Alternatives to Cadmium – Part I – Reds


Cadmium provides brilliants shades of yellows, orange and red paints. Before of cadmium-based pigments, painters hadn’t such permanent reds. Cadmium colours are also vibrants, with a high chroma, and have a strong tinting power.

Unfortunately, cadmium is a toxic metal. With proper care the artist can avoid contact while handling materials, but a safer option would be to choose other pigments. Cadmium is a cumulative toxin, that can be absorbed through inhalation of its dust (a risk to whom make their own paints), by ingestion or through skin. Even that dermal absorption is not a significant route of cadmium entry, it happens. And, even very low levels of this metal may have adverse effects in our body (especially in the kidneys).

Cadmium red is cadmium sulfoselenide, and as a pigment is known as PR 108.

A “perfect substitute” would have all the same properties of the pigment, what, at least presently, is not possible. But there are some good alternatives.

So, for the cadmium red (PR 108), I’ll highlight these: PR 254, PR 255, PR 112, PR 170, PR 149. For what I’ve seen so far the first two seems to be better as “substitutes”, due to  its lightfastness (if this is a main concern).

PR 254 and PR 255:  Pyrrole reds. Excelent lightfastness (888 at the BWS). They have high chroma, and are highly staining. The PR 255 is slightly yellower than the PR 254. They are less opaques than the cadmium reds. Examples – PR 254: Maimeri Puro Sandal Red, Rembrandt Permanent Red Deep. PR 255: Blockx Pyrrolo Red, Rembrandt Permanent Red Medium.

Top row – real cadmium: Rembrandt Cadmium Red Medium and Maimeri Puro Cadmium Red Deep Bottom row – an alternative (PR 254): Winsor and Newton Artists’ Bright Red. (*pure colors and mixed with 50% titanium white)

PR 112: Naphtol red. It’s a intense bright yellowish red. Heavily staining. Less opaque than cadmium (but I think that it is a bit more opaque than the pyrroles – to be confirmed). It has been rated as having excellent lightfastness under ASTM testing, but other testing methods have demonstrated some tendancy for the color to fade with exposure to strong UV light, and its is BWS 7-8;6-7;5. M Graham Naphtol Red, for example, has its lightfastness labeled as “Lightfast Rating Very Good – LF II”. Examples: Williamsburg Fanchon Red (ASTM II), Old Holland Scheveningen Red Medium.

PR 170: A Napthtol red. Its lightfastness may not be reliable (ASTM I-III). I found this interesting info on Dickblick “The lightfastness and weatherfastness of Pigment PR170 varies, depending on the application and the crystaline form. The opaque form (F3RK) has very good lightfastness, and is more weather resistant.” Sennelier Cadmium Red Medium Hue is rated as ASTM II (good lightfastness). Examples: Sennelier Cadmium Medium Hue, Michael Harding Scarlet Lake.

PR 149: Perylene red. It has good lightfastness and permanence. It may darkens (with exposure to sunlight). But Winsor and Newton Artists’ Winsor Red Deep is labeled as “Lightfastness (ASTM) I”. It’s a semitransparent color. Examples: Michael Harding Crimson Lake, Rembrandt Scarlet, Holbein Artists’ Perylene Red.

Although descriptions of pigments technical features are hightly useful, they can’t replace the experience of using a particular pigment or oil paint.

UPDATE: I’ve bought a tube of Rembrandt “Permanent Red Medium” (#377), made with PR255. The color is pretty much similar to the Cadmium Red Medium of the same brand, maybe slightly (really slightly) warmer. The great differences of this pyrrole to this cadmium: its transparency and weaker tinting strength, compared with a cadmium (although it has a good tinting strengh).

