Monday, June 5, 2006
Toxins in My Studio
Shadows Approaching, 2006, Oil on Panel, 24x24
Thanks so much to everyone for the sympathy, tips and information regarding my problem with drying paint. Despite Chris's opinion that humidity is not the major factor in the paint drying, and I do believe he is right, to some extent anyway, the humidity dropped over the last few days, and my underpaintings also dried (or oxidizes, may be more correct) pretty much overnight. So really, with this particular paint color, the humidity just seems to be the issue. There seems to be no other explanation in this case. Maybe there was a kink in the assembly line when they were making the batch of oil paint that I have.
With the comments on Friday's post veering off towards mediums and that safety of various materials, I thought I'd talk a bit more about that subject. After doing a google search, I found a few bad stories here and here about artists becoming ill from their materials and painting supplies, so clearly this is an issue for all of us to be concerned about. However, I made a point in the comments on Friday, and I stand by my opinion, that if proper safety precautions are taken, such as proper ventilation, wearing barriers such as gloves, then contact with these things should be no worse than the accumulation of the various pollutants in our food, air and water. I make an effort to eliminate as many toxins as I can in our daily lives and I also take care in the studio. On the other hand I don't go crazy trying to do so, I want to enjoy things and I want to paint in a manner that lets me feel expressive, not worried and stressed about the potential for illness and death.
In college and for a few years after, as is typical with young people who think that nothing can ever happen to them, I took little care in material safety. Most of us art students lived in one room dorms or studio apartments and worked with flammable solvents and paints in the same rooms that we slept in, cooked in and socialized in. We were much more concerned with getting our paint brushes cleaned properly than cleaning our hands before eating. No one wore gloves while painting, and if they did, they probably would have been ridiculed. There were some concessions, we had to leave the classroom to spray a drawing with fixative (great, so the hallways were toxic) and sometimes the windows were opened and occasionally there were fans in use in the printmaking studios. I imagine the building had general ventilation, though I don't recall that it made a big difference. We used turpentine like it was water, rags were soaked in it and in fact, I recall rinsing the oil paints off my hands by pouring turpentine on them and then scrubbing them. To this day, whenever I smell it, the odor of turpentine send me right back to those days of creativity, excitement in learning about art, all nighter's in the studios at school and being young (and stupid, let's face it!). Anyway, I didn't have any significant effects from all of this, with one exception. I used copal dryer for awhile but stopped when I realized I was getting terrible headaches each time that I worked with it. I imagine there are more safety precautions in place now in the schools than there were 20 years ago, at least I hope there are.
Somewhere along the way, I read a few things about how hazardous various materials were, Artist Beware by Michael McCann is a good resource and of course there is a ton of info now available on the internet. While I didn't really use most of the really bad ones very often, like acetone, I did decide to stop using turpentine in my underpaintings or as a medium. And then I stopped painting in oil altogether when I became pregnant. I worked in other mediums for awhile, acrylics, charcoal and then began my long break from art because of time issues. When I came back to painting, my work developed in a manner where using solvents wasn't necessary.
I take much more care now, but certainly could do better. When I do the underpainting, it is basically painted with a cloth and my hands, so I wear gloves at that stage, however I don't wear gloves later when I use brushes. That falls in to the category of sucking all of the fun out of it for me. The glazing medium I use is Liquin and while that is considered combustible, has harmful vapors and is "irritating to skin and eyes" I have never had any problems with it. I do take care with it, always keeping it in the container and promptly removing any unused portion when I am finished working each day. I have a few glass jars with coils, filled with turpenoid natural used for rinsing my brushes. The brushes are then washed with ivory soap and water or vegetable oil for the larger brushes. Periodically I dump out the dirty turpenoid into a plastic bucket that I keep in the garage and when that gets full I take it to the hazardous waste dump that is open just 2x per year. I use disposable palette paper and each day that I finish painting I put that, the little foil muffin cup that I use for the day's Liquin, and any rags that are loaded with paint into a plastic grocery bag and throw them into the garbage. Once I spent a day calling all over the place to see how I should dispose of those things. The hazardous waste people said it was too insignificant for them to deal with, and everyone else said it could just go in with the regular garbage. That doesn't seem quite right, but with no other alternative, that's what I do. I just try to use up all of the paint and Liquin that I put out each day. The paint I use for for the frames is acrylic based as well as the Gesso that I use to prime my panels. In the summer I sand them outside but I do it indoors in the winter and then clean up the dust right away. I wear a dust mask if I am doing a lot of sanding but if it's just one piece or something then I don't. Given that my studio is in the house and that the room is open to the other rooms I should have better ventilation (or perhaps that openness is enough ventilation for the small amount of supplies that I use), other than open windows in the summer. I am very careful about keeping containers closed and I generally only paint when the kids are not home. I keep meaning to get an air purifier, which would be good and when I get a new studio, having the right ventilation will be a priority. I use soap and water to wash my hands, and vegetable oil to remove paint if any gets on my hands, but I am not a very messy painter so that's usually not much of a problem. I do confess to drinking and eating in my studio, I know that's a no-no, but I do it anyway. I do refrain from dipping the crackers into the Liquin though.
So this is how I handle things right now. If I were to start working more with other mediums, like pastels or encaustics, which I probably won't do much of until I get a separate studio, clearly I would have to make changes. But for now, neither I, nor anyone in our family, has any health issues and while I do have concerns about long term effects, I am much more concerned about hydrogenated oils, aspartame, excess sugar, and all of the rest of the unpronounceable toxins in shampoos, cleaning supplies, and plastics in our lives. Not to mention car accidents, drowning or falling off a ladder. There's always something.
Please feel free to share your studio safety tips, of lack of, as the case may be. We all make different safety choices based on our various situations, sensitivities and personal concerns, but I always like to hear how others handle painting issues. Just a nosy nellie I guess.