Health and Safety in the Art Room

I shot a little video about this subject the other day but I didn't like how it came out.

When I was in school and taking art classes most of my professors had some SERIOUS rules concerning health, safety and sanitation in the art rooms. My painting professor Jim was the most serious of these rule enforcers. A man with a serious (dour?) sense of humor, a love of art and no sense of smell. He'd lost the sense of smell by working in an enclosed room with oil paints for many years of his life. (He was probably in his 50's when I had him in school.) As a result it was drilled into our heads that we should work in a well ventilated room while we painted, wear a respirator while we sanded paints, never ever ever spray cadmium pigments, never put our brushes in our mouths, all cups had to have a lid and certainly NO food in the art room.

Required reading in his class was the Painter's Handbook by Mark David Gottesen. Not only is it a useful text but it has a section that details the health hazards of pigments. This is of interest to anyone who works with artist grade pigments. If you are using craft grade materials the pigments are not usually of the hazardous sort. But when you start buying the artist grade paint there are some nasty chemicals within. Keep in mind that paints are not the only thing that has these pigments within, also loaded with nasty stuff are pastels, oil pastels, watercolors, gouache, ink and well; any artist/professional product will have the nasty chemicals in them.

So these artist grade pigments are usually a combination of chemicals. Some of the pigments are not an issue but some are. All of the cadmium, cobalt, and chrome pigments are carcinogenic, aka cancer causing. Many of those same pigments are combined with mercury to get other colors. And, well, mercury is easily absorbed through the skin. Mercury is known to cause birth defects and is also linked to other health issues. Read this much more scientific article. Many pigments also contain lead, though that is getting to be less and less the case.

Why did this come up? I've been watching a lot of art journaling videos in which people smoosh pigment around with their hands. It gives a particular look that is pleasing but easily replicated with filbert brushes with stiff synthetic bristles. Regarding my paragraph above, hands in paint? Not a good idea, though it gives a great look. Hands in glove in paint, okay by me. Hands in barrier cream in paint slightly better than just hands in paint. It gives some protection but can it really stop mercury and cadmium from seeping into your blood stream? I've no idea. We used to use silicone "glove" to help us clean our hands after a painting session but not to keep it off out of our skin entirely.

So, if you are going to smoosh paint around with your hand stick to the non-toxic craft grade paints, things like portfolio pastels. Please look on your labels for the non toxic logo and or the toxicity labeling. If you have questions about the toxicity of your paints google the manufacturer, name of the paint and the words health and safety to get the chart. Here is an example of Golden's Titan Buff page. And check out this page for all of liquitex's paint and mediums.

My professor's seemingly insane rules instilled in me a lifetime of good studio hygiene and practice. I don't eat in my studio, I wear a mask when I sand, when using solvents I work in a well ventilated area and I use a water bottle not a glass for H2O and my coffee cup has a lid. I ask that you are all careful when working in your art journals.