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.


Stacey Peterson said...

I'm with you in thinking that many of the artificial things we eat are just as harmful, if not more so, than the environment we paint in.

After a lot of trial and error, I ended up using Gamblin's Gamsol mineral spirits as my solvent and Weber's resingel as a medium. Turpenoid and turpenoid natural bugged my eyes, and liquin aggravated my asthma badly, so I had to eliminate them from my studio a while ago.

When I found out I was pregnant, I freaked out because I'd been painting with solvents for a month before I knew (some people worry that they drank some wine - I worried that I inhaled to much mineral spirits). I've had to completely revamp my process since then. To eliminate solvents from my studio, I've replaced Gamsol with M. Graham Walnut Oil for brush cleaning. I used to do my underpaintings with solvent-thinned oil paint, but for the time being I've started doing my underpaintings in acrylic. The top layers of my paintings are thick wet-into-wet paint, so I find that I don't really need any type of thinner for those. I wear gloves at all times to prevent absorbing pigments, and make sure the big windows next to my easel are always open for ventilation. If I need to use mineral spirits to clean a stubborn pigment out of a brush, I take it outside.

It's a tough topic because there is so little data on the actual effects of a lot of the new products out there.

Ed Maskevich said...

Like you, I stopped using oils for a long time after my kids were born. It is hard to change a diaper or heat a bottle when you have oils all over your hands. During those years I did a lot of photography, pen and ink, and started using soft pastels.

I use turpentine and yup, I know it's toxic. So are most of the painting materials that I use. I've been using it for close to 40 years and I'm still alive and not suffering from brain damage and it did not cause me to create genetically mutated children. In college I experimented with a lot of non-standard paints like synthetic laquers, fiberglas resins, metal powders, and numerous other materials. For me a respirator, rubber gloves, and having the exhaust fans running were essential. But also like you, when using oils it was no big thing to clean my hands with paint thinner.

My studio is attached to the back of my garage so, I have to go outside to go inside. I have windows on all 4 walls for cross ventilation and run a commercial air purifier when painting and leave it running for at least an hour after I leave the studio, just to clean out the air. My solvents are all in metal cans. I clean my brushes with mineral spirits and the amount that I keep for use on a daily basis is stored in a double walled can. My dirty, oily rags are stored in a doubled wall fireproof trash container with a lid on the container. I wear disposable vinyl gloves and I leave my windows opened for fresh air (only a crack in the winter).

When I was young it was cool to be cavalier now that I'm old sensible works better. After using soft or oil pastels (I don't wear gloves for those) I wipe my hands clean using disposable baby wipe, that I buy in bulk, and then go into the house and wash my hands. My disability (obsessive compulsive disorder) made me this way and it's a good thing.

Lisa Call said...

Tracy - I am most attracted to the colors in this painting - very nice.

There are times I am most thankful I work with fabric. It's not any more toxic than a colored 100% cotton shirt, except during the dyeing.

I dye 100-200 yards of fabric a year (takes 3-5 days each year) and in powdered form the dyes are extremely toxic so I wear a mask. I take the mask off once I've mixed everything with water and wipe up spills carefully. I do my best to always wear gloves but I admit there are a few times I forget and end up with colored spots on my fingers.

And that's it - the rest of my studio is pretty much toxin free.

Although my rotary cutter can slice a finger off in seconds if you aren't paying attention and I am more concerned about my kids getting a hold of it than any lasting effects of the dyes.

Tracy Helgeson said...

Hi Stacers, Sounds like you've taken really good precautions with your materials in regards to pregnancy safety. I know of many women who continued to work in oil while pregnant, with no problems. I keep hearing about walnut oil, may have to try it sometime.

Ed, you are totally set, I think! OCD sure does come in handy sometimes, heh. It is good though that most of us tend to become more sensible after awhile, sometimes I can't believe I made it through all of the stupid things I've done:-)

Lisa, Thanks for the compliment about the painting. It hadn't occurred to me that dyeing fabric could be bad, but duh, of course, with powdered pigments. And that's a lot of fabric-does that get you through the year's work or do you supplement with other materials? And have you ever written a post about how you actually dye that much fabric?

Lisa Call said...

This is about all I've ever written about dyeing fabric:

Now that it's warm (need heat for the dye to set well) I'll start dyeing in the next few weeks and post some more info.

Schuivert said...

Thanks for bringing up the subject Tracy.
I indeed paint in the living room of our one room apartment, but until now I do not consider that as a big problem.
I almost only paint when I am alone at home so that I can have the big window right next to me open and one or more windows on the other side of the apartment. I stopped using turpentine for underlayers, and whenever I do use some medium (mixture of turpentine and linseed oil) I use tiny amounts and I store them in small jars, packed in a plastic bag.
As I only paint small paintings (usually wet in wet) all amounts are small.
I clean my (cheap) brushes wit soap and water and wear gloves or protect my hands with a cream (not sure if that is the right word).
At night I put the paintings that are still wet, my palette and the small jars with medium in a small room with an opening for ventilation in the wall.

