The Great Lead White Shortage
Who took the lead out?
Painters who use some form of lead white are now noticing significant problems with finding Flake White, Cremnitz or other forms of lead white from most of the major art supply websites. Dick Blick and others state that various brands of lead white are on back order and should be shipping in March but I’m not convinced this is accurate, as of this writing it’s increasingly unclear when lead white will be available again and at what cost. I asked a spokesperson from Old Holland on their facebook page about this concern and they told me:
The pigment we use to make this product is very scarce. Therefore, we are not able to produce large amounts. Eventually we will not be able to make the product anymore as the pigment runs out. Also, it is a lead white (poisonous), so a dangerous product, which is a reason for some shops to stop selling it. Some shops may still have it in stock, however not always ‘on the shelves’.
Some painters who use lead white are worried we could soon come to a point where – perhaps for the first time since the Pyramids where built – painters will be unable to obtain lead white in an affordable manner.
If you are able to find any lead white at all it is likely to be priced at a level no mere human could afford. Old Holland Cremnitz White, the preferred brand of lead white for many painters, has had production discontinued – The Italian art store used to be one of the cheapest places to buy OH Cremnitz around 45 dollars for the 225 ml tube, it is now priced at $276.00 if you can get it at all. Some painters were lucky to have stocked up with enough lead white to last for some time but for many of us are now faced with what to do now. There are a few smaller paint manufacturers and boutique-type dealers who still sell some form of lead white but tend to be expensive and in smaller quantities. Vasari, for instance, has flake white available but is now $105.30 for a 175 ml tube and $34.75 for the 40 ml tube.
With the limited amount of information available on this subject it is only natural that painters assume that the reason for the shortage and price increases are due to new rules and regulations regarding the sale of lead paint to artists. There have been restrictions placed on artist’s lead paint in the UK and EU which require the paint to be sold in child-proof containers, such as with “chalk gun type tubes” but other than that it is completely legal to sell artist grade lead white and to my knowledge no new legislation is pending in the US.
Lead paint in the EU is now being sold in paint cartridges instead of tubes.
The reason for the shortage is more due to manufacturers stopping production due to there no longer being enough demand to make production profitable. This is due to lead paint being restricted or banned for anything other than artist’s paints. Sadly there just aren’t enough painters buying lead white to make full production worthwhile for these manufacturers. Apparently all but one manufacturer in the US has stopped production. I had a long talk with George O’Hanlon from Natural Pigments who explains what is happening in more detail later in this article.
What is so special about lead white?
If you don’t use some form of lead white yourself you may wonder what all the fuss is about but for the painters whose use of lead white is essential to their painting this will be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Lead White in some form has been used by painters since antiquity prepared from metallic lead and vinegar. Lead white was the only white used in European easel paintings all the way until the 19th century when Titanium White was introduced. All the great masters used lead white and for such painters as Rembrandt, his brushwork and paint surface could only have been made with his particular manner of using of his recipe of white lead.
There are many reasons why the use of lead white is desired by many painters, most frequently people report it is because they prefer the way the paint handles and the resulting superior paint surface and texture. You can smoothly drag longer brush strokes on your canvas that will better retain the look of the paint as it was first laid down without the leveling or flattening out of the paint i.e. retains the topography of the brush stroke. Which some painters prefer in order to accentuate the animated, expressive quality of the paint surface.
Some feel lead whites are better able to work with close valued colors where there are many subtle color gradations and color interactions. Occasionally you will hear people say that you are less apt to get a chalkiness to your color compared to when using Titanium. I suspect this may have more to do with the skill of the artist in getting the right color tone but the weaker tinting strength of lead white may help make this less of a problem as you are able to more easily obtain very subtle value changes unlike titanium which can easily over-power if you aren’t careful.
Lead white is a warmer white that mixes well in high keyed paintings commonly seen with many figure paintings. Sometimes the artist paint manufacturers will add Zinc or Titanium to cool or brighten the naturally warmer tones of the lead white. I can’t imagine Lucien Freud’s figure paintings could be made with anything other than the Cremnitz white I understand he used. It also has a slight transparency that is preferred in some situations. I’ve personally found that due to lead whites lower tinting strength (compared to Titanium) I wind up using far less expensive pigments in tints than if I were using titanium white. Thus making the increased cost of using lead white less of a concern. Additionally lead whites offer a stronger paint layer and dries faster than other whites.
