Pigments based on the toxic heavy metal cadmium are some of the most beautiful there are. The reds, yellows and especially oranges have a brightness and intensity, coverage and handling characteristics that make them especially valuable to painters that want their warm colours to dance and glow, dazzling the eye of the beholder. The effects you can produce with these colours are, in truth, unobtainable with other pigments. It’s a fact that these colours are currently irreplaceable. Artists (painters) that use these reds, yellows and oranges are generally in love with what can be done with them, artistically.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), they could be banned in the EU soon.
The problem is that these pigments get into the water table and make their way into vegetables and other foodstuffs grown on the land. Not so much from washing your brushes in the sink (though that contributes), but in the manufacture of these pigments and when used in other industrial processes and products. When ingested, via the food chain, cadmium pigments do serious damage to life. For one thing, they make your bones brittle, through a process of demineralisation. Cadmium accumulates in your body and damages your kidneys. It impairs lung function and can cause lung cancer. It’s thoroughly nasty stuff.
Artists might argue for a special exemption, due to the arguably small environmental impact of their use in paintings, but is that wise? If chronic, low level exposure affects the bones and kidneys of entire populations, is making a brighter, more lovely painting a good enough reason to allow these pigments to continue to be sold?
The fact is somebody has to handle the pigments as part of their job, to make the paint for artists. Why should those poor people have their health so grievously and predictably damaged, in order to make paint? Similarly, the market for artists’ paints is small compared to the bigger market for cadmium based pigments. Think about all the other products that contain these heavy metals. If the pigments are banned from use in these, then the residual artists’ paints market wouldn’t be large enough to sustain the manufacture of these deadly pigments anyway. In any case, who’d want to be involved in the manufacture of these deadly chemicals in bulk?
We lived when lead was banned from pigments. There are zinc and titanium based equivalents that we have done just fine with. I can only hope that the removal of cadmium from our palettes will spur innovation and that somebody, somewhere, will come up with a better substitute than the arylamides, perinones, napthols, toluidines, pyrazalones and quinacridones that are often used as cadmium yellow, orange and red substitutes today. Hopefully pigments that are not fugitive (i.e. don’t fade over time) and which are safe to handle and have little impact on the environment can be devised. Perhaps some attention can be paid to their transparency and covering properties too. Dye based pigments tend to be semi or fully transparent. Cadmium paints are rather more opaque.
In one sense, I’ll be sad to see these colours vanish, but in another sense, I’m glad we’re removing yet another potent toxin from the environment. I am quite conflicted about this matter, as you can tell. In the end, I think the only response an artist can have is to accept the inevitable and find other ways of making their artwork sing. It won’t be easy, but neither was grinding your own pigments and making your own paints, in earlier centuries. Great works of art were still painted.
In the meantime, appreciate the art that has already been made with cadmium paints, because these works will come to mark a period of time, in history, when artists, ignorant or insouciant of the risks and wider environmental impact, found a way to make beauty with dangerous, toxic substances.
You just might have to view these paintings wearing hazmat protection, breathing filtered air, behind glass.