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

working in pastel

preparing a value scale

This post results from a note a drawing 2 student, who worked in Pastel, sent me. He asks if I can tell him what the technical term for working with pastel is called, precisely. I’d referred to it as drawing [with pastel], during the course of the semester. A drawing teacher, could say this. After his experience with it, he wonders if it might be more technically correct to say painting [with pastel], or in fact, could he be sculpting. I loved the question. He knows, he says, he is not pasteling. I understand he’s put his whole self into the process and experience teaches him much.

He picked up freedom with this medium, that he hadn’t been able to find with marker or charcoal. When he draws with pastel, his arm seems to glide or dance across his paper.  I say to him his instincts / his feelings, in fact, are all correct. Any of the technical terms he uses, could be accurate.  He could be drawing, he could be painting, and yes, he very well could be sculpting, on a 2 dimensional surface, with the medium of pastel.

learning local value with pastel

He notes that whatever it’s called…he absolutely and joyously loves it. With that statement, I decide since my semester with him is technically over,  I can write what I really believe he’s doing.

I tell him he is engaging in joy, thru the medium of pastel, on a 2 dimensional surface (paper/canvas).
I humorously add, I think the Dalai Lama would approve. I believe he just might.

I choose to continue, and discuss practical things, because I feel one can never know enough about safety, especially when it appears, on all counts, he’ll continue using pastels.  He’s bought himself several Rembrandt sets. (He does use both regular and Oil Pastels throughout the semester. Most everything I write here is referring to regular soft Pastel.)

I mention the importance of safety while working with the medium of pastel. By its very nature, it creates dust. Too much dust is a problem, to the lungs especially. Pastels are made of pigments and a binder, and pigments can be hazardous, the dust, specifically. Cobalt and Cadmium are beautiful, the blues and reds, and are highly toxic to the lungs, and kidneys.  Inhaling or ingesting is not wise. Another pigment, Yellow Chrome, contains led, and can be absorbed thru the skin.  Metals like gold, copper and silver can do the same thing. Mask (nose and mouth cover) and gloves are important with continued use of pastels.

The other thing about working in pastel, is that it is not a stable medium. Artists tend to fix it with an aerosol fixative.  Caution should always be taken with any fixative.  If you don’t have a ventilation system in your work space, go outdoors to spray, and still cover your mouth and nose.

Probably if you’re going to be working large, and drawing for long extended periods of time with charcoal, you might consider covering mouth and nose.

setting a ground

careful observation

almost complete

My students assignment is to reproduce an old master.  This is his rendition of Vincent Van Gogh’s, Skeleton Smoking A Cigarette.
Don’t get me started on cigarettes….

I suggest when working with pastel (or any other art medium), to research the material. A good book to have in ones studio, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, by Ralph Mayer.  BTW, according to my copy, working with pastel, would technically be called painting
I still think he’s engaging in joy. Approached with thoughtfulness and care, it could bring many long years of happiness.