Five for Friday: The Power of Cadmium


1. I’m Special! Cadmium ranks 67th in abundance among the 90 naturally occurring elements on Earth. In every ton of the Earth’s crust, you can expect to find 1/5th of a gram of the metal. It was discovered that cadmium could be used for pigment, but scarcity delayed production of it until about 1840 and even when it went into production, manufacturers had to charge a pretty penny. It wasn’t until around World War I that cadmium paints became more widely produced and affordable.

2. New Kid on the Block. In the history of art and pigments, Cadmiums are a modern pigment. Modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, Judd, Monet and many others famously used cadmiums in their work. The element was discovered in 1817 by German chemists Friedrich Stromeyer and Karl Samuel Leberecht Hermann simultaneously, but independent of each other. Ironically, word on the street is that Matisse couldn’t get his friend Renoir to even try a sample of cadmium red that Matisse had given him. Nor did J.M.W. Turner, who is noted as being an experimenter with media.

3. The Bad Boy. Donny Wahlberg aside, Cadmium is indeed toxic. The good news is cadmium paints are only toxic if eaten or inhaled. I don’t usually have a cadmium salad sandwich on my lunch break, nor do I sit around in my smoking robe inhaling cadmium dust after a long day. (there are no fumes or dust in tube paint) Although I should note the process of making oil paint does involve the mixing of pigment dust and a medium like linseed or walnut oil. I would of course wear my respirator in this case. Europe is apparently considering a ban on it in artist’s colors much to the chagrin of artists and restorers. There is debate that the problem with cadmium entering the soil and waterways is primarily related to cadmium batteries and not from artist’s pigments. Either way, I may have to go back to red ochre in the near future.

4. Versatile. There are 3 basic cads in the artist’s world: Yellow, Orange and Red. They all are variations of Cadmium Yellow or cadmium sulfide. The range comes from heat and added selenium in place of sulphur. I use all basic cadmiums in my mixing. They have wonderful earthy undertones while still providing vibrant shocks of color without seeming unnatural. The only obstacle that I have found is when mixing the oranges and reds with white. They tend to become chalky and not hold their vibrance. For this I usually use a lighter cadmium like cadmium yellow light to keep the vibrance and lighten the value.

5. Cadmium Red. My next favorite to Vermillion Red. I love me some Cadmium Red. I use it for accents in my expressive work. It’s value is neutral while it’s chroma is high. I can accent edges and shading without it sticking out like a sore thumb. It is usually the last bit of pop I add to my portrait paintings.

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