There are almost as many opinions and preferences about materials, their use and care as there are artists. Over the past 15 years, I’ve probably used darn near every type of brush, paint, medium, painting surface, solvent and other assorted artists’ materials sold to mankind.
The selection, use and care of the materials I use in the studio is based on my concern for the environment, avoiding or eliminating health risks as well as the ensuring the longevity and final aesthetic of my work. As a small business owner, I also watch overhead costs. This is what works for me and I believe it will help you, too.
In short...go with natural materials and buy the best quality you can possibly afford.
Most of this information in this article is based on research that I’ve learned from art conservators, independent scientific studies (specifically MSDS reports done by inde- pendent labs) and other highly respected resources such as the National Gallery in Washington, DC and more. The other information is simply experience. Do what works for you, but this is what I’ve learned and how I manage my studio and balance health and safety, conservation, aesthetics and cost.
Basic common sense practices
Never eat food or put your brush in your mouth when you are painting. This should almost go without saying, but I’m amazed at how often I see this happen. It’s the most efficient way to transfer toxic substances into your body. Also, be careful if you have something to drink near you while painting. Leave your mug or whatever away from your palette. Yes, I’ve accidentally dipped my paint-filled brush into a coffee cup!
I recommend wearing disposable gloves if you have highly sensitive skin or are a messy painter; The barrier cream simply isn’t enough protection, especially as some toxic substances found in paints, mediums, and especially turpentine can be absorbed through the skin. I have completely eliminated turpentine and odorless mineral spirits from my studio due to their toxicity and replace it with lavender spike oil essense and I clean my brushes with safflower oil and Murphy's Oil soap.
Always wash your hands well after painting and before eating.
Paint is a “highly transferrable” vehicle; simply put, it can get in places you would not expect, in ways you would not anticipate, even when you are neat and tidy. Wear a smock or other protective garment such as a big old shirt that you can get inexpen-sively up at the thrift store. Take it off and leave it in your work area when you are done painting.
Keep your palette organized and lay out your paints in the same manner every time (e.g. warm to cool and light to dark). It may sound kind of obsessive, but several things will happen: you won’t waste paint, colors will be easy to find, the overall “messiness” factor will be greatly reduced and working will be much easier and more enjoyable, as well as safer for your health.
Solvents: The big toxic issue
Solvents (turpentine and mineral spirits) are the primary reason why we need good venti-lation or an air purifier in the studio. So here are my tips:
A low-toxicity alternative to turpentine or mineral spirits is lavender spike oil. It’s made from distilled and spike lavender oil and can be used in every situation that you would use turpentine or mineral spirits. It was used for centuries before less-expensive turpentine became available to artists. However, it smells strongly of lavender and is very expensive, about four times the cost of Gamsol (e.g. an 8-ounce. jar of Gamsol is roughly $10, the same size lavender spike oil is $40). If you use very little solvent and are concerned about health, I’d recommend this as an alternative. But you still may want to crack a window.
Don’t leave your brushes soaking in solvent; it will destroy them in a very short period of time, it can easily be knocked over and it evaporates into the air you are breathing.
Turpentine is more toxic than mineral spirits. If you cannot afford to use oil of spike lavender, I recommend odorless mineral spirits (Gamsol). The smell of regular turpentine or mineral spirits may conjure romantic ideas for some people, but it can cause both respiratory and central nervous system damage. When the odor is removed, the majority of toxic volatiles are removed. None- theless, you should still keep your studio ventilated (even cracking a window is good) or use an air purifier specifically manufactured to remove volatile VOCs.
A final note on turpentine and odorless mineral spirits. The stuff sold in hardware stores is NOT appropriate for oil painting, even if it’s odorless. It is unrefined and contains particulates that compromise the longevity of an oil painting.
Regarding “Turpenoid Natural,” the citrus stuff. I researched the MSDS (materials safety and data sheets from various independent laboratories). There is precious little information available about what this stuff is really made of. Weber simply will not disclose much information. This is what we know for sure based on the hard evidence: It’s a really good brush cleaner. The end. It is completely inappropriate for oil painting. It virtually never dries. If you use it in your lean medium (2/3 linseed oil with 1/3 solvent), or mix is straight with paint for an imprimatura or under painting, it can take weeks, if not months for your paint to dry. This is not good from a conservation perspective, especially for the first layers of the painting which must dry quickly and completely to avoid cracking, delamintaiton, etc. Since we don’t really know what it is made from, and how it will chemically react over time with with linseed, Liquin or other mediums, and the drying time is so incredibly slow, I cannot in any way recommend it for use in painting. Regardless of what the marketing says, don’t use this stuff in an oil painting. Plus, it smells like bitter, rotten oranges. Blah.
In lieu of turpentine for cleaning your brushes, there is a natural, completely nontoxic alternative. Both you and your brushes will be happier and healthier if you follow this process: Wipe off all excess paint with a paper towel. Swish your brushes around in safflower oil (yes, the same kind you get in the supermarket and cook with) wipe and repeat until all the paint is off. Then, wash your brushes with plain old Murphy’s Oil Soap and warm water. Your brushes will be incredibly clean and well conditioned. However, if you have synthetic bristle brushes, be sure to wash with Dawn dish soap, or your brushes will be permanently “sticky." You an also use these two products to remove hardened paint from your brushes instead of buying overpriced and often highly toxic “brush restorers."
I hate plastic, I really do. And as a result, I will not use materials in the studio that are plastic or derived from petroleum, particularly mediums such as Liquin, Galkyd (of all varieties) and Neo Megilp. These mediums all are mixtures of alkyd-based resins and petroleum-solvent distillates. When dry, they become plastic. They are all quite flammable and all have something called cobalt carboxylate in them--nasty, toxic stuff that has a flash point of 104 degrees. The flash point of all these mediums, on average, is about 138 degrees. Natural mediums such as linseed, walnut or safflower oil have flash points well above 500 degrees. What this means is that natural mediums won’t catch on fire as quickly as the alkyd resin/petroleum ones, making them safer in the studio. The other issue I have with these mediums is that they dry very quickly. They attach to the fibers of your brush with an unbelievable tenacity and dry to a plastic film, making your brushes impossible to clean. Once dried on, nothing will get that stuff off except for maybe a blowtorch. Using the safflower oil and Murphy’s Oil Soap treatment to clean your brushes will not work, when you use petrolem based mediums.
Use natural mediums, otherwise known a drying oils, such as linseed oil, walnut oil, stand oil, sun-thickened linseed oil, etc. Linseed oil, also known as flax seed oil, it’s made from the flax plant, which is also the same plant that linen is made from (making sense now??) .
No oil rigs or HAZMAT suits necessary to produce these products!
It may be tempting to purchase that tube of Naples yellow Hue or cadmium orange Hue because it’s half the price, but quite simply it is NOT the same color. They are much more dull due in part to the fact that the amount of pigment in there is reduced and often the formula is quite different from the real thing. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
Buying good quality paint may be a bigger investment in the beginning, but it is way less expensive overall because you need to use less paint and the colors are true, real and intense. I use tons of cadmiums in my work. A regular-size tube from a good pant manufacturer can run anywhere between $35 and $70, but because it is so loaded with pigment and the color is so true, one tube lasts me almost a year--and I paint almost every day.
I hope this helps and that you are able (or willing) to incorporate some of these sugges- tions to make your painting studio more safe!!