Making your own paints - Pigments
Sometimes, you need to get have a special paint.


Many pigments are toxic to some degree - either in low doses over a long time or in higher doses in a single instance (cronic and acute poisoning respectively) - so, it is important for your own safety and that of those around you to adopt certain practices that will preclude such events.

To contaminate yourself with pigments (or other painting-related compounds), there are a number of routes into your body. The most obvious of these is your mouth. Others include your lungs, skin, nose, eyes and so on. Avoiding activities that allow things to come into contact with these routes is the most effective way of avoiding contamination. So, when painting or preparing pigments, paint, solvent:

  • Do not smoke. Apart from the obvious fire hazard with organic solvents, you will be putting things in your mouth that you have handled with your fingers;
  • Do not eat or drink for the same reasons;
  • Keep your painting related activities in an area that is away from your normal living area (you will be less vigilant when not painting so more likely to become contaminated);
  • Keep away from pets, partners and children, whether the materials are in current use or not;
  • Pigments are powders that you can breathe in so keep the dust level down by prevention - when mixing pigments, do things slowly and using as little force as possible thereby reducing the energy that can throw powder into the air.
  • Do not paint when intoxicated - you will not be as aware of the potential dangers;
  • Wear protective clothing so that your everyday clothes do not become contaminated - an apron will do, just something that is going to stop whatever it is that you are working with coming into contact with you or your clothes;
  • If you become aware that you might be breathing in more solvent than is healthy, increase the level of ventilation (if you are gilding, don't do it where there are solvents anyway as you cannot have drafts with such an activity.
  • Finally, clean up after you have finished. You don't want pigments mixing together but more importantly, you don't want to pick up any contamination from stuff that has not been cleaned away which you can then ingest by accident.

The above is not an exhaistive list. Feel free to be even safer in areas that are not mentioned above as well as those that are.


If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own paints then don't use pigments that don't fit your specifications.

Vermilion pigment. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThis is vermilion which is the manmade/ purified version of the natural rock cinnabar. As you can see, it is already nice and fine and if you want to make a paint from it, it is already fine enough so really, it is just a case of mixing it with the medium.

However, if it is cinnabar you want, sometimes this is passed off as cinnabar. It is the same chemical - Mercury Sulphide (HgS). Vermilion, having never come from a larger crystal in its current solid form, is as fine as it is going to get and so has an almost orangey hue about it and if you grind cinnabar until the particle size is the same, you will get the same results.

Vermilion comes from a chemical purification process and so is very finely divided.

There is no non-zero safe level of mercury so whilst this comes as granules rather than powder, it is still best to handle it wet. Mercury is a neurotoxin.

Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseCinnabar however, is the rock from which it comes and so as to demonstrate that what you are buying is the real thing, it is supplied in a granulated form.

The picture on the right and the one of vermilion above it are at the same magnification so you can see how they differ (field of view is around 2cm).

One thing to notice is how much bluer the hue is. Clearly, you can't go putting a pigment that is as coarse as this on your canvas but it does demonstrate the difference that particle size can make.

When you grind cinnabar down to make a paint, the final results will be larger than the synthetic/ purified version giving the paint a different colour and texture. sections under the microscope will tell the difference and if you are looking at producing something that is original as possible, you don't want to go using something that didn't exist when the original work was produced (this doesn't affect cinnabar/ vermilion on works that are only half a millennium or so old because vermilion has been produced since 4th century BCE in China and around 750 CE in Europe but it does with Lapis Lazuli and French Ultramarine, the former being a rock and the latter being synthesised in 1826 CE)

Just be aware that some people will try to sell you vermilion as cinnabar.

There is no non-zero safe level of mercury so whilst this comes as granules rather than powder, it is still best to handle it wet. Mercury is a neurotoxin.

Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThis is gold powder. It is mixed with a watercolour medium and you paint it on very thinly and when it is dry, you can either leave it as a sparkling semi-matt finish or you can rub the surface with a hard, smooth stone - usually agate - so that the surface of acacia gum is rubbed off leaving the gold which is so malleable that the force from the burnishing stone spreads it over the adjacent gold and fuses it together into a single, flat surface that reflects light as a mirror would.

You can have some gold left untouched and some burnished so as to produce a desirable effect should you so wish. You can purchase burnishing tools in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to achieve just what you want.

The gold-powder water colour paint used to be stored in shells which has given it its name of 'shell gold'.

Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThis is Verdigris pigment. Chemically, it is copper(II)acetate monohydrate and has this lovely turquoise colour.

It is fairly coarse but the crystals are soft and it grinds quite well.

In water colours is was used in the medieval manuscripts and in oils, it was used in the renaissance by Jan van Eyck and so on. In oil, as it dries, it changes hue to a green. It is stable in oil and watercolour as there are plenty of works from over half a millennium to substantiate this.

Copper is used by your body and your liver will be able to take out and store any excess amounts for later use should you ingest any. However, it should be noted that the amount you actually need is only between 2 and 3 milligrammes per day so accidentally ingesting more than about twice that is to be avoided. Like all pigments, this should be treated with respect but it is not one to get paranoid about.

Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThis is Stack Lead White pigment.

The lumps are fairly hard and if you try to break them dry, you will get dust problems.

You need to wet them first - try water. If you are making oil paint with it, grinding in oil isn't a problem as the lead white prefers the oil and leaves the water behind. Of course, you can use oil or oil/turpentine to wet it instead if you want to.

It makes a fine, warm white that has been used for many millennia.

However, there is no safe, non-zero level of exposure to lead so care is required. Lead is a neurotoxin.

  • don't grind gold - it fuses into bigger lumps - gold doesn't produce an oxide surface so if you force two pieces of gold together using enough force, they will fuse into one piece.
  • don't put sulphides with copper or lead compounds - both copper and lead go black when in contact with hydrogen sulphide. Note that some sulphides are stable enough to use with lead - for instance, lead white and vermilion are okay because vermilion is stable enough not to release hydrogen sulphide since they were mixed together 600 years ago.
  • don't make a palette of incompatible paints - if you are going to use paints that are incompatible, use two palettes - I have one for the sulphide-based paints and one for the others.

All images and original artwork Copyright ©2019 Paul Alan Grosse.