Industry Announcements for May 2007
Solvents and Cleaners
News for May
Dealing with Art Directors
Life Models and References Used in Art
Harmony of the Spheres
Solvents and CleanersHealthy Green Artists
by Janet Chui
According to the US National Center for Health Satistics, 1 in 3 people suffer from allergies, asthma, sinusitis, or bronchitis. (I am one of those!) It's important for those of us with sensitivity (and even those who aren't) to reduce the amount of synthetic and offending chemicals (and smells!) in our environment - drippy noses, watering eyes, and dulled mental acuity all isn't going to do our artmaking much good. This month, I'm going to deal with the stuff that you're probably going to recognize right away: Solvents, the stuff that really smells! And as much as possible, I will recommend the alternatives.
Not just oil painters need to worry about solvents - they're also in markers, pens, pastels, and crayons. (Certain pencils may contain them too!) The hazardous compounds in solvents are also present in some varnishes, lacquers, and mediums. The most offensive and dangerous solvents and compounds in solvents are turpentine, toulene, xylene, and methylene chloride. A little lower on the hazardous scale are methyl alcohol abd ethyl alchohol. The danger in these chemicals come from both inhalation and skin exposure. To be more sure, always look up the MSDSs (Materials Safety Data Sheets) for the products you're buying. Safety labels should be read and respected too, and it never hurts to exert even more caution than is recommended!
Some felt-tip markers can be pretty noxious; labels, and a very quick smell test should help you decide if you need the product in question or should keep on looking! Liquid drawing media that are water-based should be preferred above alcohol-based ones, while alcohol-based markers are the preferred alternative to felt-tip markers that are not labeled xylene-free or toulene-free. I am starting to see more markers and drawing pens containing no xylene and toulene - and they're conveniently labeled as such!
Dry drawing media do not usually strike artists as containing solvents, but some do, and the only way to be sure is by checking the MSDS. Gums used to bind the pigments can be separated into water-based and solvent-based, and the chemically-sensitive should avoid the latter. Good safety practices like keeping one's nose a safe distance from the drawing surface, being careful with pigment dust, and not touching the medium directly with one's skin should also be practised as much as possible.
Oil painters may or may not be able to run from solvents; they're used for thinning oil paints and typically, turpentine (a powerful organic compound distilled from mainly pine trees) is the solvent and a base for varnishes. Nowadays, turpentine substitutes (also called mineral turpentine, or turps substitute, or turps) are also on the market, but no less dangerous. Turpentine easily evaporates and chronic exposure to varying amounts can cause skin allergies, respiratory allergies, dermatitis, kidney damage, and brain damage. Acute exposures to large amounts - narcosis and/or chemical pneumonia.
The good news is, with safer alternatives nowadays, the use of dangerous spirits can now be restricted to the role of thinning paints only! If oil paint must be thinned, then solvents must be used. (You know who you are, hardcore oil painters!) If solvents must be used, studios must be well ventilated, and the minimal amount of solvent should be poured out for use, and sealed/covered as much as possible to minimize evaporation into the air. A NIOSH-approved organic vapor respirator is recommended for wearing if working with the stuff too.
"Odorless" spirits for oil painting are also available and less hazardous generally, but you should also know by now these should be treated with no less caution. (Personally I'd be a bit worried about the nasties I'm inhaling but can't detect!)
Disposal of Solvents
If you change your mind about working with liquid solvents, never pour what you have (even if it's used "dirty" solvent) down the sink or drain. The stuff has to be brought in a sealed container to a hazardous household waste center. (Check with your local county office or government website.) If the amount of solvent to be disposed is small, you may let the solvent evaporate in well-ventilated, low-activity, child-proof place. Rags and papers soaked with solvent should be disposed of in sealed metal containers - solvents can dissolve through plastic, and glass containers may break.
There is some overlap between solvents and cleaners, which is why these two are being covered together in this month's column. Solvents often are often used in or act as thinners and cleaners for artists, when solvents can in fact be skipped altogether in clean-up. Oil painters can wash their brushes in vegetable oil instead of a solvent - the oil loosens paint from the brushes, and any residue still left can be wiped off on rags. (This is in fact recommended for a longer life for one's precious paint brushes! Turpentines and spirits dry out natural bristles.)
Whether oil painting or painting in water-based media, artists can also forgo brush-cleaning soaps and solutions (almost all of which I've not found the ingredients of) by occassionally and thorougly cleaning their brushes in a warm solution of water and olive oil soap. The olive oil help keep all types of bristles in hydrated, tip-top shape.
Since good care of our tools also lengthens their lives and saves the environment by lessening our purchasing of new tools, remember you can prevent your brushes from splaying by drying your brushes with the tip pointed down (by hanging or fastening the handle of the brush vertically upwards, preferrably) and always keeping the ferrules of the brushes as dry and clean as possible.
Follow your nose, and happy and healthy art making!
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