Traditionally, art and creativity have been mediums to test the status quo, to initiate change, to criticize society and to break taboos. And in this time of change and self-reflection, it has only become more important to better ourselves and try to right the wrongs in our world.
But making the world a better place naturally starts with you. How sustainable and (animal) friendly is your art really and how will you find out?
The sources that were used for this blog can be found at the bottom of this page.
While there is much information to be found on veganism, sustainability and animal testing in clothing and cosmetics, not much has been written about sustainable and vegan art supplies. Reliable information can be difficult to find - this particular industry is very polluting and offers very little transparency. Although many harmful thinners, solvents, pigments derived from heavy metals and other toxic and environmentally harmful ingredients are already banned or regulated by the European Union, just as many of them are still used today.
This long and extensive article hopefully sheds some light on this topic for anyone who wants to be environmentally friendly, healthy and ethically responsible in their creative exploits.
Traditionally, many pigments were made from heavy metals, which are often extremely toxic. Because of this, the life expectancy of professional artists from the past used to be lower on average, and many artists suffered from symptoms of poisoning from the toxins they came into contact with every day.
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Scientists suspect that the halos Van Gogh famously painted in some of his works were actually a result of lead poisoning. Lead white was praised for its opacity and lightfastness, but it is highly toxic and the fumes cause hallucinations and serious health problems. Nowadays, lead white and lead based paints are banned in most countries.
Also notorious is the so-called Scheele's Green, a popular emerald green pigment mostly used to dye fabric and wallpaper, which came into popularity in the 18th century. Scheele’s Green is made of cupric hydrogen arsenite, one of the most toxic substances in the world. It was so toxic that at some point in time many people died from it, and it is suggested that even Napoleon Bonaparte died of arsenic poisoning from the bright green wallpaper in his home in St. Helena, which was likely the cause for his stomach cancer.
Even today, heavy metals are still used in pigments - in particular pigments based on cadmium. Cadmium was banned in the EU for a while, but is now widely used again as a basis for red, orange and yellow pigments in paint and is praised by many artists for its lightfastness and beautiful color. Other heavy metals that are still in use today include manganese, ceruleum and cobalt.
Two less harmful alternatives
A less toxic and more recent alternative to cadmium yellow, cadmium orange and cadmium red are azo pigments, which fortunately are now widely available as well.
Imitation pigments of the above mentioned heavy metals exist, and these are widely available as well. These are less harmful to your health, but often have a less beautiful color. Some artists prefer pigments from real heavy metals, despite the health risks.
You can recognise the imitation pigments by the word 'hue', which indicates that a pigment matches in terms of coloration, but does not contain the actual pigment it is named after. A color called “Manganese Blue Hue” will not contain actual manganese. On the other hand, a name like “Cadmium Red Genuine” indicates that the paint does contain heavy metals.
Plastic is a very common ingredient in paint, varnish, lacquer and glue. This often goes by the name acrylic, polyurethane, polyester or silicone. Acrylic paint appears to be a water-based paint and you can also mix it with water if it hasn’t cured yet, but is actually plastic-based with a solvent that makes it water soluble. Rinsing your acrylic paint brushes in the sink causes this liquid plastic to end up in the environment where it can unintentionally cause major damage.
Plastic is also widely used in adhesives and sealants. While many glues are traditionally made from animal bones or rabbit skin, a lot of these have now been replaced by synthetic alternatives, often based on different types of plastics. This is cheaper and the adhesive strength is often better.
The same goes for varnish and lacquer. Acrylic and polyurethane-based varnishes are cheap, strong, cure well and have a relatively long life, but because they are plastic-based with often harmful thinners, they can be very bad for the environment.
It is a well known fact that inhaling turpentine fumes is very bad for your health. In the drying of solvents such as turpentine, but also in the curing of certain types of glue and varnish and to a (much) lesser extent in the curing of acrylic paint, toxic gases are released which are generally referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Many types of marker and pen inks also contain these harmful solvents.
