Beginner Oil: Learning to paint safely

7 Apr 2008

0712safety2_475x600_2 Many artists should have knowledge of the safety and health hazards associated with certain media as well as the precautions necessary to avoid these dangers. Here we offer several tips and techniques to help artists avoid the risks associated with prolonged painting.

by Naomi Ekperigin

To create art that reflects an artist’s vision and message, one must hone several skills: a strong grasp of techniques, knowledge of various tools, and a sense of when to employ them to achieve particular results. As these aptitudes are developed, many beginners try various materials before settling on the ones that allow them to express their vision most clearly. While this is of utmost importance, many artists—especially those who are self-taught and work in the confines of a studio—should have knowledge of the safety and health hazards associated with certain media as well as the precautions necessary to avoid these dangers. Below, we offer several tips and techniques to help artists avoid the risks associated with prolonged painting.

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All art products bearing the ACMI seals have undergone extensive toxicological evaluation and testing.

There is plenty of good news regarding the safety of art materials. Product labeling is better than ever; poisonous ingredients such as arsenic are no longer used, and lead is only occasionally used by painters. The majority of art materials currently produced may be handled in the same manner as everyday household products such as dish soap, deodorant, and toothpaste, all of which come with their own precautions, such as avoiding contact with eyes and discontinuing use if a rash develops. If an artist employs a similar common-sense approach to using art materials, little or no health risk is posed. However, some individuals have particular allergies, sensitivities, or chronic health conditions to consider when choosing art materials.

The biggest health and safety hazards associated with oil paint and its mediums are harmful fumes and risk of fire. Turpentine, a common solvent used to dissolve oil paints, is highly flammable, and rags that have been soaked in turpentine can self-ignite. Turpentine also contains toxins which can contaminate the local water supply, and it should not be poured down the drain. For these reasons, proper disposal of soiled rags and sludge is vital to maintaining the safety of not just the studio, but the environment. It is best to place used solvent and rags in separate, fire-safe, sealed metal containers. Local recycling centers or fire stations will be able to provide information on where and how to carefully dispose of these items.

There is also a risk of absorption of chemicals through the skin, which comes with prolonged, repeated use of art materials without a barrier such as gloves. Darlene L. Swaim, of Mesa, Arizona, was shocked when a blood test indicated chronic exposure to a variety of metals including lead, cadmium, and cobalt. "When the doctor sat me down and told me I wasn't getting these things in the air, I realized it was time for me to reconsider how I used art materials. Obviously," the artist confesses, "I had not been using them as safely as possible." Around the same time, Swaim took an etching and lithography course at the College of Santa Fe Printmaking Center, in New Mexico. The facility had banished customary printmaking solvents from the classroom and began using completely nontoxic procedures. For instance, artists at the college use baby oil to clean the etching plates. "After that class I went back to my home studio and realized the oil paints I was working with were somewhat similar to the oil-based inks," Swaim recalls. "My training is very academic and based on tradition, and as I reviewed the Old Master methods I realized it wasn't until the 1940s that artists started laying into the turpentine and a damar varnish mixture. Rembrandt thinned his paint with walnut oil, and Sargent used poppy-seed oil."

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Artist-instructor Camille Przewodek protects herself from the weather, as well as paints and solvents.


As she continued to research alternative materials, she gleaned useful information while attending the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC--she was told that, in terms of archival benefits, she should add the least amount of oil possible to the paint. "I decided to thin my paint with only poppy-seed oil because I like the feel of it," she says. "Now, my students also use either walnut or poppy-seed oil instead of thinner, and we clean up with baby oil. For glazing I use an alkyd resin or an oil-glazing medium made for artists." The benefits are not only health related but also extend to the artist's brushes. "Imagine washing your hair in turpentine every day," Swaim remarks. "That's what I was doing with the brushes. Now the oil gets the paint out, and I finish by cleaning with soap and water. Baby oil is never mixed in the paint, of course."

Other common reactions to oil paints are respiratory problems, fainting, and dizziness caused by the solvent fumes. Swaim recalls the effect they had on some of her art students. "Years ago some couldn't stay in the room because of the smell,” she says. “I remember one student actually fainting due to the fumes." Such a reaction may mean there is not proper ventilation in the studio to remove vapors in the air released by solvents. When a warning label on a product says that “adequate ventilation” is required, it usually means at least 10 air changes in the room per hour. A good exhaust fan installed in a window works well if there is another window or door opposite it that will allow fresh air in.

Respiratory reactions are also a risk when one works with pastels and other dust-producing materials. Toxicological evaluations by the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) in 2003 revealed that virtually all pastels they tested qualified for the designation of “nontoxic.” However, any excess dust can cause irritation to the respiratory system. While proper circulation is vital when working with oils, the ideal workstation for those who use pastel is a draft-free area where dust won’t circulate. Placing the easel or other work surface away from drafts caused by heating or cooling systems is beneficial, as is wearing a dust mask. Other pastelists recommend tilting the top of the easel forward, just past the vertical, which causes dust to fall forward into the waiting catcher without soiling the painting surface. When cleaning up after working in pastel, it is best to wipe down the area with a damp cloth or sponge, instead of vacuuming.

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This book contains many tips for creating a safe studio.

Although there are fewer risks when working in watercolor and acrylic, there are still some behavioral precautions that should be taken when in the studio. For many artists, the studio is in an area of their home, so dust and chemicals to spread from the work area to the living quarters. Swaim wears an apron while painting and is strict about making sure she takes it off and leaves it in her studio at the end of a painting session. One of the hardest rules to adhere to is not eating or drinking in the studio. “I live in Arizona, and it’s always so hot,” Swaim explains. “I’m never far from my iced tea and I have to work not to keep the glass next to my palette where I might accidentally stick a brush in it.” Many artists and instructors advise keeping separate cups and other cleaning tools for the studio, although many artists will use household containers to hold brushes and rinse them. This is not advised, as traces of chemicals and stains can remain on the surface and potentially cause illness.

When working in any medium, it’s wise to wash one’s hands immediately after painting, and, while working, avoid placing hands in or near a mucus membrane (the eyes, nose, or mouth). These are simple warnings found on most household products, but they can be quickly forgotten when a painter is using several brushes at once and ends up holding one between the teeth, even for seconds; this is also true during extended painting sessions, when it is tempting to eat and drink while working in an attempt to save time.

Using good judgment, reading all labels and following any warnings or cautions that appear on them is essential to maintaining a safe studio environment. If you have any doubts as to the safety of a product, always call the manufacturer. For more information on the toxicity of materials, refer to Artist Beware (The Lyons Press, New York, New York), and The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York.)

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant of American Artist.


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