How do I green my art supplies?

When you're addicted to the planet


Q: How do I green my art supplies?

A: Artists may be stereotyped as the long-suffering sort, but must they really sniff toxins to be the next Van Gogh? The short answer is, well, not necessarily.

Used to be you couldn’t paint without getting up close and personal with heavy metal pigments. Some believe the halos Van Gogh depicted are actually a symptom of lead paint poisoning.

What’s certain is that to this day, you can find neurotoxins like lead in Cremnitz or flake white, cadmium in some yellows, oranges, and reds (which, disturbingly, can contain up to 90 per cent cadmium) and barium in permanent whites.

Even if you avoid these dodgier pigments, basic oil paint is loaded with harmful hydrocarbons. And water-based acrylics, generally considered less polluting, contain a small amount of carcinogenic and lung-irritating formaldehyde and ammonia as preservatives and stabilizers.

While water colours seem totally benign, keep in mind pricier brands also use some heavy metals for certain pigments. Ditto for pastels, and since using them gives off harmful dust, pastel artists like Diane Townsend say they wear gloves, masks and have hepa air filters and vacuums on hand. Look for brands like Canco or Rembrandt that are heavy-metal- and asbestos- free.

Other mediums can get even more noxious. Not only do ceramic glazes contain the same heavy metals found in paint pigments (making work with your bare hands a bad idea), but many pottery workers also get lung diseases like emphysema or even silicosis (dubbed “potters’ rot”). Even beeswax-based encaustic paints give off headache-inducing fumes thanks to resins in the mix.

So how do you green your art supplies? It all depends on what medium you’re working with and how serious a pro you are. U.S.-based Earth Safe Paints has a whole line of truly non-toxic paints and varnishes designed for the crafting market (earthsafefinishes.com).

If those won’t suit your purposes, at least look for heavy-metal-free paints and glazes. Most cheap, student-quality acrylic paints like Liquitex Basics, Radisson and Winsor & Newton Galeria don’t use heavy metals. Note: the word “hue” tells you it’s a fake, so a cadmium yellow hue would be safer than the original.

To be honest, the term “non-toxic” still isn’t government regulated, and though the industry has come up with helpful standards like the AP or Approved Product seal by ACMI (Art and Creative Materials Institute), the rules are ever-evolving, so what qualifies as non-toxic keeps shifting.

At this point you should find the AP seal on products that have been certified by a medical expert to contain no materials “in sufficient quantities” to be toxic or cause acute or chronic health problems. If you see the CP (certified product) or CL (certified label) seal, it means the products have been properly labelled for health risks but aren’t in any way non-toxic.

Another tip: if you have to work with oils, check out the water-mixable kind that can be cleaned without air-polluting solvents.

Also look into the environmental policies of your favourite art supply company. Golden Artist Colors, for instance, uses a reverse osmosis system to recycle 70 per cent of the water used in production, and purchases wind and low-impact hydro to offset 100 per cent of its energy use. It also offers a list of vegan colours free of bone black (a pigment from carbonized cattle bones).

There’s one way to have complete confidence about what goes into your art supplies, and that’s by making them yourself. OCAD University offers a fab continuing ed course on making your own sustainable paint materials, and one on natural dying for textiles that teaches you how to use nature’s own pigments, including wild local plants like goldenrod and sumach.

Working with recycled and found objects is another fantastic way to shrink your art’s environmental footprint. Pick up Karen Michel’s Green Guide For Artists for ideas, plus recipes for mixing non-toxic paint and more.

Now, what if your materials just can’t be greened? Make sure your studio isn’t slowly killing you. Ventilation should be your top priority, from open windows to top-notch air purifiers. Get yourself a good particle or organic vapour respirator if you’re working with oils, spray paint or printmaking. Laura Baillie, the manager of Aboveground Art Supplies, says you may look silly, but you’ll be healthier wearing it. Cheap disposable masks don’t fit well or do all that much.

Instead of kicking studio dust around with a broom or vacuum, damp mop instead, and bring leftover solvents, paints and other toxic supplies to a municipal hazardous waste depot rather than dumping them down the drain or in the trash.

Whatever you do, don’t let the budding young artist in your home mess around with toxic art materials. Tempera paint is a safer pick, though my fave all-natural paint supplies are from Clementine Art (clementineart.com). The company offers paints, crayons, markers and modelling clay with no chemical dyes or petrochemicals, all tinted with mineral pigments.

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