Isn’t lead extremely poisonous?
You might ask if lead white is so superior why don’t more painters use it? Obviously, the widely known toxicity of lead scares away many painters. Painters working in small home studios, who have children, pets or similar concerns about keeping loved ones safe of course have legitimate concerns. Truthfully, I’ve known many professional painters as well as part-time hobbyist painters who aren’t careful or serious enough about their use of art materials and these people are better off staying away from paints with toxic pigments.
However, when used in a rational manner with careful and routine safety precautions it is safe. After all painters have been using lead white for hundreds of years, many such as Lucien Freud, Monet, Titian and Rembrandt lived long, full lives.
Lead is most easily transferred to the human body through inhalation, so best to stay away from any lead dust or particles unless it is in a highly controlled situation where you know exactly what you are doing and use a NIOSH respirator. Lead dust could be formed from small particles scraped from palette or the canvas. Large amounts of dried paint on clothing is another potentially overlooked trouble spot.
Some important considerations for safety with lead paint will be obvious such as wearing Nitrile, Neoprene or latex gloves while you paint. Lead is not readily absorbed through the skin, but has been documented for this to be possible. Don’t smoke, eat or drink while painting, don’t sand the paint surface, use care when scraping dried paint off the canvas so that the scrapings don’t then become ground to dust underneath or otherwise get tracked or airborne. Wet mop and or Vacuum regularly around where you paint to prevent a build up of paint dust. Care with disposal of paint rags with lead paint, and paint residue from solvent jars. It isn’t just lead paint as Cadmium pigments, cobalt, etc. This all should be considered hazardous waste and treated accordingly as part of standard studio practice. Much of this is true for many pigments, not just lead paint.
Lead manufacturing isn’t what it used to be
In a long facebook discussion thread started by Israel Hershberg about this subject, George O’Hanlon from Natural Pigments stated “The manufacturing of basic lead carbonate pigment is gradually disappearing since most industrial countries began prohibiting its use in paint since the 1970s. Although artists materials manufacturers were exempt from this prohibition, the pigment manufacturers responded to the decreased demand by producing less. Some manufacturers stopped producing it altogether, such as Chemson in the UK did last year. This means it is becoming more difficult to obtain and more expensive.”
“Another problem is that some manufacturers may be purchasing normal lead carbonate instead of basic lead carbonate. Normal lead carbonate was rarely used in painting, because it does not react to vegetable drying oils, such as linseed oil, as does basic lead carbonate. This is a very important point and one that the artist must be aware of, if she or he purchases the pigment to make their own paint, or buys an oil color from a small manufacturer who has not tested their pigment source.” (note: George also told me in phone conversation that most lead paint being manufactured in China and India is likely to be the normal lead carbonate that is unsuitable for artist grade paint)
“Also keep in mind that the names “Flake White” and “Cremnitz White” are fanciful names used by artists’ materials manufacturers to designate differences in their product lines in how they make their lead white oil paints. However, these names used to designate differences in the pigment sources in previous centuries, specifically the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, all manufacturers grind make their lead white oil colors using basic lead carbonate pigment made according to one of the modern processes that in the early 20th century replaced the old methods used since antiquity. This old method, known as the “stack process” or “old Dutch method,” results in a much different particle morphology (size and shape) than the modern process. The result of this difference can be readily experienced in how the paint handles. Yo can read more about this method in an article on the Natural Pigments web site This is a fascinating article that has many photos to illustrate the process.
I asked George what difference was there between the various brands of what they call Cremnitz white and he said that the lead pigment is the same basic lead carbonate the only difference is in the type and amount of oil the company adds for a binder resulting in differences in stiffness and handling. Additionally some companies will add Zinc White, Titanium White and other mixtures to the lead but the lead pigment is all pretty much the same. Also there has been concern voiced by some conservators and artists about the wisdom of adding various percentages of Zinc white into the paint. Studies have suggested (although not yet proved) that Zinc white in certain amounts and situations could result in paint embrittlement and crack and/or have problems with delimitation, especially with paintings done on a flexible support such as canvas. George O’Hanlon also has a comprehensive article about the potential problems and the caution you should take with using Zinc white. It was interesting to note in his article how often manufacturers add zinc white to their paint.
Natural Pigments offer a lead white both made with with the modern method as well as the traditional stack process method, which they sell in small cakes that you then need to grind and add your preferred oil to bind it with. I’ve yet to try this but I’ve read reports from painters who state this is a superior, exceptional white that is very different in handling.
