Poisonous Pigments: Lead White

White – the color of pureness, light, cleanliness, softness, and perfection. Ironically, it’s also the color they use at mental hospitals (because of its calming effects, mind you). But how can a color with such a pure and soft feeling be one of the most notoriously deadliest pigments in the history of pigments?

Lead white has been used as far back at the 4th century B.C.E. by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans. It was commonly used in the preparation of ointments and plasters as well as cosmetics, but this pigment was highly valued by painters because of its dense opacity.

Stacking White Lead (from Dodd, G. British Manufactures, 1884).

To make their paint, artists would grind a block of lead into powder, exposing highly toxic dust particles. The pigment’s liberal use resulted in what was known as “Painter’s Colic,” or what we know now as lead poisoning. But why is lead deadly? Lead gets directly absorbed into the body and penetrates the nervous system. Once in the nervous system, the lead disrupts the normal function of calcium in your body and cause mental disabilities and high blood pressure.

But with side effects like, painters across time and cultures didn’t seem to mind. Lead white was always the practical choice up until the 19th century because of its density, opacity, and warm tones. They were irresistible to artists like Vermeer and later the impressionists like Van Gogh. Its glow couldn’t be matched, and the pigment continued to be widely used until it was banned in the 1970’s.

The Milkmaid (De Melkmeid) by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1657–1661. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam inv. A2344.

Details of Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, February 1890. Credits (obliged to state): Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Sufficeth to say there is nothing pure about this color, but one can’t deny its brilliance and radiance in paintings. Luckily nowadays we have various synthetic options that can some what achieve the lead white effect, but nothing will ever be as resilient as the original deadly pigment.

Mulling lead-white on porphyry stone. Photo credit to Larry Groff, www.paintingperceptions.com.

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