Modeling for your Health
Cats Are Hard
News for August
A Controversial Creature, part 1
Modeling for your HealthHealthy Green Artists
by Janet Chui
This month's Healthy Green Artists steps into that dangerous territory of sculpted cheekbones, curvy figures and skinny . . . armatures. Clay is a common medium for artists venturing into 3-dimensional work, and many available clays do not require kiln-firing. This is perfect for those of us interested in creating small, detailed figurines, dolls, and models without a kiln. For fantasy artists in particular, fairy and fantastical figures can be exquisitely expressed in clay. I hope by the end of this month's column, I can have you considering working with safer and earth-friendly clays for your modeling adventures!
I'm tackling the subject of polymer clay at the top of the list as this is possibly the most common clay used by artists creating art and fairy dolls. Polymer clay comes in a rainbow of colors, is easy to work with and can be baked in a regular oven. (Not an oven you'd also want to use for food, however.) The durable results, low cost, ease of use, and wide distribution makes polymer clay popular; it also makes polymer clay the subject of many websites of public interest groups and companies arguing over its safety. If polymer clay is used according to the instructions; polymer clay is not likely to cause problems from acute exposure. That said, that polymer clay is basically plastic (PVC to be exact) should be a red flag for the environmentally- and health-conscious, and for those artists with young children in the home.
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is the plastic sometimes known as the "poison plastic". Its manufacture and exposure to high heat releases dioxins--chemical compounds with long half-lives that bio-accumulate in humans and animals to cause cancers when it has accumulated to dangerous levels. Dioxins are hardly produced by PVC-manufacture alone; dioxins are introduced everyday into our environment, produced by coal-burning, garbage-burning, paper manufacture, metal smelting, and sludge application, among others. They are an undisputed carcinogen, and a persistent organic pollutant (POP). Other well known substances that fall under the lovely category of POPs are: DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane), and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls). These are all substances recognized by United Nations Environment Programme as adverse to human health and the environment; unfortunately, there does exist a lot of information and websites put up by PVC-manufacturers disputing this. The counter-information campaign can be found for both PVC and phthalates (pronounced "thall-eights").
Phthalates are at the heart of the war between those who argue that polymer clays are safe, and those who argue that they may not be. Up to 14% of polymer clay may be made of phthalates. Phthalates are a group of substances that turn hard plastics into soft plastics, and includes di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and diisononyl phthalate (DINP). DEHP and DINP are no longer found in popular brands like Fimo and Sculpey polymer clays ever since their carcinogenic status was confirmed in animal studies. Other phthalates are being used in substitution, and the health hazards of these other phthalates are open to question. Chemical companies and the product manufacturers insist they are not health-threatening; while public interest research groups (PIRGs) like the Federation of State PIRGs (USPIRG) and Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) rightly insist on more studies, caution, and safer consumer products.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group was responsible for commissioning independent studies on the ingredients of polymer clay. Their paper, "Hidden Hazards: Health Impacts of Toxins in Polymer Clays," covers the details of the investigation (link below). If you have young children, or are being cautious of endocrine disruptors, polymer clay is a substance I'd only recommend using with the utmost care. (The phthalates from polymer clay will stay on your hands even after washing.) You can always find alternatives. (And there are plenty!)
At the art supply store, it occurs to me that paper clay sometimes looks like polymer clay's drab, ugly cousin. It usually comes commercially in packets, ready for kneading and using, and is white (or off-white) or gray, and doesn't quite fire up the imagination with its lack of color. Paper clay hardens by air-drying, so no baking is required, but its porous, water-soluble finish does beg for lacquering or painting with a hardier medium, like acrylics. Its manufacture is kinder on the environment compared to polymer clay; most of its ingredients are naturally occurring: volcanic ash, talc, water, starch, wood pulp, and preservatives. (Paper clay does have several brands out there, and does not exclusively refer to the one brand cleverly dubbed "Creative Paperclay".)
Paper clay raises no immediate alarms because of its benign ingredients list, although "preservatives" can include substances that cause skin irritation for sensitive individuals, as well as substances that should never be ingested. So, sensible precautions like keeping paper clay away from food, food preparation areas, and the nose and mouth should be observed. Hands should also be washed regularly after play. Because paper clay can be sanded and carved after it has hardened, one hazard to be mindful of is inhaling the talc or volcanic ash in the clay dust produced. Working with a mask would be advisable. (It doesn't have to be HEPA grade or anything, just be enough to block dust.) Talc requires some caution; but not so much you find yourself paralyzed, because it is somewhat prevalent in daily life.
In my experience, the details allowed in paper clay are equal to polymer clay. It does dry to a rougher-looking finish, but this is easy to sand to smoothness, or in any case, the clay will take on the texture of paint covering it.
Paper clay can also be homemade.
Remember papier mâché? For me it stirs up memories of grade school, homemade glue, newspapers strips and friendly competition with my classmates as we made papier mâché durians by layering our paper on balloons. For most of us our projects didn't last a week, either because we tried to use them as basketballs, or because, well, it turned out there was some technique involved with making the glue just right for our climate.
The ingredients of papier mâché are well known: paper strips, some kind of starchy glue, and, em, imagination. Papier mâché isn't great for small-sized projects that need a lot of 3D detailing, but it is fun and appropriate for large projects that need to be light and portable.
The finish of cold porcelain might allow the finest details possible of non-fired clays. Cold porcelain is a relative newcomer that comes from Mexico or Argentina. It air dries to hardness, and is basically cornflour, glue, and water (and sometimes glycerin). Finer finishes are obtained by adding cold cream (the kind used for skin) to the mix; for durability, a preservative like salt can be added if cold porcelain is being created in the kitchen. Commercial cold porcelain and craft porcelain is generally certified non-toxic by ACMI; I suspect their differing ingredient from the home made cold porcelain could be the preservatives used. (The real ingredients lists for the commercial mixes remain out of my grasp, alas.)
Cold porcelain is used for tiny details like leaves and flowers usually; its one weakness is that larger crafted items with too much thickness may crack upon drying. (Some doll artists have found how to get around this, however.) But the purity of the white and the smoothness of the finish apparently can't be beat.
Cold porcelain recipes bear a lot of resemblance to air-drying cornflour clay (cornflour, salt, water) and cornstarch clay (cornstarch, salt, water), but yield smoother and finer results.
The original play dough is something we can make in our kitchens and can be baked to hardness (something that can't be done with the commercial Hasbro product). Salt dough and play dough recipes abound online, and range from those that have grainy finishes to those with smooth finishes, those colored with Kool Aid (probably healthier than drinking it), and those colored with cocoa powder and edible after baking--yum! Some results will even take paint after baking. Considering all the ingredients are edible, this homemade stuff definitely falls under non-toxic, biodegradable, and potentially delicious.
It may not seem so at first, but clays are easily accessible to all artists, some varieties being as close as our kitchens! Artists concerned about their health, or the health of the environment, definitely have their pick of clays to work with, and I hope this month's column has shown that there are more possibilities than meet the eye at your art supply store! For those looking for safe modeling clays for their children, the links below include pages on all-natural modeling beeswax! (Note: this stuff does not ever harden completely.)
CHEC on polymer clay: http://www.checnet.org/HealtheHouse/education/articles-detail.asp?Main_ID=496
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