Art history is full of rich, luminous oil paintings, but for artists oil paints can quite literally be a headache to work with. While they're more natural than plastic acrylics, containing plant-based oils like linseed and safflower, they're traditionally thinned with intensely air-polluting solvents like turpentine. Even odourless mineral spirits are environmental hazards. (Never dump them down the drain.) You can green up by cleaning your brushes with straight linseed oil or opt for water-mixable oil paints (Windsor & Newton makes some). Be aware that some hues still come from brain-damaging heavy metals (e.g., chromium and cobalt), but safe alternatives are easy to find. Bring paint waste to a hazardous disposal depot.
I've been crushing on abstract expressionists - and impersonating their acrylics on canvas - since I was a teen. Acrylics can be healthier than oils since they clean up with water, sparing you the VOC fumes from solvents, but they're still essentially made from plastic (like latex house paint). Certain brands are greener than others. Golden makes professional-grade acrylics manufactured using 100 per cent wind power, and recycles two-thirds of its wastewater. Check the company's handy chart for colours that don't contain metals of concern like cadmium (goldenpaints.com/justpaint/BluesChart.pdf). While most artists flush acrylics down the drain, our lakes and groundwater can't handle more plastic. Bring paint waste to hazardous depot.
These water-soluble relatives generally use gum arabic (from the sap of acacia trees) as a base, though the more opaque gouache is more pigment-rich. Note: acrylic-based gouache is pretty popular, though less natural. Like regular acrylic paint, it's petroleum-based. Both products are sold in artist-grade and kid-friendly versions. The latter is always inevitably safer, avoiding the more toxic, heavy-metal-laced pigments. On all artists' paints, the AP seal means they're certified non-toxic by the Art & Creative Materials Institute. And CL stands for "cautionary labelling."
Back in the olden days, tempera was literally just egg yolks, vinegar and, well, toxic heavy metal pigments as well as natural ones. Thankfully, the worst of the heavy metals are gone. These days, tempera is mostly used by aspiring artists (the pre-school ones). However, Botticelli painted with this stuff, and contemporary egg tempera artists often work with heavier-duty mineral pigments. Wanna try? Mix an egg yolk, a dash of boiled linseed oil, a drop of vinegar and water with powdered pigment. (Just be cautious about pigment choice.) If you're getting crafty with the kids, Funstuff offers Canadian-made, kid-safe tempera powder and liquid paints (though they make no claim to use vegetable pigments).
I told my friends I was considering a natural dyeing workshop and they looked aghast. No, no, that's "dyeing" with an "e," I clarified, "textile dyeing." I've been itching to experiment with plant pigments. Chatting with one experienced textile dyer inspired me to fingerpaint on paper with random flowers from my backyard. Okay, so my first attempt looked like my two-year-old niece did it. Nonetheless, I'm moving on to beets, onion skins and turmeric next. If you want to try pre-made veggie-based paints, check out GlobItOn.com.
(NB: This week's scores focus on greenness, not performance, and vary within each category depending on ingredients.)