A recipe to make your very own lead white, cheaply
Luis Martinez Borrero, a painter from Puerto Rico, was also writing on Israel Hershberg’s facebook thread shared how he makes his own Lead White and kindly agreed to let me share with us his recipe for making lead paint…
Ingredients you’ll need to get:
Good quality scrap lead sheets usually sell at a scrap yard for very cheap.
Store bought apple vinegar
Fresh Horse manure (any stable around) if you’re in NY. Brooklyn prospect park stables. They will pay you to take the stuff.
3 plastic containers of large enough to place the lead in. I found an old refrigerator the most useful. A perfect sealed chamber with shelves.
1.Degrease the lead sheets with acetone.
2.Twist the lead sheets into coils.
3.Place the fresh manure into the first pot.
4.Place the second smaller pot inside the manure contained within the first pot. Now fill it with vinegar. You will need a smaller third pot to sit on top of the manure to place the lead coil in. The lead coil cannot touch the vinegar!!
5. Seal the largest container with a plastic lid.
Let it stand for 8-12 weeks. (Outside temperature makes a difference)
6.Remove the coils with good rubber gloves and a good quality noish respirator. Place them immediately under water in a shallow container. Use a plastic spatula to scrape off the sheets. I have found the corrosive reaction to be so strong that the coils dissolve right into the water. Sometimes there is a little lead metal left over. This metal has to be picked out. After you have all your powder settled, you will have to wash the lead acetate out of the basic lead carbonate. This is done as described by Francisco Pacheco in his Arte de la Pintura. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Pacheco) Pacheco apparently was getting a venetian lead white powder that had to be washed. He describes the method in detail. Take the powder and dissolve it with your fingers (use gloves) and empty the milky water into a another container. Do this 8 to 12 times. Get a ph meter (Talasonline.com) take a reading. It should be near 7. Now grind with water on a glass or stone slab. This makes your lead white powder very fine or textured. 1/2 hour for rough grind or 4 hours for German painting. Finally, place the slurry in a small plastic cup and dry it in the sun. If you make 100 grams cups that will be enough for a small tube. If you do not care for all this mess you can purchase it from naturalpigments.com.
They make it very excellent. However my last stack yielded 40 pounds of white lead. Plenty for two lifetimes. My total cost was 88.00 dollars. Three total days of labor. My wife still insists on using Old Holland because she likes the stiffness.
Here are some new photos that Luis Martinez Borrero was kind to send me today showing his process in making the lead white. Pretty amazing and the based on what I can see from the photos, the quality of the paint looks quite good. Note the last three images can be enlarged.
Cleaning the lead strips
Preparing the scrap lead
stack wooden boxes
Washing the pigment
(note: see the end of this article for updated information from Luis about his white lead)
Making your own lead paint seems like the best way to save money and perhaps get the greatest satisfaction when it’s all done. However, I can barely follow Ikea furniture instructions and I wouldn’t trust my dog around any horse manure… That said I would be happy to pay someone who was able to safely go through this process and was willing to part with some.
My biggest problem with most of the current commercial offering with lead whites is the increased expense, if and when lead white does become available again. I often use huge amounts of white paint when I work and I can’t afford boutique prices for the “primo” quality flake whites sold in small tube – no matter how reasonable the price may seem from the seller’s point of view.
I had been using the more affordable Winsor & Newton’s Cremnitz over the past year which had been around 50% cheaper than most of the other brands. (price increased to around $30 for the 225ml tube) at Dick Blick – on extended back order – and not available now) So if Winsor & Newton don’t make their lead whites available again around the same price and when my stockpile finally runs out I will have to start looking into the Titanium based alternatives.
Alternative to lead
In researching this issue I ran across a posting made by the Oregon painter Thomas Jefferson Kitts on the AMIEN forum ( The Art Materials Information and Education Network) where he is an an official moderator on AMIEN.
I emailed him to ask his permission to use his excellent piece on how to make a “mock-lead white” using titanium white. He runs a blog, Thomaskitts.blogspot.com that has many interesting articles related to landscape painting and more. He agreed to letting me use part of his article that he just rewrote and posted today on his blog, you can read the full text of the article here.
