Q: I'm having trouble finding eco-friendly art supplies. Is it just me?
A: No, unfortunately, it's not just you. Earth-sensitive artists' paints don't seem to be as readily available as you'd think. No doubt the ancients used natural pigments to dye fabrics, whip up a cave painting and pretty up a vase, but even those weren't necessarily so kind to their handlers. Take oil paints, for example, the basis of most modern (if you consider the Renaissance modern) art: many are still made with toxic heavy metals like cadmium (as in cadmium red), mercury, lead and cyanide, and the list goes on. Plus, they can off-gas noxious fumes for the three-to-12 months it takes them to dry completely. And no, you're not just hurting yourself, you morose artist, you: ozone-killing VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are released as they dry.
Paints with the word "hue" at the end of their names (e.g., cadmium orange hue) substitute cheaper, less toxic substitutes for the original pigment. Artists can thin some newer oil paints, like Van Gogh H2Oil (from $6.59 at Woolfitt's on Queen West) or Artisan (from $5.99/37ml at Aboveground Art Supplies on McCaul), with water instead of hazardous solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits, but chemical detergents are used in their manufacture. Holbein Duo Aqua Oil (starting at 7.95/10ml at Curry's on Yonge and other locations) uses linseed oil modified without the use of a detergent and is mixable with either oil or water. Most water-mixable oils are certified non-toxic.
If you're hooked on traditional oils, try to steer clear of petroleum-based solvents and thinners made with ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorinated hydrocarbons. Eco House makes a line of less toxic thinners and solvents, the mildest of which is a citrus thinner with orange peel oil ($16.46/l at Curry's, or $15.99 at Aboveground). Like baby oil (which can also be used as cleanser), it's made of isoparaffinic mineral oils, which are way less harmful to the earth than other solvents.
Yes, acrylics are a plastic polymer, but like most water-based paints they release fewer VOCs than oils. Plus, they dry quickly and generally off-gas much less. Watercolours and temperas are also much lower on the toxicity scale, but may still contain harmful pigments. Most temperas are labelled non-toxic, but preservatives are added to kill off any organisms that can form in the egg-, gum- and wax-based paint.
Whatever you use, make sure to wipe as much paint as you can from palettes, brushes and other tools before you rinse them. Clean lids to ensure the jar seals well to avoid hardening and waste. Recycle old canvases by gessoing, then painting over them, and give any unwanted supplies away to a local non-profit with an arts and crafts program. Don't throw the sludge left from cleaned oil brushes in the trash or down the drain. Take it to one of the city's Household Hazardous Waste Depots (www.toronto.ca/garbage/hhw. htm).
What if you prefer a pencil to a paintbrush? Grassroots on Danforth and on Bloor sells HB pencils sans paint coating on the outside (55 cents each) and pencil crayons that use wood from old furniture ($6.99/12). They also carry tree-free Kanaf (a super-fibrous plant that grows like a weed) sketch pads ($16.99/60 pages). They're chlorine- and acid-free.
If you're dealing with a mini-Picasso at home and you just want to have fun getting your hands dirty without the eco-repercussions, why not make your own paints? For watercolours, cook beets, spinach or walnuts separately in a crock pot with a little water overnight, then serve (on paper, that is). For more ideas on homemade finger, face or fun textured paints, check out www.scribbleskidsart. com/generic207.html.
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