Until recently I had never really thought about what ingredients might be in my art supplies. I mean, paper is just paper, right? Except when it isn’t. I just finished reading the wonderfully informative book Watermedia Painting with Stephen Quiller and learned that most watercolor paper is sized with gelatin. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1990 and have tried to be animal friendly in areas of my life outside of food. Painting on paper treated with gelatin is not something I can continue to do in good conscience, and the process using the gelatin is what makes the paper stand up to my layers of gouache abuse:
Watercolor papers are traditionally sized, or treated with a substance to reduce the cellulose absorbency. Internal sizing is added to the paper pulp after rinsing and before it is cast in the paper mould; external or “tub” sizing is applied to the paper surface after the paper has dried. The traditional sizing has been gelatin, gum arabic or rosin, though modern synthetic substitutes (alkyl-ketene dimers such as Aquapel) are now used instead. (from Wikipedia)
Well that sounds good, right? It sounds like most paper companies don’t actually use gelatin any more. But with so many paper options out there, how can I know? I found a list that shared some papers that used gelatin versus others that don’t, but it is quite outdated (from 1996). Lately I have been using Winsor and Newton 200 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper. I couldn’t find anything on their website that specifically stated what they size their paper with, so I sent them an email. They sent back a “we have received your technical query” auto reply, but have yet to answer my question.
I did a little more searching, and what I found is that most paper companies don’t have a website or are simply a part of their distributor’s site. If they do have a web presence, they don’t provide many details on how their papers are produced.
A handful of companies do explain how they size their papers. Fabriano Artistico Watercolor Paper is “externally and internally sized with a specially formulated, gelatin-free sizing that is odorless when wet.” Strathmore also answers it outright on their website FAQ: “We do NOT use any animal products as part of our sizing process. We use plant-based and synthetic sizing”. I am happy to have at least two brands I can rely on to be free of hoof and tendon.
Arches Aquarelle Watercolor papers state they use gelatin in their sizing (some even say “organic gelatin”…what the heck is that?!). Noblesse, Saunders Waterford, and Twinrocker all state they use gelatin as well.
I learned about Ampersand Aquabords in Stephen Quiller’s book, so I purchased one to try out. I assumed that they were animal friendly since it is just clay on board, but I had also assumed paper was just paper and that didn’t work out so well for me. I sent them an email and they replied quite promptly:
All the panels are first sealed with an acrylic polymer emulsion. They Claybord and clay coatings (ie. Claybord, Aquabord, Scratchbord, Pastelbord) all have a synthetic glue binder to help bind the clay. In the beginning, we decided that “hide glues” would deterioriate, yellow and become brittle over time which quickly ruled them out along with any other animal organics that were potential candidates.
Great! With just a little digging I’ve come up with some paper options that are satisfying for me and my lifestyle. I’ve also learned that for the most part gouache, oils, and acrylics are vegan. There are certain colors to watch out for – anything with bone, ivory, or carmine in the color name, for example – and obvious things like ox gall and rabbit glue. I’d like to learn more though, so I’ll be researching what goes into my paints and the other supplies I use (oil pastel, soft pastel, brushes) in the future.
I hope that this post helps any other artists concerned about the contents of their supplies. There is also a group on facebook for vegan and vegetarian artists. If you have any other knowledge or tips on the subject, please leave a comment!