Rising Costs of Rare Earth Materials Driving Up Paint Prices

12/15/2014 01:08 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

When the price of gasoline rises significantly, automobile owners (after all the complaining) tend to drive less and buy more fuel-efficient cars. In the face of higher food prices, consumers are apt to alter their menus and switch to less expensive store brands. So, it shouldn't be at all surprising that artists are making changes in what they are buying as the cost of the paints and other materials they use in their work has been rising.

"There have been increases in the prices of artists' materials of about 10-20 percent over the past several years," said the owner of New York Central Art Supply. "When prices go up, sales are affected, but maybe not as much. I think that artists are just absorbing the price increases, maybe buying a little less of things at a time."

There are many examples of the price increases of the ingredients commonly used in artists' supplies. "Cadmiums have gone up 50 percent in the last five years," said George O'Hanlon, technical director of Natural Pigments, which is located in Willits, California. "The raw materials in our lead white have increased 100 percent during that same period of time." The reason, he claimed, is that "pigment manufacturing is moving away from heavy metals," adding that artists not willing to pay double what they had in the past have turned to less expensive substitutes, such as titanium white.

The acrylic binders sold by Guerra Paint and Pigments in New York City have gone up between 10 and 40 percent in the past several years, according to company founder Art Guerra. He attributed to the producers of acrylics being bought out by "bigger chemical companies, like Dow and BASF, which are recouping their expenses by raising prices."

"I haven't seen people give up on painting," said Brian Dubberly, marketing and advertising director of Cheap Joe's Art Stuff, an online and catalogue art supply retailer based in Boone, North Carolina, "but I have noticed a huge shift from purchases of professional grade to student grade brands" -- a cost savings of up to 50 percent. That view was echoed by Frank Stapleton, president of MacPherson's, an art supply distributor in Emeryville, California, who noted that "artists aren't selling so much of their work these days, because of the economy, so there's pressure on them to keep their costs down."

Artists also are continuing to buy professional grade supplies from the Seattle-based Daniel Smith, another online and catalogue seller, as well as manufacturer, of artists' paints and other materials, "but they're not buying as much at a time as they have in the past," said Tom Wright, director of purchasing. Additionally, buyers "are moving down in tube size. With acrylics, we see people going from four ounces to 60 millimeters; with Winsor-Newton, we've seen from 37 millimeters to 15 millimeters."

Even at the higher grades of paints, many artists have switched to less costly brands. Pete Cole, president of the Portland, Oregon-based Gamblin Artists Colors, noted that he has seen some customers gone from buying the company's cadmium red -- a 37 millimeter tube at New York Central Supply costs $23.16 -- to its napthol scarlet (selling at $9.56 for a 37 millimeter tube). "They are similar in color, although they're different in how they tint," he said.

If escalating prices seem worrisome for artists, things could be worse. "There has been a lot of pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers from online sellers to work on lower profit margins," Stapleton said. Part of the costs that both brick-and-mortar and online sellers have been absorbing are higher freight charges, the result of increasing gasoline prices. Many of the art supply manufacturers have "shifted their manufacturing capacity to China and elsewhere in Asia, where the labor costs are much lower, and that has helped to keep costs down," said Eric Zelenko, president of Plaza Artist Materials in Silver Spring, Maryland. Additionally, in response to the rising cost and lack of availability of many pigments, such as cadmium, cobalt and manganese, Mark David Gottsegen, director of the Art Materials Information and Education Network in Cleveland, claimed that "the makers of organic colorants have ramped up the research and development to produce new colorants, some of which are less expensive."

As with everything else in life, there is an upside and a downside to this effort. The new colorants are less expensive, cleaner (they stay brilliant even when darkened, as happens with many mineral pigments), more lightfast (less likely to fade over time), stronger in intensity and more uniform in quality from one batch to the next (refined mineral pigments may vary greatly). Because they perform differently than mined pigments, these colorants need to be tested by artists for their properties. Putting two similar looking paints on the same canvas may lead to strange results, such as the blue on this side fading more than the blue on that side. Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist and director of the New York City-based Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, stated that "artists should only purchase materials from manufacturers who identify their pigments by the Colour Index name rather than only by the common name." (The Colour Index is a standard published by the British Society of Dyers and Colourists which identifies colors by their scientific name.) "Organic yellow," for instance, is not likely to be as lightfast as "cadmium sulfide." The problem is, she claimed, substitutions regularly are being made, but the manufacturers don't always identify the specific pigment on the tube or product label, and the result is that artists often don't know what they are using. "There is no law requiring art material manufacturers to be truthful about the colors," she said. "As long as it looks like cadmium yellow, you can legally sell it as cadmium yellow. The nice guys might warn you with the additional word 'hue' on the label, but legally, they don't have to."