Friday, February 28, 2020

Lead White - The Deadly Colour

Lead White was known to be king of all white pigments. It has the highest opacity of all White pigments; desired for its intense white hue with little to no transparency. Lead white is a lead carbonate hydroxide (basic lead carbonate). In history Roman, Pliny the Elder documented the oldest method of making Lead White almost 2000 years ago. It can be said it, was invented by the Egyptians or Greeks, which then was passed on to the Romans.


Photo: Queen Elizabeth. Source internet and references below

This white pigment was widely used in art, plasters, preparation of ointments and in cosmetics. It was used during the Elizabethan Era or Tudor epoch during (1558 - 1603). Cosmetics in that time were unhealthy and unconventional. A pale skin in the upper class was the desired look. 

In order to obtain this white appearance, rich women applied makeup made up of white lead pigment (powder) mixed with vinegar, this mix known as Ceruse, a white paste used to cover up scars, signs of ageing and imperfections. The white look was only achieved by the high class as they stayed indoors most of the time, on the contrary to the low class that were always outdoors doing the heavy work under the sun.


Photo: Dried makeup.  Source in references below

Red lips and cheeks were applied on the deadly white face. The red was obtained from Cochineal, which is an insect that lives in the cacti and was imported from Mexico to Europe. To extract its colour the insect has to be crushed down and the result is a stunning crimson red colour. In order to apply this red pigment to the lips, it was mixed with gum arabic, egg glaire and fig milk.


Photo: Cochineal dye. Source in references below

Makeup originated in Egypt and then in the Middle East. It can be said that during the Crusades, these expeditions brought many things back to England, for instance makeup became extremely popular among the rich. This poisonous white paste (makeup) caused irrevocable harm to women such as respiratory problems, skin irritation, constipation even death. 

Photo: internet

On the other hand, artists such as Rembrandt, used this pigment on their artworks. He used lead white pigments mixed with linseed oils in order to obtain his thick paste-paints which allowed him to achieve a three-dimensional look in his work. Until the 19th century it was widely used as a white pigment until it was replaced by Titanium White, which is non-toxic.

Photo: internet Source in references below

Photo: Lead pigment on lead sheets. Source internet

It is known that since Antiquity there has been used different processes for making this pigment. The Dutch process is a well known one. "The process whereby lead is exposed to acetic acid vapors in the presence of moisture and carbon dioxide; the latter is generally provided by fermenting matter (horse manure, waste grape skins, tan bark), which also provides a constant source of heat. In this process, the air supplies the oxygen, while the fermenting matter gives off carbon dioxide and moisture. The acetic acid, in the form of vinegar, converts the lead, forming basic or tribasic lead acetate, which is afterwards decomposed by the carbon dioxide to form basic lead carbonate."  (extract from

Here is the basic process of making Lead White in a two step process (please do not make this pigment is toxic). 

  • To begin the first step, a colour manufacturer suspends strips of lead above acetic acid in a sealed container.
  • Historically, the acetic acid solution was vinegar.



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