Lead White Paint
An example of a banned substance that is still in use for limited, nonhazardous applications.
The hazards of lead-based paint are well documented: childhood exposure to lead found in lead paint can result in behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, and damage to the brain and nervous system. Adults aren’t immune either and can experience high blood pressure, nerve disorders, reproductive problems, and memory and concentration problems. These health issues gained public concern particularly in urban settings where peeling wall paint was prevalent. Still, there are specific applications that do not pose a health hazard where only lead white paint will do.
Indeed lead white was used for centuries to prepare the canvases and boards for European painters as well as in the final painting to give the effect of shine on a piece of fruit or draw attention to the tooth on a snarling dog. Lead white, known as “Bloom of Youth” was also a cosmetic on the dressing table of many a fashionable Egyptian, Roman, or Japanese lady and was used to achieve a porcelain white complexion.
The toxicity of lead white became apparent in the 18th century as large quantities of the pigment were required to meet demand, and factory workers became ill. Two centuries later, it was banned in 1977 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in United States for use in house paints and has largely been replaced by zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
But neither of these paints can entirely replace lead white when it comes to the artist’s palette. Zinc white is a cold white, lacking the warmth of lead white, and is frequently used by water colorists, but with oil paints the pigment dries to a brittle film. Zinc oxide is also used in sun tan lotion. Titanium white is somewhat warmer and has even better opacity than lead white, which has made it an excellent paint for kitchen appliances. Unfortunately, when titanium pigment is mixed in oil paints it dries to a spongy film; for artistic purposes it must be mixed with zinc white.
Many artists find lead white, also known as flake white or Kremnitz white, a pleasure to work with as the paint has a buttery consistency and contributes warm undertones to a painting. In fact, art historians have revealed many forgeries of particularly Renaissance paintings by identifying that titanium white had been used rather than the traditional lead white. Today, artists no longer use lead white for underpainting, but they do use small dabs to put the shine on a silver pitcher in a still life or the sparkle in a subject’s eye of a portrait.
More background on lead white may be found at http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/overview/leadwhite.html