Sunday, April 26, 2009
Materials Safety in the Studio
I’ve gotten a lot of emails over the past few years about what changes I made in the studio when I was pregnant with Aspen, and I’m getting them again, so I figured I’d put this out there for anyone who might be interested. I’ve got a degree in Chemical Engineering, so I’ve done a lot of research on the chemical properties of oil paints and mediums, and made what I think are some educated decisions about what’s safe and what’s not in the studio during pregnancy. For the record, I don't know everything and I know there will be people who disagree with some of this, so take this all with a grain of salt!
Regular oil paints consist of pigment in a linseed oil base. Linseed oil itself is not a health concern – actually, a lot of people take flaxseed oil (same thing) supplements for their health. The pigments in the paint are another story. The earth pigments are okay (sienna, umber, ochre), but the heavy metals (cadmium) can cause health problems. Luckily, heavy metals such as cadmium are mainly a health concern if inhaled, as they are generally not absorbed by the body by ingestion or absorption through the skin. If you were to ingest cadmium paint, for instance, it is likely that your body would pass it through without actually absorbing the form of cadmium that is used in the paint. For the most part, the paint itself is safe; however, I do take the precaution of wearing gloves at all times when I’m painting, to prevent the chance of anything absorbing through my skin. I also don’t have food or drink in my studio, just as an extra precaution.
A lot of people have suggested that I use walnut oil paints, water-soluble paints, or acrylics to cut down on health concerns. Just to clear things up, walnut oil paints are the exact same thing as regular oil paints, only with walnut oil substituted for the linseed, so this doesn’t provide any health advantage on its own. Water soluble oil paints scare me because I don’t know enough about what chemicals they put in them to make them water-soluble. Also, acrylics and water soluble paints can still have dangerous pigments in them. Oil paint gets a bad rap, but I maintain that it’s the mediums and solvents we use with the paint that are dangerous, not the paint itself.
Oh, and I won’t go near pastels when I’m pregnant. Sometimes I like to play with pastel in the studio, but the pigments in the pastels are so easily inhaled that I won’t mess with it when I’m trying to keep a healthy studio. A lot of pastel artists have air filtering systems in place in their studios to keep things safe, but I don’t work with them enough to bother.
I normally use Gamsol mineral spirits to thin my paint for washes and block-ins, but I don’t like to have any solvents in the studio at all when I’m pregnant. To keep my studio solvent-free, I substitute walnut oil for my mineral spirits, using it to thin paint occasionally and clean my brushes (this is where the health advantage of walnut oil comes in, btw – not in the actual paint).
I will admit that I actually hate having to do this. When you use oil to thin paint, your washes are very oily and you can’t paint over them easily with thicker paint. The paint takes ages to dry, and honestly, the oil isn’t that great for washing brushes. I end up using twice as many brushes just to keep things clean in the painting. I usually end up painting thicker (not a bad thing), using less washes, and washing my brushes with soap and water more than I normally would. I end up having to change my familiar technique and working methods, and it’s not easy - I miss my mineral spirits!!
I don’t really use mediums normally, so this doesn’t make a huge impact for me. I occasionally use liquin when I need something to dry quickly, but the stuff makes me feel sick on a normal day, so I completely eliminate it from my studio when I’m pregnant. I’ve talked to a lot of artists who have had weird reactions to liquin and other alkyd mediums, and they stink so bad that I’m convinced they can’t be all that healthy. Also, the MSDS sheet for liquin actually suggests the use of a fan, fume hood, NIOSH mask, and barrier creams when using "large quantities" of the stuff or working in an unventilated area - makes me a bit uneasy.
I usually varnish all of my paintings with a Winsor and Newton retouch varnish as soon as they are dry to the touch. The stuff is solvent based, and will stink up my entire house in a few minutes, so in the interest of having a solvent-free studio I won’t use it indoors while pregnant. I haven’t found a way around varnishing my paintings, so I wait until I have a batch of paintings ready, then I go out on the back deck, put on my gloves, and varnish outside where the air is fresh. I leave the paintings outside until they’re dry enough to not stink up the house – I figure it’s not good for any of us to be breathing the fumes.
Knowing that these changes make my studio a healthier place for me, I’d love to say I stick with these methods even when I’m not pregnant, but I honestly don’t – there are some things I do when I’m pregnant that drive me nuts when I’m painting (the walnut oil), so I’m usually excited to get back to my normal materials when it’s just me! Anyhow, hope that answers questions for some of you. I’m sure there are folks who will disagree with me, but I figured I’d put it out there for what it’s worth.
In other news, I'm still seriously digging to come up with paintings to post here - time to get busy in the studio (if only the dry heaves would subside...)!