Because of this it is unwise to work with paint or glue in an ill-ventilated space, and it is strongly recommended not to work near an open jar of turpentine or thinner.
Inhaling these toxic fumes can cause health problems such as headaches, nausea, burns, respiratory problems and lung or kidney damage. You should always close your turpentine if you are not working with it directly, and if you want to use a less harmful alternative for thinning your oil paint, use walnut or linseed oil.
If you need to dispose of your turpentine, put any rags with turpentine in a well-sealed container or jar until they can be disposed of with small chemical waste. If there is oil on them, add some water as tightly packed cloths with oil may ignite spontaneously.
Many of the harmful substances used in paints and thinners are known to the European Union and are closely regulated. Is there a warning label on your paint, varnish or thinner? There is a good chance that it contains toxins - but in general you can assume that all of it is toxic to some degree, unless you use paint that is specifically made for small children.
Proceed with caution. These substances are not only bad for your health, but can be downright devastating to the ecosystem. Separate your paint, thinners and other chemicals and dispose of them appropriately along with other small chemical waste. Do not rinse your paint brushes in the sink, make sure you always work in a well-ventilated area, and avoid toxic ingredients where possible. If you are mindful of these things, your health and the environment will thank you for it.
Because paint, paper and brushes are sold without ingredient lists on the packaging and there is often little transparency in the production process, it can be very difficult to find out whether products are vegan or not. There is also little knowledge about the origin of certain products. Toxic or harmful substances are generally more well known, as they are often regulated by the EU and brands need to comply with certain laws to be able to sell them.
How do you know if it is vegan?
The only way to find out if your art supplies are vegan is to contact a brand or manufacturer and ask them. You’ll find that you’ll often receive unclear and complicated answers, or even no answer at all. Sometimes brands are not even aware of the animal ingredients in their products. It’s usually best to be as specific as possible when asking questions.
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A few art brands have lists of vegan products available on their website or on request.
8x common animal-derived ingredients
Below is a list of common animal-derived ingredients in paper, paint, glue, brushes and other art supplies. Many pigments and dyes that are traditionally non-vegan, such as Indian yellow (originally made from cow urine), sepia (traditionally derived from squid ink), Tyrian purple (derived from snails) and egg shell white are nowadays hardly or not at all used in their original form, so these are not listed.
What is it and what is it used for?
Beeswax is a well-known ingredient in many cosmetics and is also used to coat certain types of candy. Sadly, it is less known that (along with other animal fats) it is also a common ingredient in crayons, oil pastels and pencils.
Which alternatives can I use?
Some crayons, oil pastels or pencils are made using vegetable derived fats and waxes rather than beeswax. Contact the manufacturer or brand to find out which oils and fats are used.
Animal hair is the standard for artist-quality paint brushes, with different types of hair used for different purposes. For oil paint brushes and large or coarse brushes, boar, goat or horse hair is often used. Smaller brushes meant for precision work are usually made of sable hair or mink hair.
Clues to this can be found on the handle of the brush - words like sable, mink, boar and kolinsky are an indication that animal hair has been used. Animal hair is usually considered an asset in terms of quality, so brands will likely boast with this. Boar bristle brushes are often white or pale beige in color, while sable or mink hair brushes are usually brown or reddish brown.
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Besides the fact that boar, goat and horse hair is a by-product of factory farming where animals are kept under horrible conditions, fur farms such as mink farms are usually even worse.
Nowadays there are more and more synthetic brushes on the market and they are the most common alternative to animal hair brushes. These bristles are usually made of polyester and are fairly easy to identify by looks or touch. Additionally, synthetic brushes are often cheaper, but the quality is sometimes lacking. Plastic brushes are not biodegradable and bad for the environment. Synthetic alternatives to sable or mink hair are often orange, white or black in color, and it is usually indicated on the handle.
There isn’t a widely available alternative to animal hair brushes that is both sustainable and cruelty free at this moment.
Gelatin or bone glue is a well-known animal product from the factory farming industry, which is obtained by cooking animal bones. It is a commonly used gelling agent in food, but it is also used as a glue, as a binder in inks, pencils and in the production process of some types of paper.
