Lately, I’ve been on a nontoxic paint kick, trying to see if I can be just as happy with a nontoxic palette as with one that contains toxic paints made from heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and copper. This is mostly a personal challenge, as I think toxic paints are fine for adults to paint with as long as you don’t put them in your mouth, but I’m a messy painter so it does put my mind at ease a bit to be using the safest pigments. Plus, they’re better for the environment.
So, what colors would I put in a nontoxic palette? How do you replace common toxic colors? And after a couple of months, which paints do I miss? Read on!
What is a toxic color?
The standard I am using for toxicity is whether the paint requires cautionary labeling, such as an ACMI rating of “CL” or a California Prop 65 warning.
Toxicity is a spectrum, and people draw the line in different places, from “my grandma used Lead White and she lived until she was 110” to “all paints are carcinogens.” This is why I had to find a specific place to draw the line, and the cautionary labeling seemed like a reasonable place to do it.
I can’t guarantee that colors I call “nontoxic” will always be considered nontoxic. Nontoxic doesn’t mean good for you. Avoid eating them all the same.
Great nontoxic colors
The good news is that most popular modern watercolor paints are considered nontoxic and do not require special cautionary labeling. Some great options for a nontoxic palette are just great options all around. An incomplete list:
- Hansa yellows
- Imidazolone yellows
- Pyrrol oranges & reds
- Quinacridone reds, magentas, & purples
- Phthalo blues & greens
- Ultramarine blues & violets
- Perylene colors (maroon, violet, green)
- Prussian Blue
- Indanthrone Blue
- Dioxazine Violet
- Potter’s Pink
- Natural and synthetic earth colors (iron oxides, mars colors, ochres, siennas, umbers, etc.)
- Zinc & Titanium White
- All modern blacks I am aware of (ivory, lamp, etc.)
Replacements for common toxic colors
By contrast, there are some classes of color that you would want to avoid in a nontoxic palette. The following categories are typically marked with cautionary labeling:
- Cadmium reds, oranges, yellows
- Chromium paints (namely Viridian)
- Cobalt blues, turquoises, greens, violets (including Cerulean Blue)
- Manganese blue & violet
- Nickel yellows (sometimes)
- Copper-based Green Gold (sometimes)
- Fluorescent Opera Pink (sometimes)
Here are my suggestions for replacing them.
I never even started painting with these, so I definitely don’t miss them. Largely this is because my first professional brand, Daniel Smith, doesn’t use cadmiums, so I never got used to them. Even once I branched out to Winsor & Newton and other brands, I didn’t see any reason to switch away from perfectly good nontoxic paints that seem to me to be equally bright and strong.
Cadmium Yellow Lemon (PY35)
Cadmium Yellow (PY35)
Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35)
Cadmium Orange (PO20)
Cadmium Red Light (PR108)
Sometimes called Cadmium Scarlet, this is the most orange-toned version of Cadmium Red. Some good replacements: Naphthol Scarlet (PR188), Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255). These tend to be less opaque though the opacity varies a lot by brand
Cadmium Red Medium (PR108)
The medium tone of Cadmium Red, which I think of as being a middle, fire engine red.
Some replacements: Pyrrol Red (PR254), Naphthol Red (PR170), Perylene Red (PR178).
Cadmium Red Deep (PR108)
I think of this as a deep crimson, though the DV one I tried out was more of a middle red (probably a better match for the reds above).
The only modern color I’m aware of earning toxicity labeling from hexavalent chromium is Viridian (PG18).
I don’t of any modern company that sells older paints like Chrome Yellow or Chrome Orange, but easy replacers for those are Lemon Yellow (PY175) and Benzimida Orange (PO62), respectively.
I went through a phase where Viridian was my main mixing green, but it was short-lived. Aside from being toxic, viridian is also really weak and expensive.
- Phthalo Green Blue Shade (PG7) is an almost identical hue, but totally different in handling (smooth and strong instead of granulating and weak). Most companies that have a ‘viridian hue’ use PG7. (And of course you could opt for Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG36) if you prefer a yellower color.)
