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Using Art Materials Safely

Daniel Smith's Guide to Using Potentially Harmful Art Materials Wisely and Safely

In recent years, artists have become much better informed about the potential hazards of the materials with which they work. Many artists, particularly those who have had allergic reactions or health conditions caused by certain materials, are switching to less toxic media. Others are taking precautions they might not have previously considered. Labeling of art materials has improved considerably, too, spurred by the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act of 1988.

As with other health issues, the art hazards information presented in the media can seem alarming, or focus on one risk while minimizing others. This leaflet looks at the basics of safe materials use and gives some resources for finding more specific information. An awareness of hazards you may have overlooked, common sense, and a resolve to change some bad habits (which is, of course, the hardest part!), can greatly improve your studio safety.

Two excellent books which give specific in-depth information on the whole range of art materials hazards are: The Artistic Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol, and Artist Beware by Michael McCann.


Oil Painting

Many painters have switched from oils to watercolors or acrylics. This can be a frustrating transition, and in many cases a switch can be avoided. Simply altering the way you work with oils can substantially reduce the risks associated with the medium. Here are some suggestions for safer oil painting.

Reduce solvent exposure
When working with oils, the main toxins encountered are the solvents. Many of us have seen artists who have sworn off using lead white, are cautious about cadmiums, and paint wearing latex gloves, but who continue to work with an open can of turpentine nearby. Turpentine, Mineral Spirits, Odorless Mineral Spirits, and Citrus Thinner are all toxic solvents, and can all contribute to long-term health problems. Of them, Odorless Mineral Spirits is the safest, since the aromatic hydrocarbons have been removed. Narcosis-sleepiness and dizziness-is the most frequent symptom of solvent exposure.

Really good ventilation is important when using any of these solvents; exhaust fans and open windows are helpful. If good air movement cannot be provided, a new product on the market, called Nox-Out, may help. Nox-Out is a molecular absorber that works by adhering molecules of solvents or other airborne hazards to small pellets within a closed chamber. It is surprisingly effective, but it must be positioned within about 18" of the solvent container.

Always use as little solvent as possible. Consider using separate brushes for various colors rather than washing a brush in turpentine before reloading with each different color. Since most oil colors dry slowly, brushes used for separate colors can be used for several days without cleaning. Just wipe off excess paint when necessary.

For washing brushes, use sparing amounts of solvent, or try some of the new non-toxic or less-toxic brush cleaners that are now available. Some oil painters modify their paints only with linseed oil and use baby oil, followed by soap and water, to clean up their brushes, knives and hands.

Always keep containers tightly lidded when you are not actively using them. Painting mediums and varnishes also contain solvents, so take appropriate precautions when using them, too. Read (and heed) label warnings carefully, and ensure adequate ventilation both as you paint or varnish and as the paint or varnish dries.

Alkyd paints and mediums contain solvents, making them more hazardous than conventional oil paints.

New products such as the MAX Grumbacher Oil Colors, which clean up with water, provide further alternatives to oil painters who wish to reduce solvent exposure.

Minimize skin contact with paints and pigments. Some paints contain hazardous pigments. Lead and cadmiums get the most press, but all pigments which contain heavy metals (including cobalt, chromium, manganese and mercury) are toxic to some degree. Daniel Smith paints use low soluble, chemically pure cadmiums which contain less than one part per million soluble cadmium, greatly reducing potential health risks.

It is important to read the labels on your paint tubes. While it's easy to avoid a paint called Lead White, you may not realize that some Naples Yellow formulations include lead. Most manufacturers now include health labeling on their tubes which will alert you to specific hazardous components.

Latex gloves or protective creams minimize contact and possible absorption of paint or solvents, and have become increasingly popular with artists. They also cut cleanup time.

Although many artists like to mix their own paints, using premixed paints is much safer than grinding and mixing powdered pigments, which are easily airborne. If you do want to mix your own paints, we recommend using a respirator and gloves, and observing scrupulous studio hygiene. Clean your hands with one of the new non-toxic solvents, special hand cleaning soaps, or baby oil followed by soap and water.

Avoid ingesting toxins. It may seem obvious, but eating, drinking and smoking should be avoided while painting. Never store food with studio materials.

Store materials properly
Buy only what is needed for a relatively short period of time. Mark containers with the purchase date, so older inventory can be used first. Read and follow manufacturers' storage instructions. Store solvents in their original containers or approved safety storage containers with labels. Never store them in glass, in open containers or next to a heat source such as a vent, radiator, furnace or stove.


Pastel Painting

The popularity of pastels continues to increase. All of the safety suggestions given for oil painting apply to pastels, too, although the focus is somewhat different. The following three recommendations are key.

Minimize skin contact
Since pastel painting is such a tactile experience, it is doubly important to reduce skin contact. Many pastelists working in both soft and oil pastels now wear latex gloves because they are thin and close-fitting, and can essentially preserve the nuances of application achievable with bare fingers. For artists who make their own soft pastels, wearing gloves, a respirator and other protective equipment is strongly advised.

Reduce exposure to airborne particles
Soft pastels are a crumbly, particulate medium. Since pastel painting involves transferring particles of loosely-bound pigment from pastel sticks to textured paper or grounds, pastel dust is created. Some of this dust contains hazardous components such as heavy metal pigments. Even if the colors used are free of hazardous pigments, inhaling dust is detrimental to the respiratory system.