My main concern is more the left overs and.... the paintings. They all add up to a bigger and bigger amount of cadmium and other fine things. I stopped using Cadmium Yellow because of the cadmium, but there are loads of other things in those tubes. I saw that they also recently put a health-warning on titian white.

I collect most of the left overs and plan to bring them some place some time, but it still feels strange to paint nature with toxic paints. I love oils though and have not yet tried water-soluble oils.

Went through the large list of old paintings on the internet of auctions in Denmark and Norway yesterday... did they all use cadmium... :-(


Tracy, I use Baby Oil to clean my brushes, its non-toxic and works very well, plus my studio smells like babies. I make up for all this nontoxic solvent by also useing the deadly Cobalt Drier which I dip my pallete knife into just before mixing up a color. I know its bad but I just cant help myself.

Tracy Helgeson said...

Bart, I think it sounds like you are very careful in your small space, certainly more than I was when I lived in a studio apartment. I guess it's wise to be cautious about cadmiums, though it's a shame because they are so beautiful! I use them sparingly, not because they are toxic, but because, if you can believe it, I think they can be too strong in my work. I do use a cadmium yellow quite a bit though. Actually, it's cadmium-barium yellow which is supposedly really bad. Great.

Aaron, are copal dryer and cobalt drier the same thing? It was copal when I was in school, now I see cobalt everywhere, maybe it's a brand name thing? I think you cut your toxins in half by using baby oil, plus you can wash your hands with it, very useful. And you are dreaming if you think babies smell like baby oil :-)

Jeffrey Hayes said...

I have to say I don't share the alarm over my materials that I seem to hear more and more artists expressing. In my opinion, Robert Gamblin's scaremongering has been something of a disservice to this discussion. I wouldn't suggest malicious intent, but let's not forget that he has a substantial vested interest making people terrified of traditional materials: Paranoia=GamSol sales.

I fully agree that a commonsense, middle of the road approach here is plenty of protection. I'm lucky to be obsessively neat as a painter, so it's a very rare occassion that I even get any paint on my skin. I use latex gloves when cleaning my palette and brushes. I use a large container of silicon-based brush cleaner for cleaning, but I also always have small jars of triple-rectified turpentine and a turpentine-based medium open at all times when working. I just don't trust OMS' long-term stability in the paint layers themselves. My solution to ventilation is to have a high volume bathroom fan (a very quiet one!) installed in my studio above my workspace, ensuring a constant flushing of the air to the outside, which I decided was an ever more effective approach than air purifies. Cheaper too.

Over the weekend I was talking to an artist who quit using oils in favor of acrylics because she'd become deadly afraid of the toxicity. It wasn't really the kind of conversation where I could do so and not seem like a pompous ass, but I wanted so badly to go full bore into a lecture about the inherent dangers of getting into her car and driving to the event we were at. Naturally, those genuine and extreme dangers didn't stop her, because she took reasonable precautions, and she got there and back home ok (I assume). Same thing with using oil paints. Be sane, but don't let unreasonable paranoia scare you out of using this fabulous medium!

Tracy Helgeson said...

Hi Jeff, I tend to agree with you about Gamblin and other sites that are selling products. I read through a bunch of those sites, but I don't feel comfortable using that info as an accurate resource, since they are trying to get me to buy a product. This holds true for me about other things as well, by the way, not just art supplies.

Some of the forums (like wet canvas) I see on the internet have people posting who are totally panicking about the materials and their toxicity. Crazy panic like the artist you mentioned.

Bridgette Guerzon Mills said...

What a timely post for me to read! I just found out that I'm pregnant (today!) and was wondering about the fumes from my medium and if that will be harmful. I will have to do more research on this. Do you have any resources you could recommend?

Tracy Helgeson said...

Congratulations Bridgette! When are you due?

I don't have any specific info regarding art supplies and pregnancy. A google search is probably a good start. Personally, I'd stay away from solvents and use extra care around paints, especially those that need extra ventilation. And maybe avoid a few of the more toxic pigments like cadmiums and cobalts. Good luck and let me know if you find anything interesting.

Bridgette Guerzon Mills said...

Thanks Tracy-I think I'm due in Feb, not sure yet as I have yet to go to the doctor!

Thanks for your advice. I'm finding comflicting information about being pregnant and being around oil paints. I will talk to my doctor and see what she says. I'd rather err on the safe side than take any risks.

Bummed out though because I just bought some new oil paints!! haha! Oh well, such is life! :)

Anonymous said...

I quit using oils and started using casein paints when I was pregnant. you know what, I like them better and I still use them.

Anonymous said...

I have written a broadbrush article on "Art Materials Safety" that some of you may be interested in reading. It's posted on my website at

It has been reviewed by at least one expert in the field, and either the full article or links to the article have been posted on several pertinent websites.

Hopefully it will at least make you aware of some issues on safety that you had not considered before.

Best regards,