A white paint used by European painters for hundreds of years as a primer and mixed with other pigments was indeed a merciless paint. The paint was so pure it absorbed almost no light so it absolutely shined on any given painting. Thus it was a very important paint on an artist’s palette. It also contained lead and poisoned many artists when absorbed into the skin or inhaled while grinding. Pity the poor studio apprentices that had to prepare and handle the paint too.

Lead white paint was also used in cosmetics. Over the course of history, Egyptian and Roman women as well as Geishas in Japan utilized it. In the late 1800s it was an ingredient in face creams and makeup that woman used daily to lighten their skin and remove freckles. Imagine unknowingly using a product to look beautiful but over time would eat away at your skin and leave scarring. You would then use more of the product to cover that up. Fatigue, nausea, headaches, weight loss and paralysis would follow. It wasn’t until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the formation of the FDA that lead white paint was finally addressed in the U.S. in cosmetics.

Kitagawa Utamaro

Kitagawa Utamaro

Many toys were manufactured with white lead paint. The world’s largest toy maker, Mattel, recalled millions of toys made with the paint. Kids chewed on the toys and ingested it due to its odd sweet taste. It was phased out in the 1950s but lead based paint was used for another couple of decades in the home.
Lead was an insidious ingredient in white paint used among many professions and in the pursuit of beauty. Regrettably, another color story with disastrous effects. It makes me realize just how lucky I am to paint with nontoxic paints today!