Cadmium pigment for oil, acrylic and watercolor has been an ingredient of artists’ palettes since the 19th century. Getty Images
Rest in peace, Cadmium Yellow, Orange and Red (c. 1829-2014). Your vibrant, exuberant and reliable reign is about to be brutally terminated—cut down in your prime by colorless legislators in the European Union.
Cadmium pigment for oil, acrylic and watercolor has been an ingredient of artists’ palettes since the 19th century, prized for its brilliance, intensity and lightfastness (resistance to fading when kept indoors). The element was discovered by the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer in 1817, when he noticed that a sample of zinc carbonate contained a minute residue that he decided to call cadmium sulfide (cadmia is the Latin for zinc).
Damien Hirst, in his vast tableau “The Periodic Table of the Elements” (2005), illustrated cadmium with two lumps of zinc, and a caption: “Its bright sulphide makes the artists’ popular pigment Cadmium Yellow.” The hue is turned orange and red by the addition of increasing amounts of selenium. It remained scarce, however, until large sources of the metal became commercially available in the 1840s (strangely, J.M.W. Turner, an often reckless dabbler in new media, doesn’t seem to have tried cadmium yellow). Its high cost still meant that relatively few painters could afford to use it until World War I, when better production methods increased supply and brought the cost down. It was used to paint vehicles, and to color soap, glass, jewelry, toys and later plastics. The most famous use of cadmium yellow was for the New York taxi. Whistler, Monet, Matisse, Munch, Picasso and Warhol, and sculptors such as Anthony Caro and Jeff Koons, have all relied on it.
Now a ban throughout the EU has been proposed, and a decision will be made by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in December. The move came after the Swedish government claimed cadmium used as a pigment in paint finds its way into sewage sludge that is used as an agricultural fertilizer. Many artists and paint manufacturers argue that the problem is caused by the industrial use of cadmium in batteries, and that artists’ paints only make up a small proportion of the total usage of cadmium. They also note that cadmium paint is very dangerous—carcinogenic—only if inhaled. Cadmium paints already come with a warning: “DO NOT SPRAY. APPLY.” Users often wear gloves.
The ban has been in the cards since an EU Council Resolution of Jan. 25, 1988, that called for “an overall strategy to combat environmental pollution by cadmium, including specific measures to restrict the use of cadmium and stimulate the development of further alternatives to the use of cadmium in pigments, stabilisers and plating, asking for limitation of the uses of cadmium to cases where suitable alternatives do not exist.” Cadmium is gradually being phased out world-wide, but until recently artists’ paints have been excluded. The EU now believes that suitable alternatives do exist. Paint companies have been coming up with alternative organic pigments for many years and—bizarrely—they are marketed with exactly the same name. So Winsor & Newton Cadmium Red Dark comes in cadmium and noncadmium versions. The ECHA found 24 cadmium-free paints whose names contained the word “cadmium.” However, the alternatives are less intense and have to be painted in several layers, which can lead to muddiness and a loss of opacity.
The sole exception to the ban will probably apply to art conservators, who may be able to use cadmium paints for the restoration of artworks and buildings. When cadmium is mentioned, the artist whose work instantly springs to mind is the American minimalist Donald Judd (1928-1994), who is the patron saint of Cadmium Red Light. His breakthrough show in New York in 1963 featured an array of mostly wooden geometric reliefs and constructed boxes. Although every work was “Untitled, 1963,” Judd specified the paint used for each one—Cadmium Red Light. He wanted to make the work “so strong and material that it can only assert itself.” Cadmium red—then also used in the car and furniture industry—fitted the bill. Another influence on Judd was the Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman, famous for his narrow bands of color—he called them “zips.” His discovery of his mature style had come on Jan. 29, 1948, when he centered a vertical masking tape line on a dark field of cadmium red and painted over it with a glowing cadmium orange. He called this momentous picture “Onement I.” It is not clear whether restorers of such works will have to stockpile dry cadmium pigment, or whether small quantities of paint will be made in a controlled environment in a factory. It will certainly not come cheap.
Could there also be a puritanical motivation behind the move to ban cadmium paints? Barnett Newman’s most famous work was the series of 1960s murals titled “Who’s Afraid of Red,Yellow and Blue.” He was referring, of course, to cadmium red and yellow. The point Newman was making was that many people were suspicious of big blocks of pure color, seeing them as hedonistic, frivolous and insufficiently austere. For the past two decades the dominant color among designers has been gray (Fifty Shades of Grey), with black in the wings. Car manufacturers have had almost no need for cadmium yellow or red—practically everyone drives a black, grayish, or white car, often with dark tinted windows. I’ve just seen a huge Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy in London that is an ocean of gray. I’m writing this article on a laptop made from gray brushed aluminum with a black keyboard. The prospective ban on cadmium may in fact be the last nail in the coffin for color.
James Hall for the Wall Street Journal