- If you’re after the granulation, you could mix your own granulating green from a granulating blue and a yellow, or any blue and a granulating earth yellow. (That said, unless you want a dull olive green mixed from Ultramarine Blue, there aren’t too many great non-cobalt-based granulating blues.)
- Chromium Oxide Green (PG17) is a dull green with some granulation in dilute and midtone, though it quickly masses to a flat opaque color. Note that despite the name, Chromium Oxide Green (PG17) is not generally considered to contain toxic chromium. ArtisCreation notes that “if poorly manufactured, [PG17] may contain trace amounts of free chromium, a suspected carcinogen,” but gives it an A for toxicity (i.e. non-toxic).
- Although I have my problems with DS’s Primatek colors, some people like them for granulating greens; examples would be Diopside, Jadeite, Green Apatite, or Serpentine.
This category of paints includes obvious ones with ‘cobalt’ in the name like Cobalt Blue (PB28) and Cobalt Turquoise (PG50, PB28, or PB36), as well as Cerulean Blue (PB35 or PB36). This is a tough category to give up because it contains most of the interesting, granulating blues.
Cerulean Blue (PB35 or PB36)
This earthy cyan is a favorite for skies and mixing cool, granulating browns and violets. Cerulean just creates gorgeous floating granulation in mixes. I’m especially enamored with Da Vinci’s PB36 version. (According to Art is Creation, PB36 has a lower cobalt content than the original genuine cerulean pigment PB35.)
Nontoxic replacement options:
- Phthalo Blue plus white is the typical commercial cerulean “hue”, but it’s really different in properties: smooth instead of granulating, greener, mixes totally differently.
- Zirconium Cerulean (PB71) is said to be a similar hue. I have never gotten ahold of this rare pigment, but I’ve just seen it in photos. I haven’t spent the dough to try to get ahold of it because I’m concerned that it may have an unpleasant, chalky, shiny, gouache like quality.
- Manganese Blue Hue (PB15) or other Manganese Blue replacements.
Cobalt Blue (PB28)
- Ultramarine Blue (PB29) is a suitable replacement in most cases, especially Light or “Green Shade” ultramarines. I do think Cobalt Blue has something special that’s not quite replaceable – it has an ethereal, floaty look in mixes that is sort of different from Ultramarine’s – but to be honest I can’t really tell the difference in other people’s paintings. (As a bonus, Ultramarine is much cheaper.)
- For a nongranulating middle blue, Phthalo Blue Red Shade quite often works well, and has replaced Cobalt Blue as my go-to for single-pigment skies.
Cobalt Blue Deep (PB74)
- Even more resembles Ultramarine Blue (middle, French, or deep shades).
- Winsor & Newton’s Smalt (PV15) is a version of Ultramarine Violet that is like a deeper/purpler version of Ultramarine Blue or Cobalt Blue Deep.
- Nongranulating option: Indanthrone Blue (PB60), perhaps mixed with Dioxazine Violet (PV23).
Cobalt Green (PG50)
Although PG50 is best known for Cobalt Teal or Cobalt Turquoise (see below), middle greens can also be made from PG50, and these can be attractive as granulating foliage colors. Personally I find middle greens less useful than you’d think; when you mix greens you can more easily vary the hue than when you start with a middle green.
- Hue replacer (non-granulating): Phthalo Green, especially Yellow Shade (PG36), or a commercial mix from a Phthalo such as Hooker’s Green, Sap Green, or Emerald Green hue.
- See Viridian above for granulating green options.
Cobalt Turquoise (PG50, PB28, or PB36)
A bright, bold, opaque, granulating turquoise can be made from any of a number of cobalt pigments, but I’ve yet to see a non-cobalt that matches it.
- Phthalo Blue Green Shade or Phthalo Turquoise may be similar in midtone, but the properties are totally different: transparent and smooth instead of opaque and granulating. As you intensify these colors, they get darker, rather than becoming bolder pastels.
- You can make a bright, bold mix of pastel turquoise with Phthalo Blue GS, Phthalo Green (either), and Titanium White, or purchase a premade mix of those colors (such as Holbein’s Horizon Blue), and it can look as bright in hue, but it’s not granulating and it doesn’t mix as nicely. For example, my custom white/phthalo mix turns dull when it hits Ultramarine Blue, but Cobalt Turquoise mixes with Ultramarine beautifully.
