You can give solvents the boot and still be able to clean your brushes.
As we move into 2021, wouldn’t it be great to create an even safer work space?
In this episode I answered all your questions about making your studio practice safer in the months ahead.
As an artist who helps artists create thriving studios and the best online art practices, safety is also a big concern. I have such strong feelings about solvent free painting. Reason being two of my painting professors lost their lives way too soon because of the toxic effects of what they used in their studios. This caught my attention and it became one of my research areas as an academic.
I found that earlier painters lived long, healthy, and productive lives. So what was creating this level of toxicity for contemporary artists? A lot of it boils down to one common thread of solvents and their use beginning in the late 19th, early 20th, century. They were developed as cleaning products to begin with. Yet, a lot of artists are using them on a regular daily basis in spaces that are not designed to have toxic materials used inside them.
Here’s the problem with solvents:
They go airborne very quickly and they have different levels at which they will become combustible. They also have different levels at which they will sit at about nose height in the studio. However the biggest problem is that solvents are toxic to your body and when you breathe them in it causes long-term respiratory problems. So, I started researching what would make oil painting less toxic. As it turned out, if you take solvent out and you substitute less toxic pigments, oil painting is pretty much the least toxic material out there that you can paint with.
Now, if you do use solvents, you have to have really good ventilation with air purifying systems so you don’t breathe that stuff in. What happens when you breathe in those solvents is the solvent occupies space that oxygen would be occupying in your brain, that’s why you get lightheaded. But, if you’re insistent on using solvent, then I would recommend that you use turpentine and here’s why. It stinks. It’s a distinctive odor. When it builds up to a level where you shouldn’t be using it anymore you will know because you’ll be able to smell it. The big problem with odorless mineral spirit based thinners and products is that you can’t smell them. So they build up to unsafe levels fairly quickly without you being aware of it. That’s why I don’t think they’re a good idea to use at all, there’s just no need for it.
What you can do instead is clean with an organic, artist’s grade, natural oil. Walnut oil or Linseed oil are always great cleaning tool options. Just make sure you get a good artist’s grade oil that way you don’t end up harming your paintings. But, if you want to save a little money you can use food grade oils to clean with, but just make sure you wash them sufficiently afterwards. I clean my brushes with walnut oil in a silicoil jar. Silicoil jars have a coil in the jar and I pull the brush back and forth across that coil, that releases the pigment into the walnut oil. Then I can just wipe the brush with paper towels and wash it with a bar of ivory soap. You can actually have an open container with walnut oil and rest your brushes in it, come back the next day, wipe the oil off and start painting again. You’re not endangering yourself, others, or your paintings.
Linseed oil is also a great substitute for many solvents, you just don’t want to leave it uncovered because linseed oil can catch on fire spontaneously. You can absolutely use it to clean while you paint, but just remember to put the lid back on it so it doesn’t have a chance to get exposed to oxygen for too long. You also need to take all of those oily waste rags or paper towels outside and dispose of them everyday so they don’t catch fire. I keep a grocery bag on my easel for my paper towels that I throw away outside at the end of each day.
Another substitute you can use is Oil of Spike Lavender. It’s what artists like Michelangelo used, that was the “solvent” of their time. If you can get the true oil of spike lavender now, and it’s expensive, but you can, you can use that to dilute your paint and clean your brushes. It’s hard to find the actual stuff, there’s some companies out there that have it on the market, but it’s actually a chemical substitute for it, and I’m not sure how safe that is or how close to solvent it is.
You can also use Murphy Oil, which is a linseed oil based soap, just make sure you rinse it out of your brushes well. A great thing about Murphy Oil is that enough of it will remove any dried paint, whether it’s acrylic or oil based, from your brushes. I use it to rejuvenate or recondition my brushes when I need to or when I’ve been really hard on them.
Master’s Brush Cleaner is also a safe product to use, it’s a linseed oil based cleaner. It can actually recondition them in the same way Murphy Oil does. Master’s Brush Cleaner is basically Murphy Oil hardened into a cake. You can save money however by using Murphy Oil instead.
So those are the first two things I would recommend to make your studio more green, safe, and healthy. Get rid of the solvent, you don’t need it, and use oil to clean your brushes.
Now, let’s take a look at a few products that many people suggest using that aren’t the best idea…
First up, baby oil. Do not use baby oil. Here’s why, baby oil stays in your brush, it’s there residually… and that means that it’s going to be in your brush when you go to paint. You don’t want baby oil mixing with your oil paint as you’re working.
Additionally, Dawn dishwashing detergent is also a big no. Keep in mind, brushes are made of hair, even synthetic ones. Would you wash your hair with dawn dish soap? No. It’s not a good habit and your brushes won’t last as long, instead use ivory soap. It’s much more gentle and will make your brushes last longer.