Rembrandt Permanent Red Medium (#377), made with PR255

Pure Titanium White Oil Paints

Pure zinc oxide oil paints: right out of the tube, Talens Rembrandt Zinc White No 104 at left (ground in safflower oil, noticeable whiter) and Michael Harding’s at right (ground in linseed oil, so, a bit yellowish) – from tubes I bought and, unfortunately, don’t use anymore

A paper published in 2013* raised (even before its publication) a worrisome question about conservation of paintings made with zinc white. It has been demonstrated that paints that contain zinc oxide will become brittle, in relatively short periods of time (as little as three years!). Also, further damage occurs by delamination of adjacent layers of painting made with other pigments. The authors did not mention the amount of zinc oxide in each studied paint, but one can wonder that even small proportions of this compound may cause disastrous effects in an artwork.

The scientists who demonstrated the long term problems with zinc oxide paints also noted an outstanding durability and toughness of the paint films made with lead carbonate. Unfortunately, the health issues associated with lead are, of course, a major factor to avoid its use (I’d be afraid to use it, even with great caution).

After knowing how potencially hazardous zinc oxide can be, I don’t use it anymore. Now, where we have to be careful: zinc oxide is present in several white paints, even if it isn’t clearly stated, as in many “Titanium White” oil paints and even mixed in a few other colors. Zinc oxide (PW4) is blended to titanium white (PW6) in oil paints to give them a less spongy texture. Also, zinc oxide is less opaque, and have a weaker tinting strenght, features that sometimes can be desirable. Recently, I made a list of whites that allegedly don’t contain zinc oxide:


  • BlockX
  • Blue Ridge
  • Daniel Smith
  • Gamblin Artist’s
  • Holbein Artists’ and Holbein Vernét
  • Lukas 1862
  • Maimeri Puro
  • Michael Harding’s (Titanium White No 1)
  • Old Holland
  • Pébéo Huile D’Art
  • Vasari
  • Williamsburg
  • D’Arte Cor (Semi-Profesional)

– This list was made in May 2017, so it may undergo changes or become outdated, if the manufacturer alters the composition, so, I’d recommend to always read the label
– It’s not meant to be a thorough list, just an useful one, as there are some important brands missing (although I’ve checked a lot of them)

*Source: Mecklenburg, Tumosa, Vicenzi (2013). “The Influence of Pigments and Ion Migration on the Durability of Drying Oil and Alkyd Paints” Available online:

An old red – Vermilion

“Vision of a Knight” – Raphael, 1504 (egg tempera on poplar): The string of coral beads was painted with vermilion

“Let not your flesh colour freeze; let it not be too cold or purple, for a carnation which approaches the whiteness of linen cannot bloom with the signs of life. But vermilion makes it glow with a more fleshy hue. Endeavour to produce this warmth.”

Karel Van Mander, flemish painter and art theoretician of the 16th century.

Vermilion was one of the most important red pigments used by painters through ages, until the 20th century. It was made of cinnabar, a mineral of mercury sulfide. Depending on the size of the pigment particles, it may provide a fiery orangish-red, or even a dull red. There is a couple of issues with vermilion that led to its disuse nowadays – though there still are a synthetic genuine vermilion pigment (PR-106), and some brands that sell oil paints based on it (i.e. Michael Harding, Blockx, Holbein, Robert Doak, Rublev). True vermilion is toxic, then turning its usage less rational. Besides, its lightfastness is not reliable: vermilion pigment may show darkening or discoloring under light – due, actually, to its impurities

What about substitutes? Cadmium red, invented in the late 19th century, was largely adopted as a new primary red. Obviously, pigments substitutes are not the same colour, neither have the same properties, what doesn’t mean that they’re worse. Current “vermilions” are made of PO-73, pyrrol orange. This is a bright semitransparent pigment (PR-106, genuine vermilion, is opaque) with great lightfastness.

On the right: Rembrandt Vermilion (hue, PO-73); on the left: Robert Doak Vermilion

Raphael often painted his lively reds using lake red glazes over vermilion (pure or mixed with another pigment).

Curious fact: The word crimson came of an insect called kermes, from which, formerly, a red dye was extracted. Similarly, the name of vermilion came from the word vermeillon, also owning its origin from the “Kermes vermilio” (the insect species name).