If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I’ve been trying to live a more non-toxic life as part of my fight against thyroid cancer. Well, I’m also an artist. As I’ve just accepted a new oil painting commission, I’m researching ways to make the painting process safer and less toxic. As many people have become concerned about the health and environmental effects of the products we use, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. So far, here are a few suggestions I’ve found:
1) Use good hygiene and cleaning methods. Definitely don’t put your brushes anywhere near your mouth. Supposedly, VanGogh ingested traces of his oil paints as he worked, and this may have contributed to his mental and physical decline. Also, try to wear gloves as you paint. I know in the past, I’ve been guilty of getting oil colors all over my hands as I paint. Even though I’d scrub my hands afterward, remnants of stubborn color would still remain. This can be absorbed into your body, along with any toxic ingredients, so you should minimize skin contact.
2) Use good ventilation. Outdoor Plein Air painting is great. If this is not an option, paint with as many windows and doors open as possible. Paint in a garage with the doors open. Or use a studio with a built-in ventilation system and/or lots of windows. Use fans and air purifiers as well. I have a small window, but also use a purifier and a fan to blow any fumes out the open window. Put a ventilation mask on if you are still concerned.
3) Check the ACMI (Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc.) labels. This is a non-profit association that tests for toxicity in paints and media. Look for the AP (Approved Product) certified nontoxic seal on your individual paint tubes (every color may be different, even within a specific brand or line of paints). Avoid the CL label which indicates that caution should be used. In general, avoid the Cadmium colors and the Cobalt colors, including Cerulean Blue. Lead White (also known as Flake White) has been banned in most countries because of its toxicity, now selling the safer Flake White Replacement color. Most major art supply catalogs and websites will indicate the labels for each paint color. For more information, see the ACMI website.
4) Avoid turpentine and most thinners and mediums. In my research, it appears that Walnut Oil is safe and a quality choice. There is also M Graham Walnut Alkyd Medium which is non-toxic, if you’d like a fast drying medium (oils such as walnut oil are not fast drying). I have a bottle of water soluble Stand Oil at home that has the AP label. There may be other limited choices, but use caution.
5) Use simple soap and water for cleaning your brushes and hands. My art professors in college suggested we use regular dish soap for washing brushes. This is easy on the budget, as well as health. I used to swirl the brushes into the palm of my hand with soap to clean them. Now I will use a clean surface, such as my palette, to swirl, to limit the skin exposure.
6) Make sure to close all paint and medium containers as soon as you are done with them and clean up thoroughly.
With these precautions, you should be able to oil paint safely and enjoyably. If you know of any more safety tips with regards to oil painting, please let me know!