Lucien Freud, Lead Paint & Studio Safety


Lucian Freud's impasto portraits and nudes make many regard him as the greatest figurative painter of our time.
His surfaces are amazing and I've always wondered how he did it. Oil paint does not behave this way for me. I have tried Every kind of (non-toxic) impasto medium on the market without any success.

Now, I found this on about.com: "According to critic Robert Hughes, Freud's basic pigment for flesh is Cremnitz White, an inordinately heavy pigment which contains twice as much lead oxide as flake white and much less oil medium that other whites."

My question is answered....but do I want to use a paint that contains lead?

No way!

Note that Flake White is also leaded. But Zinc White and Titanium White are OK.



Queen Elizabeth by Freud (note his use of color bands).

Lead is dangerous to work with and can cause serious health problems. You don't have to eat it to become sick, it can be absorbed through the skin. Lead goes into the soft tissues like the brain and unfortunately, we can't see, taste, or smell lead.

Lead is a very strong poison. A single high, toxic dose of lead can cause severe emergency symptoms. However, it is more common for lead poisoning to build up slowly over time. This occurs from repeated exposure to small amounts of lead.

Lead is much more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children's developing nerves and brains. The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be. Unborn children are the most vulnerable.

The symptoms of lead poisoning may include:

Irritability
Aggressive behavior
Low appetite and energy
Difficulty sleeping
Headaches
Reduced sensations
Loss of previous developmental skills (in young children)
Permanent brain damage
Anemia
Constipation
Abdominal pain and cramping (usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison)
Very high levels may cause vomiting, staggering gait, muscle weakness, seizures, or coma

My personal theory is that a lot of artists that got the label of "crazy" were merely exhibiting symptoms of lead poisoning.

There has GOT to be another way to achieve a surface like this without using lethal lead paint.

I'll let you know when I find one.

Risky behavior is for amateurs.


15 comments:

VoiceofReason said...

How about doing an underpainting with heavy gel acrylic medium?

My Painting Studio said...

Good idea.

But I don't know if a heavy load of oil paint would adhere long-term to the gel surface and be archival. I'll have to check this out. I would prefer a gel medium to be glossy. I really dislike the texture of "matte."

An underpainting this thick would require that the artist knows EXACTLY where the painting will go from the very beginning. It would eliminate all possibility of spontaneity in finishing with oils.

I'm not sure I really have, or wish to have, the exquisite discipline and foresight to do this.

Ideally, an impasto medium that mixes with oil paint would be the solution. So far the ones I have tried shrink or crack.

Gamblin's Cold Wax Medium is the best I have found so far - but it must be used on a rigid support (not a stretched canvas).

For centuries, artists sometimes added a little marble dust or ground glass to their paint to thicken it. It worked. But it made the result "matte" - it stands out like a sore thumb, won't take a varnish like the rest of the painting. and I dislike that look.

A heavily leaded paint is best but I simply cannot bring myself to use it. Brain injury and/or an early death is no joke and I'm pretty fussy about studio safety.

Hylla Evans said...

Dorland's or Gamblin cold wax mediums are fine on a canvas glued to a panel support.
For a super-thick impasto look at the blog today on www.joannemattera.blogspot.com. I wondered if those oil paintings were really cured with the help of heavy alkyd resins.
You can also use melted beeswax mixed with linseed oil as a medium. I think Ralph Mayer has some recipes.

Anonymous said...

Beeswax gives something of the same effect, and perhaps oleopaste (which i've used only in small quantities.) I'm not sure what's in Oleopaste... it's pretty stinky. Beeswax smells much better, but is very hard on brushes. It is difficult to escape Lucien Freud's influence these days, and the evolution in his work is very interesting to watch. I love the expressive quality in his paintings...

It is good to hear for the sake of prosperity, that even if he took an extreme health risk that Freud's lead white was not mixed with zinc (as with a number of the flake whites.) I promise to not mention the study on zinc white again which you must have now seen since writing this.

So many artist's swear by lead white, but I'm one of those that hope that if I can live a longer and healthier life that my painting will get better through years of experience, if not through the use dangerous pigments.

My Painting Studio said...

Is "Oleopaste" the same as Winsor Newton's Oleopasto? If so, my experience is that it shrinks as it dries and I dislike it.

As to the beeswax, I'm not sure how to use it but am experimenting with it now.

And ZINC WHITE....you are right, it is bad stuff (archivally speaking) and I do need to do a post on it. Unfortunately most white paint (even when labelled "Titanium") has it mixed in.

Anonymous said...

Um, I think you are being perhaps a LITTLE over dramatic as to the risk in using lead white! If you follow all the necessary health procedures you should be fine. How long did Titian live for? Rubens? Rembrandt? Were they labelled 'crazy' at the end of their lives? Maybe do some research.

My Painting Studio said...

How can I convince you that lead is lethal? I probably cannot but maybe someone else will heed my words SO THIS IS WORTH SAYING ABOUT LEAD POISONING:

"No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm."
Quote Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning

Um...I don't think so. Lead paint IS dangerous. It can be absorbed through the skin and how many people are mindfull of the environment in cleanup and disposal?

I know a LOT of painters and the pros are pretty mindful of our our materials - but others aren't. I have seen so many artists who just cannot keep their hands out of their paint. It's scary. :o)

The damage to the brain is huge when "crazy" can be observed.

My awareness goes back to the days when I was a sign painter. Those paints were, and still are, heavily leaded enamels.

And there so many stories of "crazy" sign painters (and artists) and although it appears a lot like the brain damage from alcohol - it wasn't. It was lead. But there is no other paint that will do that job.