Of these examples, gelatin in paper is the trickiest - it is used to keep paper that needs to absorb a lot of water, such as watercolor paper, to keep its shape, in a process called ‘sizing’. Gelatin is often not seen as an ingredient in paper, but purely as an aid in the production process. To the question "does this paper contain gelatin?" some manufacturers will answer no, although it may be used in the manufacturing process.
There are a number of brands that offer vegan paper, but especially watercolor paper contains gelatin more often than not, so it is always wise to do some research on this before using anything.
Gelatin is also used as a binder in ink, although plant alternatives are becoming increasingly common. Nevertheless, it is a good thing to ask your preferred brand whether gelatin is used in their products or not.
Traditionally, gelatin is mostly used as glue, although synthetic alternatives are often cheaper, so this is usually preferred. Animal derived glue from gelatin or rabbit skin is also sometimes used in the preparation of canvases or as an ingredient in gesso or primer.
These are the available alternatives
Awareness on the use of gelatin in (watercolor) paper is increasing and several brands are offering vegan friendly options. This is not usually indicated on the packaging, but if you contact your preferred brand they will hopefully be able to tell you whether their paper contains gelatin or not.
The plant-based binder arabic gum is often used in ink as a substitute for gelatin. There are also more and more synthetic alternatives to bone glue available. These are usually cheaper and stronger but are often very bad for the environment because they are mostly based on plastic with toxic solvents.
Glycerine is a substance extracted from oil, tallow and fat. Either animal or vegetable fats can be used for the production of glycerine. Glycerine is a common ingredient in cosmetics, but it is also used as a wetting agent in watercolor paint.
The best way to find out if your paint contains glycerine and if it is animal-derived is to approach the manufacturer or brand. Glycerine is also manufactured from plant oils, mostly soybean, coconut or palm oils.
Ivory black or bone black is one of the most commonly used black pigments and is made from the ashes of burnt animal bones - a waste product of factory farming. In the past, burnt ivory was used for ivory black (hence the name), but because ivory is very rare and ivory trading is banned in most countries, animal bones are now used as standard.
Ivory black has a warm brown undertone, great opacity and lightfastness, but is also suitable for glazing, which is why it is very popular among artists and the most widely available black pigment in paint.
Generally, all paints, pigments and inks that are called ivory black or bone black contain this pigment. In addition, the commonly used colors Payne's Gray and Sepia and some other dark browns often also contain ivory black. The pigment name for ivory black is PBk9. This is usually indicated on the packaging of your paint tubes or bottles. Are you unsure? Then contact the brand or manufacturer.
The most commonly used alternative is a pigment called lamp black or carbon black. This is historically made from lamp soot and has bluish, sometimes slightly brownish undertones. The pigment name for lamp black is PBk6. Lamp black is a common pigment used in ink, but if it is not clear which pigments are used in black ink, it is always worth double checking to be sure.
Mars black is a bit less common, but also used for black paints and inks. Mars black is made from iron oxide and has brown undertones. Mars black, like ivory black, has very good coverage. The pigment name for Mars Black is PBk11.
Carmine or cochineal is a bright red dye obtained from finely ground cochineal scale insects. Carmine is widely used as a food coloring agent and as a dye in cosmetics, but because it has poor lightfastness, it is very rarely used in paint. Today, paints that are called carmine or carmine red are often not made from real carmine. Carmine is still used in (printing) ink.
There are many alternatives to carmine as a red dye. The most commonly used reds in paint with a great lightfastness and beautiful color payoff are cadmium, azo and alizarin pigments. Cadmium is not the healthiest and most sustainable alternative due to its toxicity, so if you have the choice, go for the slightly more environmentally friendly and less toxic azo or the synthetically produced alizarin.
As the name implies, oxgall is derived from cows. It is widely used as a binder in paint, especially in artist grade watercolor paints. Oxgall is a fairly expensive ingredient, which is why it is often not used in cheaper or student grade paints.