Gamsol is an odorless spirit, I do not use it in the house because you can’t tell how much of it is building up and you don’t want to have that occupying your brain cells instead of oxygen. While I appreciate all of the work Gamblin has done on developing it and reassuring how safe they feel it is, Gamsol is still a solvent, so I would suggest that you not use it. I would only use it outside. Gamblin has made a really wonderful medium called solvent free medium and solvent free gel. It’s a liquid and a gel and it’ll help paint dry just a little bit quicker, but I would use that instead if you want to use a medium while you paint.
Liquin and galkyd are alkyd mediums. Any of those alkyd mediums have a little bit of solvent in them. They have more solvent in them than the gamblin solvent free. You cannot travel with galkyd or liquin in your carry on because of the solvent in them. I have hesitations about using alkyd products, so I would avoid them.
Terpenoid has solvent in it too, so I wouldn’t use it. If you have something that you want to clean, like a palette or a brush handle, there’s something called Citrusolve. It’s an organic citrus cleaner that you can buy at grocery stores, they also sell it in some art supply stores. I use that to clean my palette off if I’ve got stuff stuck on there. But again, it’s non-toxic, it’s not a solvent that’s going to harm you.
So let’s recap:
Supplies that are safe and nontoxic alternatives to use in the studio:
- Walnut oil
- Linseed oil, or linseed oil based cleansers like Murphy Oil.
- Spike Lavender Oil
- Silicoil jar
- Master’s Brush Cleaner
- Ivory soap
- Gamblin’s solvent free medium and solvent free gel
- Citrusolve (only for palettes, not brushes)
Supplies that are toxic or will cause damage to your painting supplies:
- Odorless mineral spirit based solvents
- Baby oil
- Dawn dishwashing detergent
Cleaning supplies however aren’t the only toxic materials you have to worry about when it comes to painting.
When people tell you oil painting is dangerous, they’re talking mostly about the solvent, not the paint itself. Oil paint is not inherently toxic as long as you’re using non-toxic pigments. Here’s what I mean by that…
The pigments that are the most toxic are the heavy metals. That means things like cadmiums, the cobalts, anything that has nickel in it, any of those metallic sounding names, lead, you don’t want to be using those. Yes, they’re small amounts. Yes, you’d have to eat your paint for it to really hurt you. But guess what? A lot of you are eating your paint without really realizing it…
Have you ever stuck the end of your paintbrush in your mouth as you’re sitting back and examining what you’ve painted? Well any paint that’s been on your hands transfers to the brush handle, and now to your mouth. If you pick up food with paint on your hands, you are now ingesting that paint. When you paint overtime, all of that stuff builds up in your body and it is cancer inducing. Be super careful about how you handle your paint. I don’t use gloves when I’m painting, but I’m also not using heavy metals in my studio. So being aware of the materials you’re working with and developing good habits around how you handle your tools is super important.
You’re wondering… what pigments are toxic and how do I substitute them? Let’s dive a little deeper into that…
Cadmium red, while a fantastic color, is a toxic pigment. Naphthol red medium is a really close substitute, it looks very similar. Pyrrole red is almost an identical pigment and is actually an improvement from cadmium. Cadmium is opaque and you cannot get a clear warm red with it. However, pyrrole red can, it’s transparent. It’s very strong as a pigment, so you can actually use less paint and get a better result. There are pyrrole reds in every paint line that I know of. It wont say pyrrole red, but if you look on the pigment list on the back of the label you’ll be able to find it. Cadmium orange is another toxic pigment. This one can also be substituted with a pyrrole orange.
Now let’s take a look at blues. Cobalt, manganese, and cerulean blue to be exact. These pure pigments are toxic, however there are paints that have hue in their name and have substitutes that are non-toxic or cheaper, these are safe to use. But, you can mix the hue colors by using phthalo blue and ultramarine blue, which are safe pigments to be working with. Cobalt hue is just ultramarine blue and phthalo blue mixed. Cerulean blue is just phthalo blue and white. So the hues are really just convenience colors. If you’re using the original cobalt, manganese, or cerulean blues, they are toxic heavy metals. Eliminate those things and you’ll be golden.
Another one that is toxic, that a lot of people use, is cadmium yellow. There are substitutes that are actually better colors, like hansa yellow, to be working with. I use indian yellow, which has the same pigment that is in hansa yellow. You can use indian yellow and white to make any shade or tint of yellow there is, including the equivalent of cadmium yellow.
Lastly there’s lead white. Gamblin makes a substitute called lead white replacement that I love. That’s the main white I use.
There are other options out there and I hope this gives you just a taste of what you can do with getting rid of those toxic pigments.
If you’re using the double primary palette, which I strongly recommend, I have a great list of substitute paints in my blog, Why You Should Use the Double Primary Palette. Every pigment color on this list is non-toxic and safe to use.
A question I’ve gotten before is if water soluble oils are toxic. No, they are not inherently toxic. As long as you’re using pigments that are not toxic, water soluble oils are safe. I’m just personally not a fan of water soluble oils, the consistency is that of pudding and it doesn’t work well for painting thickly with a palette knife. But, they are not going to hurt you.