We're lucky, it's a learning curve for an artist to use a safer titanium white - but for me, it's worth the effort from a health point of view.

I'm counting on a long life and my ability to hold a brush as I paint my way into oblivion.

More from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning

QUOTE: "Lead poisoning (also known as plumbism, colica Pictonum, saturnism, Devon colic, or painter's colic) is a medical condition caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders. Symptoms include abdominal pain, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death.

Routes of exposure to lead include contaminated air, water, soil, food, and consumer products. Occupational exposure is a common cause of lead poisoning in adults. One of the largest threats to children is lead paint that exists in many homes, especially older ones; thus children in older housing with chipping paint are at greater risk. Prevention of lead exposure can range from individual efforts (e.g. removing lead-containing items such as piping or blinds from the home) to nationwide policies (e.g. laws that ban lead in products or reduce allowable levels in water or soil).

Elevated lead in the body can be detected by the presence of changes in blood cells visible with a microscope and dense lines in the bones of children seen on X-ray. However, the main tool for diagnosis is measurement of the blood lead level; different treatments are used depending on this level. The major treatments are removal of the source of lead and chelation therapy (administration of agents that bind lead so it can be excreted).

Humans have been mining and using this heavy metal for thousands of years, poisoning themselves in the process. Although lead poisoning is one of the oldest known work and environmental hazards, the modern understanding of the small amount of lead necessary to cause harm did not come about until the latter half of the 20th century. No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm."

My Painting Studio said...

PART 1

How can I convince you that lead is lethal? I probably cannot but maybe someone else will heed my words.

"No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm."
Quote Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning

Um...I don't think so. Lead paint IS dangerous. It can be absorbed through the skin and how many people are mindfull of the environment in cleanup and disposal?

I know a LOT of painters and the pros are pretty mindful of our our materials - but others aren't. I have seen so many artists who just cannot keep their hands out of their paint. It's scary. :o)

The damage to the brain is huge when "crazy" can be observed.

My awareness goes back to the days when I was a sign painter. Those paints were, and still are, heavily leaded enamels.

And there so many stories of "crazy" sign painters (and artists) and although it appears a lot like the brain damage from alcohol - it wasn't. It was lead. But there is no other paint that will do that job.

We're lucky, it's a learning curve for an artist to use a safer titanium white - but for me, it's worth the effort from a health point of view.

I'm counting on a long life and my ability to hold a brush as I paint my way into oblivion.

My Painting Studio said...

PART 2

More from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning

Lead poisoning (also known as plumbism, colica Pictonum, saturnism, Devon colic, or painter's colic) is a medical condition caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders. Symptoms include abdominal pain, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death.

Routes of exposure to lead include contaminated air, water, soil, food, and consumer products. Occupational exposure is a common cause of lead poisoning in adults. One of the largest threats to children is lead paint that exists in many homes, especially older ones; thus children in older housing with chipping paint are at greater risk. Prevention of lead exposure can range from individual efforts (e.g. removing lead-containing items such as piping or blinds from the home) to nationwide policies (e.g. laws that ban lead in products or reduce allowable levels in water or soil).

Elevated lead in the body can be detected by the presence of changes in blood cells visible with a microscope and dense lines in the bones of children seen on X-ray. However, the main tool for diagnosis is measurement of the blood lead level; different treatments are used depending on this level. The major treatments are removal of the source of lead and chelation therapy (administration of agents that bind lead so it can be excreted).

Humans have been mining and using this heavy metal for thousands of years, poisoning themselves in the process. Although lead poisoning is one of the oldest known work and environmental hazards, the modern understanding of the small amount of lead necessary to cause harm did not come about until the latter half of the 20th century. No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm.

mary said...

My only comment on this would be that Lucian Freud is now 87 and doesn't seem any more mad than he ever did.

mary said...

Lucian Freud is 87...You are completely over exaggerating the danger

My Painting Studio said...

Maybe Freud is OK - who knows?

But toxic materials can be lethal if misused. Lead does not belong in our bodies and it does not belong in the environment when most artists do not know how to use and dispose of it.

Ignorance is NOT a virtue here.

Gavin said...

Hi Karin,
They had an exhibition of his work in Paris not long ago, and it was amazing to see these up close and personal.
I'm not sure lead paint is easily available in Europe as it is banned as far as I know. If Freud is or has been using it, he's been perhaps lucky to reach a ripe old age, because his London studio is coated in paint everywhere, including his walls and floors.

terri said...

Just found this post and discussion as I was searching for info about lead poisoning and artists. Thank you for your post and your strong recommendation to artists to beware of lead toxicity. I am 55 years old and have been an artist all my life. I have also worked as a housepainter at times to supplement my income. I have recently been diagnosed with high levels of lead in my system. This helps explain why I have been chronically sick for the past 8 years with symptoms of extreme fatigue, pain in arms, wrists, and knees, loss of memory, hearing loss and tinnitus, adrenal and thyroid disorders, headaches, extreme sensitivity to chemicals, cleaners, and scent. This is a very real threat and I hope artists will take it seriously. It takes years for lead (and arsenic, and other heavy metals) to build up in your system. Often symptoms come 20 or more years later and they come on slowly or abruptly. Anyway- thanks for your putting this out. And to all artists: Beware and take great precaution. Don't die or become disabled because of disregard or ignorance about your materials.

My Painting Studio said...

Terri - Thank you so much for your comments. Lead content in paint is a serious hazard. Please let me know if your doctor is able to help you.