dry pigments – handle with care

I have a small set of dry pigment powders, not many, mostly only the colors I prefer to use in my work. I collected them 25 years ago.  Like many other supplies in my studio they sit, put away for months at a time. I tend to use them in spurts when I want to work with egg tempera. And sometimes (more often than I care to admit) I pull them out only to look at them. They’re beautiful. The colors are rich and the powder itself varies uniquely. Take the rich gold which is lightweight and appears fluid-like, while the cadmium red is more granular and textured.

These are the sort of  qualities I’ve learned to note when considering the safety of dry pigments. I have two golds in fact, one heavier and one lighter in weight – does the latter become airborne more quickly? The red has to be pressed and smoothed though never with my fingers. When researching, I note there is much information and some of it  is complicated (oh chemistry). The question becomes how to narrow information down.

IMG_8939I take inventory of my particular pigments and research each one individually. I read long-term hazards of modern synthetic organic pigments have not been well-studied. In other words there is still much we don’t know. I know to be especially careful with cobalt, cadmium and manganese. Avoid lead. Interestingly enough I learn both burnt and raw umber are considered highly toxic pigments and may be carcinogenic (how did I not know this). 

Considering the amount I mix (often less than 1 tsp at a time) and how I use them (mix with egg yolk to make egg tempera), I do understand toxins can be cumulative. Stuff might not be harmful right away but with continual exposure things can add up. I imagine inhaling and/or ingesting small quantities of any one thing – and how that can benefit or hurt the body. I encapsulate each of my pigments in the same way I encapsulate curcumin (turmeric) a supplement, to really get the picture. The visual is a good one for someone like me. I don’t want to be afraid of my materials, I want to be mindful of hazards so I can take precautions.


Pigments can enter the body through skin or mouth through inhalation (dust), ingestion or absorption. Some pigments can cause cancer while others cause skin rashes.

Here are general rules of thumb for using and handling pigments in a safe manner:

  • do not inhale (be cautious of raising dust) 
  • do not ingest (do not eat or smoke while working with pigments)
  • wear gloves
  • wear long sleeve shirt (especially if dealing with a highly toxic pigment)
  • never heat pigments – fumes can be toxic (cadmium dangerous)
  • keep away from small children (and pets)
  • wash hands after handing  (do not answer phone)
  • clean up with care (do not kick up dust)
  • dispose of carefully
  • wear a dust mask (or respirator)

I mention taking an inventory of my particular pigments, I keep that list close at hand. I also know the way I use them. Care and attention are key.


I use numerous sources to gather info – here are two good ones :
The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer 
Baylor University: Environmental Health and Safety for painting and drawing

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