term readers of past Syntax of Color essays have been frequently introduced to the fact that many pigments are born from hard-won scientific discoveries of elements and compounds. Details about how arduous a task it was to create artificial ultramarine blue should be enough to convince anyone that deciphering the chemistry of a pigment derived from natural sources and reconstructing it synthetically cannot be accomplished using a contemporary Thames & Kosmos Chemistry Experiment Kit. Thinking back, my Lionel chemistry set was a huge disappointment since the only 2 things I could ever accomplish were to change a clear liquid blue and turn pink litmus paper blue by dipping it into water mixed with baking soda.


Colleagues of mine remind me on occasion that by and large, artists are not concerned or well-versed in technical matters, but I dispute that claim. I don’t believe that any artists or nearly anyone who has a good basic education will fail to grasp fundamental concepts of science and will be just as annoyed as I am to read that pigments are mere particles of “dirt.”


However, an argument exists for believing that pigments in binders are extremely passive. In the past, those of us who worked on light fastness standards for ASTM discounted the active role that pigments play chemically in determining the stability of colors when they are exposed to light energy. We were of the mindset that pigments and drying oils don’t do much more than reside together harmoniously. The oil coats the pigment and does not interact with the medium. But time and experimentation revealed that the complex chemistry of media and pigments do react with each other.


Studies focused on the components in drying oils have been studied extensively by conservation scientists. In the case of oil paints, what happens to fatty acids in oils as they oxidize provides us with a window into how paints react and transform as they age.

Again, if pigments are thought of as just dirt, the notion that they don’t need to be treated with an abundance of care can creep into our minds. Believing that lead white is just a natural material mined from the ground and that we don’t need to be concerned about how it is handled in a studio setting or how to dispose of waste lead white can lead to unintended harmful consequences.


In all seriousness, even dirt, especially natural earth colors have chemical components in them. We know this through analysis and as artists by the working characteristics that true earth colors reveal. While most of these are not acutely toxic, they should not be treated carelessly. We are fortunate to have health and safety labeling to guide us in selecting the paints we purchase.


Part 2 will focus on the oversimplification and history of naphtha, a solvent with a long history of use.


The Syntax of Color

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