There are a lot of ways that I try to generally take care of myself and my surrounding environment. I exercise, I generally eat well, I recycle, and I try to maintain healthy boundaries for myself, all adding up to an intentionally healthy lifestyle. The one area that seems to be the exception to my self-imposed rule is my art practice. I’m completely aware that the fumes of the mineral spirits and the accidental paint blotches that get on my skin aren’t the best for my long-term health. In the past year or so, I’ve been actively researching and pursuing ways to clean up my studio so that my career minimally affects my long-term health. Also, looking into my near future, I want to maintain my art practice while pregnant and growing a family. This is deffffinitely not an immediate need, but something I feel I need to go ahead and educate myself on.
One of the artists that I look up to most, Emily Jeffords, is a great example of what I am working towards. Since following her, I have learned about the least harmful materials and practices to use in the studio, and from her example, I know that this can be done. She was able to keep painting through her latest pregnancy, and brings her baby to her studio on a daily basis. She is a great resource not only for creative inspiration, but for ways to establish a sustainable art practice.
I’ll start by pointing out the basics: oil paint is pigment suspended in linseed oil. The danger in oil paint is in the pigments, no matter where they come from. Some of the elements and metals that make up the pigments are toxic, and should be used with caution, while others are not necessarily harmful. California has started banning certain paints because of the toxicity of the pigment (particularly paints with cadmium), and so when I shop for paints, I take the paints marked with this notification into consideration. Some of my favorite paints fall under California’s warning, but….I really can’t part with them quite yet! They are too vital to my palette at this point in time.
The first time I used oil paints, I was kind of turned off. They smelled fishy and weird, and that, combined with the strong pungency of mineral spirits has makes for a stinky studio. However, it’s kind of part of the deal, and to be honest, I don’t even really notice the smell anymore. As I transitioned from student-grade paints to higher quality professional paints, there are fewer and fewer ingredients in the paint mix, so they are as pure as possible, making them slightly less smelly.
One of the first things I would recommend to anyone using oil paints is to WEAR GLOVES! I prefer nitrile gloves over latex, because they are sturdier and less porous, so they are less susceptible to paint soaking into your skin. If you do nothing else in your studio do this!!! Like anything else that comes in contact with your skin, the chemicals and components in paint begin to soak into your skin as well. When it comes to risky tubes of paint, I try to be as careful as I can so that the paint stays either on my brush, on the palette, on the canvas, or on my gloves. I try to be tidy with all of the colors in my toolbox, but, hey, sometimes I get really into it and paint ends up getting all over me. If this happens, its nothing to panic about, but something that should be taken care of sooner rather than later.
The second, and one of the newer additions to my studio is my choice in mineral spirits. To wash brushes that have oil paint on them, water won’t do. While you can use commercial paint thinner, I can’t imagine that being within a 3 foot radius of that stuff on a regular basis is good for you at all. Odorless mineral spirits are the middle of the road, and are what I’ve used for the majority of the time that I’ve been painting. Some brands are better than others, so I would do some research on the best ones you can find. What I would recommend over anything else, however, is Gamblin Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits. It is a completely 100% odorless mineral spirit that evaporates after use. It is the safest option because the harmful aromatic solvent component found in mineral spirits and paint thinner has been removed. I used to get what I thought were “allergies” in my studio, but I blamed it on the air in the studio. Ever since switching to Gamsol, these side effects are completely gone. Next to gloves, this is truly the most important change you can make to mindfully pursue a healthy art practice.
The last thing that is certainly not required, but is a definite perk, is having a separate space for a studio. I know that more often than not, this isn’t an option for many people. I’ve gotten lucky over the years with finding an affordable space that does the job. Storing my materials in a separate place allows me to pack it away, close the door, and not live with my paints. The one winter when my studio was too cold to paint in, I took my watercolor set home to keep painting, mostly because I don’t trust myself to contain the mess of oil paints in my home. Having a separate space to work is truly a luxury, but is certainly not required to be a successful artist. I would imagine that if I was working out of my house, I would stick to acrylics or watercolor, because they have far fewer health risks, and they are both water soluble, so no need for stinky chemicals!
Choosing health-conscious materials is one of the many facets of establishing a sustainable art practice. I want to be able to paint for the rest of my life, but I also want to be sure I’m taking care of myself. I’m always game to try a new product and always looking for suggestions to take another steps towards a becoming a more sustainable artist!