Oxgall can be produced synthetically, but this is not usually the case. Many well-known art brands still widely use animal-derived oxgall in their paints. As an alternative to oxgall, gum arabic is also used as a binding agent in (watercolor) paint sometimes.
Shellac is a resinous secretion of the lacquer insect kerria lacca that is scraped off trees. This insect is related to the cochineal insect from which carmine is extracted. Although it is an animal-derived (and therefore non-vegan) ingredient, the insects are generally not directly killed for the harvesting of shellac. However, raw unprocessed shellac may contain up to 25% of insect debris.
Shellac is so widely used that it is impossible to keep these insects living in their natural habitat all the time, and up to 300,000 insects are required to produce 1 kilogram of shellac. There isn’t much information available on ethically sourcing shellac, which usually indicates that there is little transparency in the production of it.
Shellac is commonly used in primers, varnishes, coatings and fixatives for drawings and paintings, and is used as a binder in India ink and some other waterproof inks. Shellac is also common in the food industry to coat candy and fruit, is a frequent ingredient in cosmetics (especially nail polish and hairspray), and is used in woodworking. It can also be used in its original form as a varnish.
Generally, all art supplies that mention shellac on the packaging will contain this ingredient. India ink always contains shellac as well as many other waterproof inks. When in doubt, approach the manufacturer or brand.
There are now various synthetic resins, varnishes and lacquers widely available on the market. These are often based on plastic, usually polyurethane or acrylic. Some of them are based on cellulose nitrate, which is a natural product but is still not good for the environment due to toxic solvents.
Shellac is a sustainable and natural product, which makes it more eco-friendly than synthetic alternatives, but given the often unclear animal origin, it is still better to avoid.
The most durable and sustainable alternatives to shellac varnish are water-based varnishes. These contain less harmful solvents, petroleum or other toxic ingredients than polyurethane or acrylic based varnishes. Water-based varnishes are usually fairly resistant to water after curing and they can last several years.
Choose water-based lacquers and varnishes with the lowest possible VOC content. These are the least harmful to the environment and your own health. You can also use an oil instead of a varnish to seal or finish wood. Be mindful that you will have to re-oil your woodwork regularly.
As an alternative to India ink, simply use a different ink that does not contain shellac. To my knowledge a vegan India ink does not exist, nor is there a comparable alternative with the same properties.
When I went vegan over five years ago, I did a lot of research on vegan art supplies and contacted a number of art brands. However, in 5 years a lot of things may have changed, which is why I have contacted many of the brands again for up-to-date information.
As a vegan artist, it can be very hard to navigate this complicated and often confusing world. Below is a list of companies that were approached for this article with some information on them that might help in making an informed decision. Be mindful that not all of these brands are 100% vegan friendly, and the decision if you want to use their products is eventually up to you.
In this list you'll find up-to-date information on the following brands:
Canson is a French company that produces paper and some types of paint. The paper in particular is freely available in art stores across Europe. This 2017 blog states that this company may test on animals, but it is unclear how reliable this information is. They were approached for this article with a request for a statement, and did not respond. Some of their papers are gelatin free, but if Canson actually tests on animals, they are not vegan by definition.
This brand has a huge range of different colored markers and pens that are especially loved by cartoonists and illustrators and are widely available around the world. When they were approached for this article, they gave a quick and clear answer:
"Copic products don't contain any animal products and we and our suppliers don't test on animals."
This is a somewhat less common brand, but they are deserving of a mention because this is one of the few paint and pigment brands that is really active in sustainability and veganism and actively try to counteract the status quo. With the exception of their Palette, all of their products are vegan and cruelty-free and the quality is very good.
Culture Hustle started as a response of British artist Stuart Semple to elitism in the artist world, in particular the patenting of the black pigment Vantablack by artist Anish Kapoor, which has caused quite a stir in the art world. Semple is engaged in finding sustainable alternatives to pigments that have been patented in order to counter the elitism and patents on dyes and pigments in the art world and make good quality paints and pigments available to everyone.
