I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years, nominally for ethical reasons. I eat some dairy and eggs, but the majority of my meals are mostly vegan. I am bothered by the idea of raising and slaughtering animals, particularly in modern factory farms. I am also concerned about the larger land and carbon footprint of eating higher up on the foodchain.
My ethical views are somewhat nuanced – while the scale of animal consumption and cruelty bothers me, I am also aware that a purely vegan lifestyle up here in the great white north isn’t exactly sustainable either. Being vegan where I live would be nearly impossible without the heavy use of fossil fuels for transporting fresh vegetables and producing synthetic insulating fabrics. I’m not going to delve too far into it here, but I’ve made a conscious choice to wear (mostly, but not exclusively second hand) wool and leather, I don’t fuss about by-products, I’ve definitely ingested fish-sauce and lard at restaurants, and I am comfortable with that.
However, if I’m truly honest, my ethics are pretty flimsy. Nowhere is my ethical ambivalence more obvious than in my art supplies. Every part of my art “kit” contains some kind of animal products, and none of them are truly necessary, they’re just convenient indulgences. I don’t really feel guilty about it, but I also recognize and admire that others may be more interested in making cruelty-free choices.
In the following sections, I’ll describe all the common hidden animal products in a regular watercolour kit, what they’re used for, and some possible alternatives.
My “nice” brushes, which I use most frequently in my watercolour work, are nearly all made with animal hair.
My “best” brushes which I use for most of my detail work, are Kolinsky sable brushes, made from the tail hairs of male the Kolinsky weasel (not actually a sable at all). These have great liquid retention, and a very soft but super-springy point, which allows me to paint long lines, fine details and larger areas with only one brush. The weasels, which are prevalent in northern Eurasia, are trapped for their pelts.
I also have a couple of large “mop” brushes for large areas, made with squirrel hair. They are incredibly soft and hold a huge volume of water and dispense it smoothly, ideal for making large, even washes. Squirrels are farmed or trapped, and killed for their pelts.
Other watercolour brushes may include various other animal hairs such as red sable, badger, etc.
Synthetic brushes, made using nylon or acrylic hairs, are widely available and often cheaper. Synthetic brushes tend to be a bit harder/rougher than the sable or squirrel brushes traditionally used for watercolour. This can be a useful quality for lifting/scrubbing away dry pigment, but can often lead to a streakier look when painting wet in wet or large washes. They also almost invariably have a lower water capacity, which can be a little bit easier for beginners to manage, but makes it more difficult to paint a large area or long line in a single stroke.
Finally, synthetic brushes tend to lose their point and splay out more quickly than good natural hair brushes, which use the natural tapered and curved point of the animal hair to craft a point which springs back time after time. For this reason, synthetic brushes may need to be replaced more frequently than animal hair ones.
Some companies have recently put a great deal of effort into creating very high quality synthetic brushes. Silver Black Velvet brushes, for instance, are rumoured to rival the water retention of natural squirrel hair and deliver a soft brush point. Escoda Versatil brushes are what I use as travel brushes – they are quite durable and have good water retention, although they lack the soft-springiness of my best Kolinsky brushes.
Watercolour paints are often formulated with ox gall and/or honey, and some pigments are made with animal products
Ox Gall is a wetting agent, which increases the rewettability and flow of watercolour. It is made from, you guessed it, the gall bladder of an ox (or more frequently, a cow). Ox gall is a common ingredient which many watercolour paint brands mix right into their prepared tubes and pans. It can also be purchased as a watercolour medium to add to your paints.
Schmincke produces a synthetic ox gall product, which I believe they use as a wetting agent in their paints as well. Holbein advertises that they use no ox gall in their paints.
Honey is used as a binding agent and to keep watercolours semi-moist and easy to rewet. A few brands, notably M. Graham, Yarka St. Petersburg and Sennelier, use a very honey rich formula in their paints, which results in a semi-moist consistency in the pans.
I personally think that the beekeeping industry is a great advocate for the environment and have no ethical problems whatsoever with honey. I also love the consistency of honey-based paints, so I specifically seek them out. However, most large brands (excluding the three listed) do not use honey, if thjs is something you wish to avoid.
Luckily for those with ethical concerns, most animal-based pigments have been discontinued as most were not very lightfast. Ivory Black(PBk9) is made with charred animal bones – watch out for it in some mixed pigments such as Neutral tint or Indigo. In general black pigments are easy to avoid in watercolour, and there are other non-animal blacks. Some companies still produce Genuine Carmine (NR4) – I would rank it’s terrible lightfastness as a greater concern than the fact that it’s made with ground up beetles 😉 Just use quinacridones.
A few indie brands have popped up that formulate exclusively cruelty-free paints which do not contain ox gall, honey, animal pigments or any other animal by-products. One of my favourites is Eventually, Everything, Mixes – the paintmaker, Amé, also seeks out unique and environmentally friendly pigments for her beautiful, unique paints.
What, even my paper contains animal products? That’s right, watercolour paper is treated, or “sized”. The sizing is what keeps the pigments sitting on the surface of the paper, rather than sinking and feathering across all of the paper fibres Sizing is traditionally made with animal gelatin, although some papers are made with starch or synthetic gelatin rather than an animal product.
Bockingford, Canson Moulin du Roy, and Fabriano Artistico papers are sized without animal products
It goes without saying that vellum, another traditional surface for watercolour, is also not cruelty-free, being made from stretched calf or goat skin.
EDIT: Further clarifications about vellum, as I’ve drawn the attention of a few great artists who use vellum as their primary surface 😉
Vellum (and other skins) are considered a by-product, like gelatin or ox-gall. No calves or goats are directly raised or slaughtered for their skins. Skins are a waste by-product of the meat industry, and many skins end up in landfill as the demand for meat far outstrips the demand for vellum and other leathers. However, like other by-products, the purchase of vellum supports the primary meat industry.
Vellum has several unique qualities – in addition to a mostly impermeable surface it also has a unique semi-transparent finish and shows the skin texture and patterning of the animal. Each piece of vellum is a unique item.
The impermeable surface of vellum can be mimicked, to some degree, with synthetic alternatives. One interesting alternative is Terraskin, a paper alternative made of rock in a plastic binder. It has many of the same handling properties as vellum, with a smooth, non-absorbent surface that allows the paints to sit on top and glow rather than sinking into the surface, It is much cheaper, available in larger sizes than vellum, and of course, cruelty free. However it lacks the variable translucency and unique character of vellum.