- DS offers some turquoise Primateks such as Amazonite or Sleeping Beauty, but these are extraordinarily weak (and likely just weakened mixes of Phthalos anyway).
- See also notes on Cerulean and Manganese Blue.
Cobalt Violet (PV14 or PV49)
I have never really used these so I can’t comment. I don’t miss what I never knew. Here are my suppositions for replacers:
- For a weak, warm granulating agent: Potter’s Pink (duller) or Ultramarine Violet (bluer).
- For a magenta color: any number of Quinacridones – rose, magenta, pink, etc. (all might bolder/brighter, transparent, nongranulating).
- See also notes on Manganese Violet.
I’ve never gotten into manganese paints because they always seemed so expensive and hard to get, so these options will be mostly supposition. Clearly, they are not essential to me since I already don’t use them.
Manganese Blue (PB33)
Rare these days, although sometimes seen in small batch paints. Da Vinci’s Manganese Blue is a mix of PB33 and PB15; most other major brands offer hues that don’t contain genuine PB33.
Despite its rarity, some people still swear by this light, granulating blue. To me it looks a lot like Cerulean, though if you’re avoiding toxic paints, that replacer won’t help. Still, check out the replacements for Cerulean as well.
Commercial Manganese Blue Hue is often made from a granulating treatment of PB15 (Phthalo Blue). Daniel Smith’s is said to be the most similar to genuine Manganese Blue. I can’t comment on its similarity to the real thing, but personally, I did not like it; I found it weak and gummy, and the fluorescence looks gaudy to me.
Manganese Violet (PV16)
Another one I’ve never actually used.
- Mix up granulating magenta/pinks with quinacridone rose/pink/magenta and Ultramarine Violet.
- Quin Violet (PV55) seems to have a similar hue though totally different handling characteristics (strong and smooth vs. weak and granulating).
Nickel & Copper
It’s unclear to me how toxic these really are; some have Prop 65 labeling and some do not. On ArtisCreation, the paints in this section have a B grade (same as Cobalts, but better than Cadmiums).
I’m treating these together because the only copper paint I’m aware of, (Rich) Green Gold (PY129), is most similar to Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150). They’re ideal replacements for each other, but I’m not sure if one is more or less toxic than the other.
While I put these back on my palette pretty soon after the experiment began (I couldn’t hold out!), I did give some thought to how, and if, they could be replaced. Generally I found the question… complicated.
Green Gold (PY129)
This glowing-yet-naturalistic green-gold, the perfect color for moss, is a great foliage and green mixer (with blues/greens). The best replacement is PY150 with a little bit of Phthalo Green or Phthalo Turquoise, but PY150 is also on this list. So I guess see the list of PY150 replacements and try adding a bit of green of those.
DV includes PY129 in their Earth Friendly set, and doesn’t give it a Prop 65 label, so obviously they’re not concerned.
Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150)
This is probably the most complicated to replace because no other paint is really like it. It looks very different depending on the level of dilution. It’s warm, muted, and lightly granulating like ochre in masstone, diluting to a pale lemon color. Despite not being the brightest color in the box, it’s intense, glowy, dispersive, and extraordinarily transparent. The transparency makes it a great mixer, especially for mixing greens that are bold but not neon or artificial looking, and for mixing fiery golds – it is typically the yellow component in mixed Quin Gold hues.
Because of the color-change effect, the best NAY matches are mixes (e.g. ochre + transparent yellow). You may not need a direct match for use case; but you may need extremely different replacements depending on what you are trying to do.
- Azo Yellow (PY151) is probably the next-most transparent cool yellow I know of. But even it is much more similar to the other yellows (see Cadmium Lemon replacements) than to NAY.
- Generally people recommend middle yellows for mixers (see Cadmium Yellow replacements), but I just don’t find them the same at all.
For replacing Quin Gold:
- Da Vinci’s Gold Ochre (PY42 + PY83) is the closest nontoxic dupe I’ve seen overall, with its ochreish masstone and very transparent dilute end; but it’s overall much warmer, and because of the PY83 not as lightfast.