Did you know that Culture Hustle operates on a non-profit basis? This makes their paint affordable in addition to their great quality, although extra money can be donated to their cause at checkout. More information about how they work can be found on their website, where you can also order their paints and pigments.
Da Vinci is a German paintbrush brand that produces artist-quality brushes which are freely available across Europe. They manufacture both animal hair brushes and synthetic ones which are well known for their good quality In addition, their synthetic Nova brushes are labeled vegan. This is the answer I received from them:
“All of our synthetic brushes are vegan. They don't contain animal parts or hair and we don't perform any kind of animal experiments. Our handles originate from European sustainable forestry. Please have a look at our homepage. Here is also explained how our company is committed to ecology and sustainability. ”
Daniel Smith produces high quality watercolors and oil paints. When they were approached by me five years ago they confirmed that their watercolors did not contain any animal products, except for some colors that contain the animal-derived pigment ivory black.
Based on the information on their website, this still seems to be the case - they don't use animal-based oxgall in their watercolor paint and are transparent about their manufacturing process. They are also well known for their use of natural pigments and are transparent about their origin. However, when they were approached for this article for additional clarification, they did not respond.
My conclusion: Looking at their website the info I got from them five years ago is likely still correct, but this isn’t foolproof.
Derwent is a UK brand best known for their artist grade pencils, although they also sell other art supplies. They are one of the few brands that have a list of vegan products on their website. This can be consulted here.
edding is a widely used German brand of pens and markers that are widely available in different countries across the world. They sent a comprehensive and honest answer when contacted for this article with a specific mention on how opaque the industry really is, but there are definite questions whether edding is vegan friendly. Read their answer below:
“It can be assumed that all edding products are ‘vegan’. However, we cannot say this with certainty. For this we need the confirmations from all our suppliers, which we do not currently have. However, it is highly unlikely that animal ingredients are used in our markers and writing instruments. We do not initiate or conduct animal testing on our products. Unfortunately, it cannot be completely ruled out that raw materials that have been on the market for a long time may have been tested on animals before they were introduced.
The ingredients for our different types of inks are a combination of products from many suppliers and each supplier will have to do research regarding veganism. Given the current situation and the fact that researching this is very complex, we unfortunately cannot answer your question at the moment. We hope you understand.”
This Italian brand mainly sells paper and is freely available in artists' and hobby shops in Europe. Most of their paper is gelatin free and vegan, except for a few types of paper that are still made by hand. When they were approached for this article, this was their answer:
“All our products are gelatin-free except hand made paper (Esportazione, Secolo XIII, Roma), which still use the original recipe. We do not use any other animal derived ingredients. ”
This German paper brand has been vegan since the 60's - this is stated openly on their website. In addition, they are also making large strides towards sustainability and have been actively committed to a more sustainable industry for years. In addition, their paper is often affordable and of good quality.
This small Dutch brand that sells watercolors is also available online. Kaia arose from the wish of artist Kara de Rooij, who wanted to use sustainable paint, but could not find what she was looking for. Kaia Natural Watercolor is non-toxic, 100% vegan, plastic-free, handmade and natural. Kaia Natural Watercolor does not have a wide range of colors or products, but looking at how transparent and committed they are to sustainability and veganism, they are worth a mention. The webshop is currently closed due to circumstances, but hopefully Kaia’s paints can be ordered again soon.
The German brand Molotow sells graffiti, markers and ink that are widely available in art stores across Europe, the USA, Canada and Mexico. When they were approached for this article, they only responded regarding their markers and inks, so it cannot be confirmed whether their graffiti spray paints are vegan.
“No ingredients of animal origin are used for the inks of our ONE4ALL ™ Marker and Refill products. The substances frequently used for pigments, such as cochineal scale insects and animal charcoal, are not used in our ONE4ALL ™ inks.