Pastels are usually painted on a vertical surface, ideally slanted slightly forward so that dust falls off the painting. In a pastel studio, dust collects on the floor, worktables and other surfaces (including the artist!), making good studio hygiene very important. Always wipe up pastel dust with damp cloths to keep the dust from becoming airborne again.

Using a respirator is advised. Although this is somewhat uncomfortable, many artists agree the protection received is worth the discomfort. As with other media, it is ideal to have a space separate from your usual living quarters in which to work. It's also smart to have painting clothes such as a smock or coveralls that you can remove in the studio, to avoid bringing the dust into other living areas. Wash painting clothes separately.

Exercise care when using fixatives
To help adhere particles of pastel to a support, pastelists use various kinds of fixatives. Most are sold in aerosol cans and contain volatile components, and all disperse into fine airborne mists. Safest to use are gelatin fixatives, and the safest applicators are pump-type bottles, although dispersion may not be as even as with aerosols. When applying fixatives good ventilation is crucial, as is containing the mist. Fix work outdoors if possible. Various types of spray booths are available through graphic arts suppliers and while they tend to be expensive, they can dramatically reduce the amount of airborne fixative.

Water-based Painting

Since they do not involve solvents or dusts, waterrnedia such as acrylics, watercolors, gouache, and casein are among the safest art materials to use. A few cautions do apply.

Most brands of acrylic paints contain small percentages of formaldehyde or ammonia as preservatives. These occasionally cause allergic reactions in individuals who are sensitive to them, especially if they are using large amounts of gel or polymer medium. Read labels carefully. A window exhaust fan can alleviate irritation.

Watercolors and Gouache
Both of these media contain gum binders, usually gum arabic and occasionally gum tragacanth. These can cause skin allergies (rare) and gum arabic can cause asthma if inhaled- for example, if watercolor paints are sprayed.

Paints made from casein can contain significant amounts of ammonia, which is used to dissolve the milk solids. Ammonia irritates the skin, eyes and lungs. Exhaust ventilation is important, and gloves, goggles and an apron are recommended if you are mixing your own casein paints.



Printmaking processes range from the simple to the technically complex. Relief printing with waterbased inks is a safe activity suitable for children, while oil-based relief printing, etching and lithographic processes involve solvents, acids and chemicals. It is very important for printmakers to become familiar with the possible dangers of their materials. A book such as Artist Beware or The Artist's Complete Guide to Health and Safety will be a helpful starting place for learning more about these processes and materials.


Children's Art

Art materials that adults use are often unsafe for children, who are more susceptible to small amounts of toxins, and cannot be relied upon to understand or follow necessary safety precautions. One thing to remember is that most lines of professional oils, acrylics, watercolors, inks and other materials contain some pigments that are toxic by ingestion or skin contact and are not suitable for children. Children should never use solvents, oil paints, alkyds, oil-based printing inks, aerosols or soft pastels. They should not mix powdered paints such as tempera. Avoid dyes (except for food or vegetable dyes) and do not use pottery glazes, unless they are clearly labeled as safe for children.

Improved labeling has made choosing acceptable children's art materials easier. For children under age 12, especially, choose materials designed for children, with labels that clearly indicate they are non-toxic. (Even among these, use some caution and common sense, especially if the materials will be used frequently, or have high potential for ingestion.) Water-based glues such as polyvinyl acetate (PVA) white glue are the safest adhesives.

With the wide variety of safe children's art materials now available, there are plenty of good options for creative expression. Craft and hobby materials can be surprisingly dangerous, especially those that involve plastics. Also watch out for rubber cement and the solvent-based paints and glues used for plastic modelmaking.


Resources for Additional Information

Art and Crafts Materials Institute (The ACMI) works with participating manufacturers to evaluate the safety of children's and adult's art materials. The ACMI is responsible for the CP (Certified Product) and AP (Approved Product) seals found on children's and adult's art materials and the HL (Health Label) seals found on adult's materials. Two publications they provide free upon request are a listing of Certified Products and a booklet, What You Need to Know About the Safety of Art and Craft Materials.

Art and Crafts Materials Institute
100 Boylston St.
Suite 1050
Boston, MA 02116
617 426-6400
FAX 617 426-6639

Center for Safety in the Arts (CSA)
Due to funding cutbacks, this important clearinghouse for research and education on art hazards was forced to curtail its telephone information center at the end of 1995. The New York Foundation for the Arts continues to host several CSA functions including the quarterly newsletter Art Hazards News, the CSA Web site, and distribution of CSA publications. For a list of publications and other CSA information, write to the following address and enclose a self-addressed, stamped business envelope.

Center for Safety in the Arts at NYFA
155 Avenue of the Americas
14th Floor
New York, NY 10013

In Canada, a good source of information is the Provincial Crafts Councils, two of which are listed here. They maintain resource libraries of safety (and other) information. Typically, they will charge a small fee for photocopying, postage, etc.

Ontario Crafts Council
35 McCaul Street
Toronto, Ontario M5T 1V7
FAX 416 977-3552

Conseil des Metiers d'Art du Québec
387 Quest Rue St Paul
Montréal, Québec H2Y 2A6
FAX 514 287-9923