Cruelty Free Art Supplies

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 I found a list that shared some papers that used gelatin versus others that don’t, but it is quite outdated (from 1996).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!

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28 Responses

  1. J says:

    I was thrilled to find your site. It has been a challenge to find companies that are cruelty-free, not just individual products. I am looking into finding a high quality set of acrylic paints now, but the vast majority of the companies that I find also sell rabbit skin glue/glaze and other clearly animal based products. If you find any totally cruelty free companies I would love to hear about them.

    • lesley says:

      It is difficult! I had no idea, and yeah, an entirely cruelty free company would be awesome. When I have a few spare seconds I want to look further into it.

  2. Mary says:

    So glad to find this info! I researched this very topic a year or so ago and was suprised to find there’s very little info out there on this. The only company I could verify did not use gelatin was Fabriano. That’s the only brand of paper I use now.

    Brushes are another issue, especially for watercolorists. There are some really good brushes but you have to search for them. My favorite is Da Vinci’s CosmoTop Spin. It’s almost impossible to find a cruelty free brush company, but if anyone knows of one, I’d love to hear of it.

    I noticed you listed gouache as a cruelty free medium but not watercolor. I thought that as long as you stuck to the mineral based pigments you were ok. Is that not the case?

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

    • lesley says:

      Hey Mary, thanks for commenting! I only listed gouache because that is what I use. I assume the same about watercolor… but I did just find this on a forum: “Most pan watercolors are ok, but watercolors in tubes are almost always made with ox-gall” and this from Empty Easel: “Ox gall is obtained from cows and used as the wetting agent in most watercolour paints.Thankfully, Holbein has some watercolour paints that do not contain ox gall, including Cadmium Red Deep, Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Lamp Black, Opera, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Deep.” Hmmm, maybe not then.

      I hadn’t thought about a whole company being cruelty free… I assume there aren’t any brush companies that make only synthetics. I’ll check out the kind you recommend – I need a couple of new brushes!

  3. Katie says:

    Hi. Info all very useful. Just to add that there are lots of synthetic paint brushes available which have been given good reviews by artists magazines. Winsor & Newton is just one of many manufacturers who make synthetic brushes.

  4. aparadekto says:

    Hey, I can’t view your site properly within Opera, I actually hope you look into fixing this.

  5. This is an interesting post and helpful too. It’s good to know there are art supply companies out there that are cruelty-free.

  6. Pro Artist says:

    Wow, knowing that Arches watercolor paper uses gelatin is shocking. I am switching to Yupo watercolor paper. I heard great things about it, although it sounds a little weird. At least there’s no animal parts because it’s polypropylene.

  7. Tamara Niederer says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts! I remember having an (mild, I must say) argument with my lecturer because I did not want to use Rabbit Skin Glue..His best response was “Well, your brushes are hogs hair!”… When they were actually synthetic. But I have been constantly trying to find out what is in the paint I am using and in the paint mediums I am using! This was a big help, thank you!

  8. It is in reality a nice and helpful piece of info. I?m glad that you just shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Vicky says:

    Thank you for raising this! I find it hard to find out which art suppliers don’t use animal based or cruelty free paint. Do Daler Rowney, Old Holland, Da Vinci, Weber or Yarka St Petersburg supply these products? There is really no excuse in this day and age to be still using fur brushes , fur is cruel you only have to look at the PETA website to learn of some of the horrific things that go on. Also horses are used during their lifetimes to race and toil then discarded to make glue. People should ask for a stop to thhis and support animal charities which help them, I think that caring for another species makes us more human……
    Beast wishes

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  11. Anneke says:

    Hi! I’m also hunting down cruelty free papers, and in my research I’ve also found that many companies also use milk to buffer the paper. Strathmore says they don’t use any animal products in their sizing, but don’t say anything about the buffering. I’ve sent them an e-mail and am waiting for a response. However I’ve recently found out that, according to Windsor & Newton, Brockingford Watercolour Paper is vegan as they do not use gelatine in the sizing and it is buffered with calcium carbonate (a sediment commonly found in chalk)
    Hope this helps!

  12. Lesley says:

    I had no idea they used milk! I’d love to know what you find out from Strathmore. If you remember please post it here! I’ll definitely keep my eye out for the Brockingford. Thanks!

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  20. Emogene Kihn says:

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  21. Mark Stryker says:

    Hello Lesley,

    We are equally concerned that there are few if any cruelty free art supplies that are of a professional quality. That is why we opened Colors of Nature. We offer 13 earth tone colors that are made with natural earth mineral pigments using an all vegetable based vehicle. I hope you will consider us as a solution to the cruelty free art supply question.

    Please feel free to visit us at Colors of Nature or contact me directly.

    Thank you,

  22. Jill says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your research. Here in the UK there doesn’t seem to be much information on cruelty free art materials. It’s quite surprising what you discover, for instance, I thought I would be safer with watercolour but discovered the other day that sepia is made from squid ink! More information needs to be displayed on the labels – ingredients need to be listed in the same way that food is, so that we know what we are buying.

  23. Barbara Holmes says:

    Thank You for this post. You would be surprised at the number of artists who don’t care about such things. I’m trying to learn more about animal testing in artist materials because just because something is vegan does not mean the company doesn’t test on animals. Elmer’s glue tests on animals yet uses no animal biproducts as an example.

  24. Eunike says:

    hi! are there any vegan and cruelty free watercolor? i heard holbein is vegan and cruelty free. but im not quiet sure

    • Lesley says:

      I don’t know specifically, but I did a quick peek around the internet and there are a few blogs and sites out there that list them. If you have a particular product in mind check out there website, sometimes they say straight up whether they are or not, sometimes it is in the FAQ, or you could contact them directly! Some products are too expensive for me, or were hard to find, so I tried to find the easiest/most affordable for what I wanted to do that was also vegan. In this case, it was Winsor & Newton. Good luck!

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