The plastics used for the marker and refill bottles are mainly PP and PE plastics which naturally contain organic compounds from crude oil. Here it is up to the beholder whether they regard this as vegan or not. ”
This USA based brand is not freely available in art stores, but Natural Earth Paint is worth mentioning. If you are looking for a natural and vegan alternative to oil paint with non-toxic pigments which is also solvent-free, then you've come to the right place. Most of their pigments and materials are vegan, except for the face paint, which contains beeswax. You can order Natural Earth Paint on their website.
Pentel is a Japanese brand that is known worldwide for their good quality markers, brush pens, ink and calligraphy supplies. This is the statement they gave after they were approached for this blog:
"The inks are produced synthetically as well as the included dyestuff and pigments. For some products natural raw substances are used (calcium carbonate / graphite), but those are from natural sources, not animals. Used plastics are made from oil and also the fiber in felt pens or brushes are not made from animal hair. The ink in our products includes well known and commonly used substances, they do comply with EU regulations. "
And subsidiary brands Amsterdam, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Galeria, Cobra, Ecoline and others
Royal Talens is a Dutch company and by far the largest manufacturer of paint in Europe. This brand was approached by me years ago, after which they promptly sent a long list of all of their vegan products. Additionally, they are active in making the industry more sustainable. A lot of information about this can be found on their website.
When they were contacted for this article however, they could not give an unambiguous answer to the question which of their products are vegan, so it is uncertain whether this list is still correct. This is the answer from their social media team after emails were ignored:
“Sorry, unfortunately I don't have a list. I always consult with the lab if there are any questions like this. From experience I can say that most colors are vegan, except for some colors that contain ivory black. In regards to our acrylic paint and watercolors, this often concerns only 1 color per brand. With our oil paints it can concern several colors.”
This Japanese brand is known for their beautiful inks, markers and pens. Through edding, their distributor in Europe, they answered:
“We place great importance on quality and sustainability when selecting the raw materials for our products. In addition, no direct animal-derived raw material such as meat, tallow, fat etc. are used in the development and manufacture of Tombow products.
Although vegetable and synthetic raw materials are the main components of our products, we unfortunately cannot guarantee that all our products contain exclusively vegan ingredients at this point.
Tombow does not carry out any animal testing. Neither do we commission any suppliers or institutes to carry out tests on animals. ”
This is a widely used and loved brand in the art world. Winsor & Newton sell paint, ink, paper and other art supplies. When they were contacted for this article, they sent a list of products containing animal ingredients. All of their other products are allegedly vegan friendly.
“Please see the latest list below, I can confirm we do not test any of our products on animals.”
White and silver
Lifting prep WC medium
Majority of colours
Olive Green, Perm Sap green, Silver
Raw sienna, Vandyke Brown, Burnt Sienna Opaque, Paynes Grey, Silver
Do you know of a brand that's not available on this list? With this article in mind, you hopefully have the tools to approach them. You can also send me an email at email@example.com and I will approach them for you and add them to this list.
This article is based on EU regulations on toxic and harmful chemicals through REACH. The USA has a very different and generally much looser approach to banning or regulating toxic chemicals - these are regulated through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). A key element in the EU approach to toxic substances, and one that the TSCA does not have, is precaution. With a preventative approach the EU bases decisions on bans or regulations if there is credible evidence that a substance is harmful to health or the environment, despite possible scientific uncertainty.
The US approach to bans or regulations on chemicals requires much more evidence to prove harm and even then, an actual ban might take years or might not even happen at all. As an example - lead-based interior paint (which is highly toxic and can be deadly) was banned in Austria, France and Belgium in 1909, and in the majority of Europe before 1940, while it took the United States until 1978 to install a nationwide ban, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its toxicity being available for decades.
Mostly due to consumer pressure and the lobbying of environmental organizations some manufacturers that work with toxic substances in the United States have regulated them to an extent or removed them from their products on their own accord, but this is not a guarantee that they aren’t being used.
Since the TSCA is, at this point, less reliable and less extensive than REACH, it is advisable to at least use products that comply with REACH regulations wherever possible or simply choose European based brands, and even then, one cannot be too careful.