Sunday, April 26, 2009

Materials Safety in the Studio

"Sunrise Study"
Oil on Panel

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!

1) Paint

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.

2) Solvents

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!!

3) Mediums

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.

4) Varnish

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...)!


  1. I'm waiting for you to do workshops. When you are ready I will be in line to study with you.

  2. Aw, thanks for the vote of confidence! I feel like I haven't quite been at this professionally for a long enough time to make me useful to anyone else. I've started to think about doing local lessons to get my feet wet, but I have all these fears - like, what if I do a demo and it sucks? So, I just ramble here on my blog (where people can't throw things at me if I'm terrible).

  3. Stacey,
    I completely agree with what you have to say about precautions with art materials (while pregnant and in general). As a mom of two young children working in oils and soft pastels, it's typically the pastels that have me concerned, more so than the oil. Fortunately, I work with the oils much more frequently than the pastels and use only Gamsol. I've noticed too, that oils get the bad rap, even though oil paint in and of itself is not harmful to use (w/o the solvents, varnishes, etc., of course).

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  5. Stacey, this really is not a question about safety but because you mentioned varnishing here, I'm going to ask this... You mention that you use W&N retouch varnish, is that what you use as the final varnish? How do you know when it is dry enough to varnish?

    I have just recently started working in oils and just happened to sell one. Not sure what to do about varnishing it though as the buyer would like to have it soon. Is the retouching varnish a good way to go? Any suggestions?

  6. Hi Stacey,
    I have had very good luck working with M.Graham Walnut/Alkyd Medium. It is a walnut oil and Alkyd mix so it dries fast. More importantly it is certified non-toxic. I was using liquin and galkyd mediums but as you said, they mess with my breathing so I switched to the walnut oil alkyd and have been very happy with the lack of fumes now.

  7. Ann - isn't it funny how most people think oils are terrible, and wouldn't give a 2nd thought to the danger of pastels? I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that!

    Robin - I don't like to wait the full drying time to varnish paintings, so I just use the retouch varnish. The brush on kind goes on nicely and gives the painting a nice finish and protective coating, and it seems to work well enough for me. I've got a few paintings I varnished years ago that still have a nice glossy finish, so it seems to hold up well. The difference is that it's thinner than a regular varnish, so the painting breathes more and theoretically there isn't as much protection, but I think oil paint is fairly durable on it's own, so I'm more worried about how it looks than the function of the varnish. Hope that makes sense!!

    SJ - Thanks for the suggestion - I haven't tried the walnut alkyd medium yet. I don't use liquin very often (probably once a month normally), so it doesn't bother me to eliminate it from the studio for a while. I'll have to check out the walnut alkyd medium and see how the alkyd they use differs form what's in liquin and galkyd (I think liquin has a lot of chemical additives which are what make it sort of nasty).

  8. Oh, and Robin, I forgot to say that I use retouch varnish as soon as the painting is dry to the touch all over - usually within 5 days to a week after painting.

  9. Stacey, Thanks for the advise. I have only found the W&N retouch varnish in a spray can. Have you ever used spray?

  10. Hey Stacey- Congratulations! Wonderful news to hear about your latest "work in progress"!

    I know you don't like cleaning brushes but try soaking and cleaning your brushes with olive oil. It's non-toxic smells good and keeps the brushes soft.

    take care

  11. Robin - I don't really like the spray varnish because I find it somewhat difficult to get an even coat with it. You should be able to find the bottled stuff anywhere that they sell W&N products - it's in a small glass bottle that looks just like their other mediums. I order mine online from or since I live in the sticks!

    Peter - thanks for the congrats!! I find that the oil doesn't "cut" the paint as well as mineral spirits, and my brushes get so full of paint that it takes me ages to get all the paint out with walnut oil. I'll have to try olive oil - it's certainly got to be cheaper than the walnut oil!!

  12. Hi, Stacey. Great post. I try to be as non-toxic as possible, too. I use M. Graham Walnut Alkyd Medium (however in the underpainting I add a very small amount of Gamsol to make it leaner). To clean brushes I use Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner and Restorer: .

  13. Hi,
    Try painting with a knife! You don't need brushes, so no cleaning, no need for mediums, it's fun & a great technique as an alternative while you are sensitive...(I only paint with a knife)...For varnishing I put on two layers of disposable surgical gloves, pour the varnish on & smush it around...(no cleaning of brush here too...)( I use Eco-House dammar varnish with oranges as solvent- but it is not a retouch & it's Canadian- the key is instead of turpentine the solvent is oranges based- not perfect but better...)
    I've been using schmincke mussini oils, & am switching to walnut oils(Kama pigments is making them now) which seem to smell even less...)
    Congratulations on being expecting...That is absolutely the cat's pyjamas!

  14. Stacy,

    Thanks for the health information.

    I am doing Anonymous because I can't remember my google password. Anyways, have you tried cheap vegetable oil to clean your brushes. I have used it to clean up when I make monoprints and it works very well. You may still have the greasy quality on your brushes, but I think it is cheaper than walnut oil.

    Edie Dean

  15. Hi Stacy,

    A couple of baby-safe studio tips. I clean my brushes with baby oil - it's better than other oils because it washes out with water easily. No good for painting with just an end of day clean (I like to start the day with clean dry brushes.)

    And for cleaning the palette? A baby wipe. Seriously! Having seen how well those things clean down a mess of sticky oil paint - I don't think I'd ever use them on a baby again...

  16. My apologies for just jumping in - especially since I'm a couple of years late on this topic - but I have to share what I finally found out about why I used to have such unpleasant breathing reactions when I was using linseed oil based paints. You wrote "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." I used to think the same thing - but then I finally found out that linseed oil is made by using SOLVENT with the flaxseed. Walnut oil doesn't need to be made with the use of solvent, so it's not toxic the way linseed oil is. I had given up painting with oils, and was using only acrylics (which have their own vapors to contend with) when I discovered this - I the started painting with walnut oil paints and have never had a problem again.

  17. I use dawn type dish detergent to clean brushes at the end of a session having had a bad reaction to OMS. Also I use Walnut Oil as a substitute to Liquin due to the same respiratory reactions I was having to OMS. Problem seems to have resolved but it is still early in the process.

  18. Hello Stacy,

    Thank you for taking the time to explain all that. This is the most practical and make sense information about oil painting and pregnancy that I've come across so far. I'm a prior student of Jacob Collins in New York and a portrait painter by profession. I'm pregnant with my first child and need to begin a new series of commissions soon. My husband and I were concerned that we'd have to break the bank to make my studio safe. The linseed versus walnut oil in paint comments were very helpful.


    Elisabeth Miller