Charting a Safe Course: Navigating Watercolor Painting Hazards

Discover essential safety tips for watercolor painting in this insightful article. Learn about selecting non-toxic materials, maintaining a safe workspace, and understanding potential hazards associated with certain pigments. Empower your artistic journey with practical guidance for a safe and mindful painting practice.

The soothing flow of watercolor on paper and the possibilities of stunning visual effects make it a favored choice for many. With its rich history and timeless appeal, watercolor painting continues to inspire and captivate artists, providing a fulfilling and enriching artistic journey for all who embrace its beauty and versatility.

This beloved medium offers a delightful outlet for creative expression and the exploration of various styles and techniques. Whether it's the soft blending of colors or the transparency that adds depth to the artwork, watercolor painting has a timeless allure. 

However, alongside the joy of creating with watercolors, concerns sometimes arise regarding the safety of these paints, particularly in terms of toxicity.


Are Watercolor Paints Toxic?

Has your family expressed concerns about the possible toxicity of your watercolor hobby?

This article has all the answers to dissuade their fears. 

Fortunately, the majority of watercolor paints available today are non-toxic and safe for use by both adults and children. 

It's essential to note that a few pigments are traditionally derived from heavy metals like cadmium or cobalt. They might be found in some professional-grade watercolors. These pigments have the potential for toxicity, but the risks are minimal in regular use. 

These pigments are only toxic if ingested in significant amounts or if they come into prolonged contact with the skin. Proper handling and storage are crucial to ensure safety. 

For artists, it's important to be mindful of these considerations and take these three simple and necessary precautions when working with watercolor paints.

  1. Do not put any watercolor paints or paintbrushes in your mouth, ever!
  2. Do not cover your skin with paint that is not meant for use on human skin. 
  3. Keep your paint supplies away from small children and pets.

Following these simple rules, you can enjoy the beauty of watercolor painting without undue concern for toxicity, allowing your creativity to flow freely and without worry. 

The ability to express emotions and capture the essence of a subject with delicate washes and vibrant hues is a beloved aspect unique to watercolor painting. 


Are There Any Hidden Dangers In Your Watercolor Painting Supplies?

Watercolor painting, a revered art medium with a history dating back to the mid-1600s, provides artists with a vibrant and transparent palette for expressing their creativity. Let's take a look at the essential supplies necessary and any possible health concerns. 


Watercolor Paints

Varieties of Watercolor Paints Watercolor paints come in several forms, including watercolor tubes and watercolor pans. Tubes contain a concentrated paint that can be diluted with water to achieve a range of hues and consistencies. Conversely, pans are solid blocks that activate with water and are often favored for quick sketches or smaller artworks. Some artists also favor watercolor pencils for their versatility in producing fine lines and washes. 

Each type offers distinct advantages, and the choice of which to use ultimately depends on personal preference.

As far as the concerns for toxicity, it’s best to stay away from cheap paints from unknown brands. Sometimes, the cheapest paints are created from poor quality and possibly toxic ingredients. 


Watercolor Paper

Watercolor paper, meticulously crafted to endure moisture and repeated paint applications without warping, is offered in an array of thicknesses and textures to suit diverse artistic styles. 

Quality watercolor paper can make the biggest difference in your painting experience and can make you instantly feel like a better painter. 

Watercolor paper is generally safe to use.

It is crucial to note that artists should be aware of the potential hazards of paper treated with toxic chemicals or containing harmful additives from unverified sources. 

Unverified sources refer to suppliers or manufacturers that may not have a recognized or established reputation within the industry. These types of paper may not adhere to industry standards or certifications, and their products may not undergo rigorous testing or quality control measures.  Sometimes this paper is from countries with different safety standards than those in your country. 

Artists should exercise caution and prioritize safety when selecting watercolor paper to support their artistic endeavors.

When it comes to purchasing art supplies, including watercolor paper, it's important for artists to seek products from well-known and reputable suppliers, art stores, or manufacturers with a proven track record of providing high-quality, safe materials for artistic use. 



Brushes are the key critical component of the watercolor artist's toolkit. The quality of your 

brushes can significantly impact your experience and the quality of your paintings. 

Paintbrushes are generally safe to use. Much of what we discussed about sourcing paper applies to paintbrushes as well. 