Now, let’s talk a bit about safe studio practices for acrylic painting.
While you can’t use oils for cleaning up acrylic paint, you can still use the silicoil jar to clean up with acrylic paint. Just use water instead of oil. The silicoil jar will still pull most of the pigment off as you run it across the coil. That way after the pigment settles to the bottom of the jar you can pour the water off and then dispose of that sludge at your area’s hazardous waste dump, because they can dispose of it in a way that’s not harming the environment. This also solves a concern that a lot of people have when they’re working with acrylic paint… the idea of sending toxic elements down into the water table.
A big problem I have with acrylics as far as sustainability goes, and the environment goes, is sending all that plastic down the drain. When you rinse your brushes out in the sink, you’re sending plastics down your pipes. If it sits for any length of time, those plastics dry out. So, you can actually clog your own drain by washing brushes in the sink. If you clean them first in a silicoil jar you’re going to have less of it go down the drain. But, you’re also sending those plastics into the water sewage and water treatment systems and contributing to the increase of plastics in our environment. I think the less plastic we send into the environment the better. So that’s my problem with acrylics.
Another problem with acrylics is that most acrylic paint has formaldehyde in it. The formaldehyde is in there to prevent mold from growing on the paint as it sits in storage. I can smell it and I started having a slight allergic reaction when I was really young, so I became really aware. I could tell when they were in the studio. I don’t use them often as a result, if I do use them, I’ve got to have really good ventilation. So for me one of the problems with acrylics is that they all have stuff in them that gives off formaldehyde gasses, and I find that problematic for a whole lot of different reasons. So, make sure you’ve got good ventilation when using acrylic paint.
You’re probably thinking… what about watercolors?
The only real issues you’ll have with watercolor is, again, the pigments. Same for gouache. They’re not inherently toxic, you’re not sending plastics down the drain, and you’re not disposing of things that are not biodegradable. Oils, watercolor, gouache… Those are all biodegradable. And as long as you’re using non-toxic pigments, you’re not hurting the environment.
A difficult medium to find a safe practice for is cold wax and encaustic painting.
I know a lot of people love cold wax, and I love the way it looks. It’s a great final finish on an oil painting, because it gives it an even sheen and it’s fairly easy to apply. But, it’s got a ton of solvent in it. So, if you use cold wax, you’re going to have to be super careful about having really good ventilation because it’s full of solvent.
And as far as a safe way to use encaustics, here’s what makes encaustics so toxic. It’s got solvent in it, and if you’re using toxic pigments, it gets heated up. So, part of the problem with encaustics is everything is done hot. When it heats up, it releases solvents into the air. If you’re using pigments that have toxic elements in them, it releases those toxic elements into the air. So, encaustics produce fumes that are deadly. I personally think the only safe way to do encaustics is to do them outside, or if you have a garage you could use them there with the garage door open. I know people who have created elaborate ventilation systems in their studios in order to be able to use them, I wouldn’t do that. I just know too many people who had really bad health problems from doing that. So, as much as I love the way they look, I don’t think it’s worth it. I just don’t think there is a way to make encaustics safe other than working outside.
Lastly I wanna touch on soft pastels and studio safety surrounding them.
I am a huge lover of soft pastels, I love how rich the colors are. If you’re going to use soft pastels, it’s critical that you wear a mask. And not just a dust mask, you need to wear a respirator. I have two respirators I use in the studio when I’m doing soft pastels, and I look like Darth Vader. You’ll look weird, but you’re safe. What really sold me on wearing a respirator was changing the filters. When you change them and you see all of the pastel dust in those filters, you’ll never work in pastels without a respirator on again. With pastels, it is more important that you’re using non-toxic pigments than it is with any other medium. This is because everything you’re working with in pastels is going airborne. So if you’re using cobalts, you’re breathing in cobalt. Same with using cadmiums or nickel, you’re breathing it all in. It’s going directly into your system and it doesn’t leave. Remember those substitutes we talked about, there are great substitutes for pastels out there as well, but get non-toxic pigments. I actually don’t do pastels that much anymore, as much as I love them, because they are literally the most dangerous medium there is. Everyone using pastels, please start using a respirator if you aren’t already and remove those toxic pigments from your boxes.
You might be thinking does that go for oil pastels as well? No. Oil pastels don’t create dust, they’re bound already with oil, so it’s not sending anything airborne. Oil pastels are as safe as oil paints, as long as you’re not using toxic pigments.
However, you do still want to wear a respirator when working with charcoal. Charcoal will create and send dust airborne and you don’t want to breath that in. So, anything that creates dust, wear a respirator.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, gouache, whatever the medium is.
You need to pay attention to what pigments you’re using, what supplies you are using and how you clean your painting supplies, and always put your safety first when it comes to your studio practice. Keep all of the things we’ve discussed in mind next time you go to buy painting supplies and let’s all work towards safer, more eco-friendly, and non-toxic studio practices.
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