My granddaughters introduced me to the lollipops which the children call ‘Toxic Waste’. She said: ‘First they taste awful, then soooo nice, and they make your tongue a brighter colour than the lollipop!’ I can’t figure out the moral of the story, but she certainly delighted in the notion of toxicity!
In oil painting, or any artist’s medium, pigments have various levels of toxicity and thank goodness Flake White (which caused the fatal lead poisoning to JMW Turner’s father and later his assistant) is no longer readily available.
We mostly use Titanium White for a opaque white. Titanium is also used in toothpaste, but don’t eat the paint!
It’s hard to avoid toxic pigments if you want good colours, whether using watercolours, pastels, watermixable oils or artist’s oils. There is more information about pigments at the end of this article.
Mediums: These are alkyd resins and can speed drying, add translucency or body to the paint. Treat with the same care as you would use low odour or odourless solvents. They have different levels of hazardous ingredients, but your exposure to mediums is minimal compared to solvents. I use Galkyd because it is diluted using Gamsol and these are both Gamblin products. If you use Liquin, a W&N product, you should thin it with Sansodor. If you want to know more about mediums, there are many you-tubes and online information.
Solvents: You need solvents to wash your brushes and to dilute mediums. In the olden days, we used to use pure or decorators turpentine which was the ‘delicious’ smell of an artist’s studio, but nowadays I only use it when my students have gone home; in order to deep-clean my brushes.
In class I use Gamblin Gamsol, an expensive odorless low toxicity solvent that is imported from USA. Winsor and Newton Sansodor is more accessible but a little more toxic and not quite odourless.
I was looking online at Jackson’s Art supplies and saw that they have a house brand of odourless solvent and another one called low-odour solvent. It’s good to save costs, and I nearly pressed ‘add to basket’ but I was intrigued to see why there were two sorts, so I read the safety hazard sheet and that shocked me!
In most online art suppliers, products have
INFO. which gives general information, but often also offers a downloadable pdf safety hazard sheet.
SPECS. tells you the dimensions etc.
REVIEWS. endorsements (or otherwise) by customers.
It is worth looking at the Safety hazard sheet. Below are images of the three main areas of concern.
Let’s compare the danger hazards of some solvents. I don’t understand the chemical make-up so have omitted this. The information is from pdf’s on Jacksons Art Supplies:
H226: Flammable liquid and vapour. H302+312+332: Harmful if swallowed, in contact with skin or if inhaled. H315: Causes skin irritation. H317: May cause an allergic skin reaction. H319: Causes serious eye irritation. H411: Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
Jackson’s Low Odour Solvent: H224: Extremely flammable liquid and vapour. H400: Very toxic to aquatic life.
Winsor and Newton Sansodor: I could not find any information online. You would need to contact W&N. However, they describe it as ‘Hazardous’
Jackson’s Odourless Solvent – Shellsol T: Flam. Liq. 3: H226 Flammable liquid and vapour. Asp. Tox. 1 H304 May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways. Aquatic Chronic 4 H413 May cause long lasting harmful effects to aquatic life.
Gamblin Gamsol (This is what I use in my classes and I won’t be changing this regardless of the cost.) This is odourless.
USA health and safety, which is stricter than UK guidelines say: Repeated exposure may cause skin dryness or cracking. If swallowed, may be aspirated and cause lung damage. Excessive and unusual exposure may be irritating to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.
NFPA Hazard ID: Health: 1 Flammability: 2 Reactivity: 0 HMIS Hazard ID: Health: 1 Flammability: 2 Reactivity: 0
Cleaning brushes, palettes and hands:
This is how we use Gamsol in workshops: Each person has a miniature jam jar with a lid. The lid and the jar are labelled because the Gamsol is clear like water. When the brush needs light cleaning they dip it into the Gamsol and remove excess paint with kitchen roll and throw this into a plastic bag taped to the table.
When artists need to clean their brushes more thoroughly, they do this at the ‘cleaning station’. At the cleaning station there are two larger jars of Gamsol on an old towel. The first jar is for the initial ‘dirty’ cleaning. The brush is dunked relatively hard on the base of the jar to loosen the pigment from between the bristles, and wiped on the old towel, without any skin contact. Then the brush is dunked into cleaner Gamsol and wiped on the towel again. This is usually adequate cleaning.
When artists need to clean their palettes, they use babywipes, followed by kitchen towel to remove the lanolin. Babywipes are fantastic and the lanolin ones work much better than the pure water ones. To clean your hands, you can use baby oil and rub your hands together. This dissolves the oil paints, and hands can be dried with by kitchen roll. Cooking oil works just as well, but baby oil pampers your hands.
Pigments: Some pigments are bad to inhale, others react with the skin. Below is some information from a forum on Wetcanvas. Be cautious about finger painting.
Extremely nasty: Arsenic pigments. Emerald Green — the real stuff. Not much in use today.
Nasty: Soluble lead pigments. (Flake and Cremnitz whites.) Not in much use either.
Bad: Insoluble lead and mercury compounds. Red Lead “Minium”. Naples Yellow. Lead-Tin Yellow. Vermilion. Lead Sulphate white. and Chromates. (Lead chromate. Barium chromate. Strontium chromate. These have hexavalent chromium in them — remember Erin Brockovich?)
Less Bad: The Cobalts, Cadmiums, Manganese pigments, Chromium Oxide greens, and Nickle yellow/greenish yellow pigments should be treated with care.
Harmless: On the opposite end, there is Dioxazine Violet which I think is used to colour food. Many iron oxide pigments (without manganese), titanium white, zinc white, and some other pigments are also very safe.
In my teaching studio. most of the paints are students’ paints and many of these are chemically derived not pigment derived. We don’t use any of the colours listed above, other than cadmiums, but student cadmiums are generally Cadmium HUE, not real cadmium.
Additional safety precautions:
If you want to do finger painting, use vinyl gloves.
Work in a well ventilated area.
Wash your hands regularly.
Do not eat in the studio.
Some of this information may seem alarmist, and many of these products are as harmful as cleaning materials. Perhaps I should caution you to avoid housework!!
Just be sensible and read the labels.
If you are concerned do your own online research and contact manufacturers.