- Some earth yellows, notably Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, have a similar overall hue, but different handling characteristics.
- Warm yellows (see Cadmium Yellow Deep replacements) are useful for the “sap green mixer” use case.
- Certainly genuine/original Quin Gold (PO49) would probably be good, but since it’s only available now from a few rare/specialist historical pigment places, I’ve never tried it.
Indian Yellow (PY153)
Very transparent warm yellow.
- Indian Yellow (PY83) is extremely similar, but not as lightfast. Generally, this is only available in student grade paints like Van Gogh.
- Other warm yellows: see Cadmium Yellow Deep replacements.
Some neon special effect paints, like Opera Pink (or sometimes those with “Brilliant” in front of them, like Schmincke’s “Brilliant Violet”), contain fluorescent dyes. You can tell dyes because the color index code starts with “B” instead of “P.” As far as I can tell, BV10 is toxic, but I don’t think the other ones are. The brightest Opera Pinks, those from Mission Gold and Holbein, contain BV10. They can be replaced with other brands’ Opera Pink, which use other fluorescent additives – choose any that don’t have cautionary labeling, such as Daniel Smith or Da Vinci.
Which toxic paints are irreplaceable?
I came into this challenge wondering if I would be able to paint with a nontoxic palette – if I’d run into some paints that were truly irreplaceable. In actuality, I think no paint is truly irreplaceable. You can have a good time painting from a minimalist palette; but to achieve a nontoxic palette, you hardly need to. There are tons of great nontoxic paints!
Cool outcomes of this experiment have been:
- Getting to know colors I previously underestimated or overlooked, such as Phthalo Blue Red Shade.
- Giving me an excuse not to bother with colors I don’t like much, such as Cadmiums and Cobalt Purple.
- Giving me a tiebreaker for colors I’d struggled to choose between, such as Ultramarine and Cobalt Blue.
Still, among the toxic paints I described are some I balked at replacing – and continued to miss!
- Nickel Azo Yellow is probably the most irreplaceable in my opinion, taking into account general usefulness, versatility, and uniqueness. This is the one I had the hardest time finding suitable replacements for. I don’t even have NAY on my palette usually, but I like to have Quin Gold, which is made from it.
- Green Gold would have been a suitable replacement for NAY, or NAY for Green Gold, but it was hard to lose them both.
- Cobalt Turquoise is the other one I found myself longing for. While it’s possible to mix a similar hue, it doesn’t handle the same, especially in mixes. The granulation of Cobalt Turquoise just can’t be captured with a pastel made from white. Cobalt Turquoise isn’t a color that I use all the time – I may not even keep it on my main palette – but I love to have the option. It’s the perfect paint for specific situations, such as tropical seas and certain types of rock formations. One possible harm mitigation strategy here is to choose a version made from the relatively low-cobalt and less-expensive PB36 (e.g. Da Vinci’s).
The good news is that I don’t think that Nickel Azo Yellow and Green Gold are all that toxic, in the scheme of things. Some tubes don’t have cautionary labeling. I’m not sure if this signifies that some formulations have less of the heavy metal ingredients, or if there’s some different interpretation going on by the companies, or what, but they seem borderline in general.
Cobalts are generally agreed to be among the more toxic of modern pigments in wide use today (though less so than Cadmiums; I could see drawing the line at Cadmiums and not Cobalts, going by the letter grades on ArtisCreation.) Still, it seems there’s a spectrum there as well, with PB36 containing less cobalt than PG50 or PB28. For that reason, I’m leaning toward adding Da Vinci’s Cobalt Turquoise (PB36) back to my B team palette.
All things being equal, I think I’d like to keep things pretty low-toxic from here on out (e.g. choosing the least toxic option between two colors I like equally well). But I don’t want to be dogmatic about it. If there’s a color I’m really into, and I don’t think there’s a good replacement, I’m willing to paint with mildly toxic paints in moderation (e.g. Cobalt or Nickel). Watercolor in general is low-toxicity enough that I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. Color is one of life’s simple pleasures; when you find a color you love, it’s a shame to deny yourself!