History: White Lead Paste

Ask the Expert: "I've heard older artists talkabout going to the hardware store andbuying lead white oil paint for preparingcanvas. I understand that's strictly a thing ofthe past. Do you know what that paint waslike, and what the ingredients andproportions were?"

A: In 1978 lead-based architectural paint wasbanned in the US (wisely so), ending the days ofcheap, easily available lead white primer forcanvas. Less risky titanium and zinc replacedlead carbonate in most architectural and artists'paints. By this time the majority of artists hadalready opted for the simplicity and convenienceof acrylic dispersion painting ground (betterknown as Acrylic Gesso) which did not require aseparate sizing layer or long curing period likethe older material.

The original Dutch Boy Lead White was a heavypaste intended to be mixed in varying proportionwith different vehicles, thinners and driersdepending on the substrate to be painted. Theoriginal proportion was 89% white lead, 9%linseed oil, 2% turpentine; it was reformulatedlater to 88% white lead, 10% linseed oil, 2%mineral spirits. A ready-to-use house paint wasalso available, composed of 72% pigmentdispersed in a linseed oil/mineral spirits vehiclewith 5% drier added. (The latter was too "fat" foruse as a primer.)

Artists favored lead white painting grounds fortheir attractive appearance and suave, "fast"surface that allowed brushes to glide alongwithout bristles being abraded or strokesbreaking. Oil-based primers are still available forartistic painting, including a few that are stilllead-based. Utrecht Oil Priming White containsno lead, but is formulated to give similarperformance, texture and leanness to historicallead-based grounds with a high ratio of solids tovehicle.

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