For Those Who Refuse to Paint with Lead
but Wish They Could. by Thomas Jefferson Kitts
You can create your own “Mock Lead White” with the following:
First, mix a tiny amount of ochre paint into a generous amount of titanium white. This will shift the cool bias titanium pigment has towards the warmer cast of lead. Just a tiny amount of ochre will do. Mix it in thoroughly using a clean palette knife on a clean surface. The slightest addition of a second color will send the white in the wrong direction. (You are just trying to shift the white from cool to warm. Compare your mix against unmodified titanium white. You’ll see how little ochre is required.)
Next, you need to reduce the tinting strength of the titanium in your titanium/ochre white. To accomplish this, you start by mixing some linseed oil into a pile of finely-ground marble dust. (aka, calcium carbonate). Use a hand muller on glass if you have them, or a substantial palette knife on a clean surface if you don’t. Exert a fair amount of pressure as you mix everything together because it must all be well incorporated before the next step. (BTW, marble dust is inexpensive and available at most art stores. Or it can be ordered online.) The consistency of your final oil and calcite blend should equate the consistency of your titanium/ochre white. Now, begin mixing a little of the oil and calcite blend into your titanium/ochre white. As you increase the amount of calcite you are lowering the opacity of the titanium. (As a point of historical fact, Velazquez often worked calcium carbonate into a number earth colors to affect their opacity. Much of the transparent beauty found in his limited palette comes from this trick. You can use you oil and calcite mixture for the same purpose).
And finally, to emulate the impasto effect lead white imparts to a brush stroke, try incorporating a small amount of artist-grade beeswax. (You will find that very little wax is needed to mimic the peaking effect of lead white.) The wax creates a shorter pull to your paint mixture and thus your mock lead white will sustain sharper peaks and striations. Good enough for impasto work. I recommend you add the wax on your palette as you need it and not incorporate it into a tubed mixture. That way you will always have the option of working with a short or long mock lead white.
You will likely want to experiment with different proportions of these additives to find your preferred mock lead, but once you find it take note for future reference. You can then make a large batch and tube it up for later convenience. Sealed properly, your mock lead white should last as long as any other oil paint.
Note: Modifying a titanium white paint as described above may be considered within the bounds of sound painting practices so long as the resulting paint doesn’t become oil-starved by the addition of too much calcite. Or, that the integrity of the dried paint film is not compromised by the addition of too much beeswax. But those caveats hold true for any kind of oil paint, not just your blend. The usual and customary cautions regarding the thickness and application of impasto work still apply.
I know that Fairfield Porter experimented at length with a variety of whites and was known to use and be fond of Permalba white and apparently thought it was a good alternative to Lead White. I know quite a few painters express satisfaction with using Permalba. However it does have a high percentage of Zinc white in it (50% I think) so I might be nervous about the issue with embrittleness. There is a Gamblin’s Flake White Replacement that some people say is quite good but I don’t have any experience with it. I believe it also is a titanium and zinc white blend. I’ve read it is much cooler and glossier than lead white and may dry quicker than other titanium blends.
I wish I could end on a more hopeful note but it seems there will be some difficult days ahead getting your lead paint fix.
Addendum to the article – updated information from Luis with more details about the his lead white (from an email I got today)
As for your question asked in the last email. I believe it to be basic lead carbonate. The paint in the photo was bound with just 8 grams of water washed organic cold pressed linseed oil per 100 grams of pigment. It is a highly reactive powder meaning that the mulling action causes the pigment to incorporate perfectly with the oil. The handling properties of my paint are superb and compared with other whites like Old Holland or Natural Pigments the opacity of the paint and other characteristics are practically the same. I have made many stacks and many experiments including different exposure times and the magic number for exposure seems to be 8 weeks. However cold climates can be longer. I have made powders that are too transparent and not very reactive yielding a white that has poor handling qualities and opacity. Recently, I have been in contact with a scientist in the Philadelphia museum who has agreed to analyze my stack pigments. I have done some extensive research about the neutral vs the basic lead carbonate and to my surprise the modern industry standard for lead white seems to be 27% lead hydroxide 73% neutral lead carbonate. However, in the old whites they have found these numbers to be in the range of 50/50 or 40/60. These numbers make sense when many factors affect the outcome of your stack. I have no scientific conclusive proof as of yet that I have a basic lead carbonate in my hands. However I am manufacturing these pigments based on my training in pigment making with Peter Trubig in New York. He had supplied many painters with materials and was by all standards an expert in his craft. I will be sure to follow up with the scientific results of my white. In the meanwhile I hope this email has been helpful.