How Vegan is Your Art? Ethica Magazine Meets The Art Tiffin's Founder and CEO Dr Pragya Agarwal
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You've stopped eating all animal products, you only drink vegan-friendly booze, you've ditched wool, silk, leather and fur. Your skincare and makeup is vegan and cruelty-free, you only buy ethical household products. But sadly that's not it. Animal products are still used in many other everyday products.
You may be surprised but there are plenty in art materials, and not just in paint brushes. From paint to pencils, many supplies use animal derivatives. Thankfully there are companies and brands out there that are trying to change this, using plant-based ingredients and alternatives. The Art Tiffin does just that. The company was set up to introduce cruelty-free art supplies and materials in the form of beautiful monthly subscription boxes, just like the beauty ones.
We talk to The Art Tiffin founder, Dr Pragya Agarwal to find out more and discover how we can avoid harming animals and still be creative.


Many ingredients used in art materials and supplies aren't vegan or cruelty free, such as most brushes and red pigment like as carmine. What are the most common and less commons culprits one should look out for?

There are several that we have found with our extensive research and testing. Watercolour papers can be sized using gelatin; paint has ox gall; ink can contain shellac binder or squid and cuttlefish, crushed cochineal beetles, or charred animal bones; artists’ pencils have beeswax; glue has rabbit skin and paintbrushes have animal hair like sable, squirrel, mongoose, horse or pig hair. Ox gall is obtained from cows and used as the wetting agent in most watercolour paints. Some colours especially Ivory Black and Bone Black pigments often come from charred animal bones.


Carmine is a big problem, not just in art but cosmetics too. It can be tricky to identify if one doesn't know its scientific pigment name. What should somebody avoid and what is used to create red hues that's cruelty free and vegan?

Carmine is a natural dye that is obtained from dried crushed cochineal insects, native to Mexico and South America. The insect produces carminic acid is extracted from body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal. In 16th century it was brought to Europe and became extremely popular due to its vibrant red colour. It is also used in lipsticks and some food colouring. Unlike beauty and food products, it is impossible to know what is in our paint, as there are no clear policy guidelines and no ingredients listed on the packaging. However, many paints have synthetically produced dyes in them as a replacement. Alizarin Crimson was extracted from Madder plant roots in the 18th century and then synthesised in the middle of the 19th century, and another pigment Minium, also known as red lead have replaced carmine in some of the paints, although these synthetically produced pigments are not really environmentally-friendly either. Using traditional knowledge, plant based dyes can also be produced from flowers but the production costs are very high. 


Are there any non-vegan products that don't have a vegan alternative yet?

Black and sepia inks are produced using cephalopod inks (squid or another mollusc), Even if produced with black soot or carbon, a binding agent is used which contains gelatin or shellac, or sometimes indigo and blue dyes from crushed mollusc shells. 

. I have tested various inks but it has not been possible for me to find any good quality black drawing ink that is vegan. There are tattoo inks that are vegan but I haven’t had a chance to test them yet.


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Can something else be used in place of the standard black ink?

There is walnut ink which is not pure black but sepia and can give different shades of brown, depending on how much water is mixed with it.


How easy is to find vegan art supply brands in shops and online?

It is becoming easier but only if you know what you are looking for. As I mentioned, there isn’t much clarity on this at all, nor are the suppliers often aware of what is in the art material itself. I go straight to the manufacturers themselves and, although some are reluctant to reveal the exact ingredients, many are aware of a need for the art supplies and materials to be eco-friendly and cruelty-free. There are some overseas brands that are more natural but they are not easily available in the UK and cannot be shipped here because of rules around import of paints and pigments. The cost of these can be quite prohibitive too.


Which vegan and cruelty free art brands can you recommend?

Faber-Castell, Daler-Rowney and Derwent are some good brands but not all of their products are vegan. Sennelier is another brand, which is conscious about the eco and ethical ethos.


Is there's more demand for vegan art supplies these days? Do you think in the near future animal ingredients in art supplies will be phased out or do we still have a long way to go?

With increasing awareness of animal rights, and vegan lifestyle becoming more accessible, there are over half a million vegans in the UK according to the last survey conducted by the Vegan Society in 2016. However, the issue here is that there isn’t a widespread awareness that art materials have animal products in them and are not cruelty-free. In this regard, there is a long way to go, to get the same standards and stringent guidelines and transparency as is now available for beauty and food products. The Art Tiffin was set up with this main goal in mind, to raise awareness of vegan art materials, research and test art materials and supplies, contact manufacturers and suppliers and get more clarity on what goes into our art supplies.