Manufacturers that may not have a recognized or established reputation within the industry might peddle poor-quality supplies. These sources may not adhere to industry standards or certifications, and their products may not undergo rigorous testing or quality control measures. Therefore, artists should exercise caution and prioritize safety when selecting brushes to support their artistic endeavors.

It is important to note that while brushes are generally safe for use they can be made with toxic glues and synthetics when they come from unreputable sources. 


Dedicated Painting Trays and Jars

Having dedicated painting trays or plates and mixing jars is important to maintain a safe and organized workspace for artistic endeavors. 

When used exclusively for art purposes, these tools help prevent potential cross-contamination with food or other household items, ensuring a hygienic environment for both you and your family. 

You can choose to invest in professional mixing trays and brush cleaning gadgets or you can simply use a plate and a jar for your watercolors. It is a matter of personal preference and budget. 

Professional mixing trays may offer additional features such as multiple wells for mixing colors or specific designs tailored to artists' needs. However, for those with a more minimalistic or environmental approach, a regular plate will do fine for mixing colors. 

The key consideration is to ensure that the chosen tool is dedicated solely to art use to prevent any potential cross-contamination with household items. If these items were to be used interchangeably with kitchenware, there is a risk of inadvertently introducing art materials, such as pigments or solvents, into the household food preparation process, potentially leading to health hazards.

Maintaining dedicated art tools separate from household items is essential for the well-being of the artist and their family.


What Might Make Watercolors Toxic

Watercolor paints are considered a safe hobby. However, some ingredients in certain paints might cause mild toxicity if the 3 rules above are not followed.

The main concern is the pigments used in the paint, which may sometimes contain small amounts of heavy metals. Occasionally, binders used in watercolor paints might also cause skin irritation or other issues in sensitive individuals (don’t paint your or anyone else’s skin with any paint not specifically designed for use on skin).


How Toxic Are We Talking About?

While most watercolor paints are classified as having "no substances in sufficient quantities to be toxic to humans", there are exceptions. Some pigments might cause skin irritation or rashes for those with allergies to these specific ingredients. 

It's important to note that these effects are quite rare and are usually linked to the ingestion of paint or exposure to higher concentrations of pigment and binders than used in most watercolor paintings.


Understanding Paint Labels in Watercolors

To ensure safety while painting, one should understand the labels on watercolor paint tubes. 

Different manufacturers might have varying labeling practices, but most paints do come with a toxicity rating. If you are buying watercolors from an unknown source, it’s a good idea to check if their labeling follows international standards. 

Always make sure to follow the three rules above to avoid exposure to any toxic components through your skin or mouth… whatever you do, don’t drink the paint water! 


If You Are Still Worried Here Are Some Safe Color Replacements

If you have concerns about potential harm from specific watercolor paints, there are a few pigments that have been identified as more toxic than others. 

For example, some pigments containing heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, or chromium may cause some health problems if ingested or inhaled in large amounts. However, it is worth noting that such cases are extremely rare and can generally be avoided by using safe painting practices.

In case you are interested here are some pigments that contain some ingredients considered considered toxic (non-edible for sure!), along with their closest non-toxic alternative substitutions:

  • Cadmium Red - Substitute with Napthol Red or Pyrrole Red
  • Cadmium Yellow - Substitute with Hansa Yellow or Arylide Yellow
  • Cobalt Blue - Substitute with Phthalo Blue or Ultramarine Blue
  • Lead White - Substitute with Titanium White or Zinc White
  • Viridian Green - Substitute with Phthalo Green or Chromium Oxide Green

Please note that while the substitutes listed are generally considered non-toxic, artists should always refer to the specific pigment information provided by the manufacturer to ensure the safety of the paints they use. There is a great variety of recipes out there with a variety of binders and other ingredients. 

This is why it’s important to look into the manufacturer before buying watercolors… also don’t eat them. 

Remember, the main goal in watercolor painting is to have fun and express yourself freely. 

While concerns about the safety of watercolor paints may come up from time to time, it's reassuring to know that with thoughtful consideration and three simple precautions, you can immerse yourself in this beloved medium without compromising your well-being. 

By selecting non-toxic materials, maintaining a hygienic workspace, and understanding the potential hazards associated with certain pigments, you can embark on your creative journey with serenity. 

Even after hundreds of years, watercolor painting continues to inspire and captivate artists like you, enriching your artistic endeavors with vibrant expression and endless possibilities.

by Mari (Agnieszka)

November 21st, 2023