[image_with_animation image_url=”9121″ alignment=”” animation=”None” box_shadow=”none” max_width=”100%”] Pictured above: Gamblin’s recycled Torrit Grey, a different color every year Oil paints have a bad reputation for being toxic, and many of the solvents and pigments can be, but oil paint itself is essentially friendly. In any oil paint tube are two ingredients: Pigment Oil Pigment The pigments in oils are the same pigments in watercolors, acrylics, tempera, and pastels. While some of the pigments like cadmium and cobalt are less environmentally considerate, you can select your palette to be kinder. Try pigments such as umbers (brown), siennas (earthy orange), ochres (yellow), iron oxides (reds, browns, black), and ultramarine (blue to violet). On the back of most paint tubes the original pigments are listed, so you can spot pigments like oxides even if the color has a different name. You can also buy or gather your own powdered pigments to make your own paint, but who has time for that?!? While I wasn’t able to find a list of environmentalist colors, I did find several companies selling “earth pigment” products. Here’s one of those, with a list of natural pigments to give you a range of what’s possible. You can do a lot with these. It’s possible that a specially marketed “non-toxic” paint brand will be more considerate to the environment than a basic quality brand, but honestly I see these expensive “environmentally pure” paints as a waste of money. Check the ingredients. Don’t buy a paint with fillers. Any paint with linseed oil as the binder is great. Recycled Paint Gamblin is a local company based in Portland, and every year they offer free tubes of Torrit Grey – a color mix produced from cleaning their mixers and recycling the colors. All that precious pigment saved from waste! I’m a fan of Gamblin. Cobalt Pigment While cobalt itself is not toxic, the way it’s mined is. Here’s a quote from Scientific American: Cobalt ore is notoriously tricky to extract from the ground, and could poison mines in the form of cobaltite (CoAsS), which contains arsenic and sulfur. For this reason in German it was referred to as kobold ore, or “goblin ore”. Cadmium Pigment Cadmium is tough to go high road on. I am artistically in love (lust) with the cadmium colors. Eventually, this pigment is likely to be off the market due to environmental concerns (there are health concerns too, so don’t use it as a spa mask, and don’t eat it). I choose to continue using it for now, with care. According to Greenfacts: Cadmium is a non-essential heavy metal, meaning that it is not used by biological systems. Both in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems it tends to bioaccumulate, particularly in vertebrates, and specifically in organs such as the kidney and liver, and it also accumulate builds up in invertebrates, algae and plants. Effects on birds and mammals are mainly due to kidney damage. While artistic uses of heavy metals is tiny compared to the cadmium present in batteries, I do try to keep it at a minimum. The amount of cadmium that comes from my studio is minimal. If use of a heavy metal is still objectionable to you, replacements for cadmium are colors such as Pyrrole red, and Naphthol red. Neither Pyrrole nor Naphthol has the Cadmium’s vibrancy or tinting power when mixed with other colors, though, so my personal choice for pigments like cadmiums is to keep it contained, don’t use it when you don’t need it (sketches, studies), and don’t eat it. Oil The oil in the tube can be anything from natural linseed or safflower oil to a quick-dry alkyd. What’s an alkyd? Wiki: An alkyd is a polyester modified by the addition of fatty acids and other components. They are derived from polyols and a dicarboxylic acid or carboxylic acid anhydride. The term alkyd is a modification of the original name “alcid”, reflecting the fact that they are derived from alcohol and organic acids. Alkyds are often used in addition to, or to replace the oils in a paint because alkyds speed up drying time. All alkyd products are different, so some may bother you, some won’t. If you’d prefer to avoid all alkyds, a nice quality paint with linseed won’t be hard to find. To decrease the viscosity of the paint without solvents, you can use linseed, walnut, or poppyseed oils. For the first couple of layers, paint without OMS (paint thinner) is still fairly thick, so if you want it to be a lower viscosity than oils allow, try Winsor & Newton water mixable oil paints. The W&N water mixable oils allow water to take the place of paint thinner, or OMS (Odorless Mineral Spirits). I was in art school when the first batch of water mixable oils was being sold, and they were awful. These new products are much improved, and as far as I can tell, equal quality to W&N’s high quality oils. Solvents Solvents are far less toxic than the old baddies that gave oil paint its horrible reputation, and use of any solvent is entirely optional. The old toxic paint thinners such as turpentine and mineral spirits have been upgraded to a newer and much safer Gamsol OMS, and some painters don’t use any solvents at all. I certainly find I use much less OMS than I used to, so with a system of clean use (not plunging my brush into the jar, but allowing the brush to wick the OMS up into the bristles, so the OMS stays clean), covered containers, and the patience of settling and reusing, a quart of OMS might last me a year, and produce almost zero waste. Still, some painters would prefer to avoid OMS, and I’ve started experimenting with using various oils such as linseed, poppy, or walnut to paint, and safflower to clean my brushes. Traditional oil painters such as Rembrandt typically used walnut or linseed. Editor’s note: Speaking of Rembrandt, have you asked us to save you a seat at the WTF Art History Rembrandt Lecture April 29th? Gamblin’s Solvent-Free Medium According to Chris Saper on the Artist’s Network, Gamblin’s Solvent-Free Medium not only mixes with the paint and cleans the brushes, but it also leaves painter’s hands feeling moisturized. Varnish Instead of using a varnish, consider using Gamblin’s Cold Wax Medium. Cold wax provides a protective and unifying topcoat that gives my paintings a more pleasing and consistent matte/satin finish, and it’s easier (and more fun) to apply than varnish. Cleaning Brushes You can use virtually any natural oil to clean brushes, but I use safflower oil because I can get a gallon at the grocery store, and it’s cheap! The oil will clean out the pigment. Now you need a soap to clean out the oil. The Masters’ brush soap is great. I also recommend Murphy’s Oil Soap as a natural, inexpensive option. Here’s how to clean without solvents: Squeeze out as much paint from the brush as you can with a rag or old telephone book pages, then swish your brush in a small amount of safflower oil, gently coaxing it up into the ferrule to release the paint that can get stuck up there. Repeat this process until no paint comes out in the rag, then do it some more, because I bet you missed some. When the paint is really really gone, then use soap and warm water to clean the oil out of the brush, so it doesn’t dry in your bristles. Never put paint or solvents down the drain! It’s not nice to the fishes. Cleaning Hands When I have paint on my hands, before I wash with soap and water, I rub my hands with safflower oil, then wipe them off on a rag. This gets almost all the paint off of my hands. The rest of it can be taken off with any hand soap and warm water. If you still need a special arty soap (it’s ok, we all have our preferences), “The Masters” Hand Soap is a non-toxic and non-abrasive soap that is specially formulated for artists. I have been told recently this is the same as the much less expensive fels naptha, but I haven’t confirmed this. (Anyone?) Canvas Painting over a previously painted canvas is a great way to reduce some of the waste inherent in any making of things. Unfortunately, the otherwise great intentions of painting over old paintings has mostly brought poor results. Some paintings can be painted over, some can’t. If the paint is thick and the colors are loud, I’ll need to apply a lot of paint to cover it. I could sand the paint down, but sanding produces dust which isn’t healthy to breathe, and on a stretched canvas sanding can cause the canvas to bag out and rub into the stretcher bars. Sometimes, when I’ve attempted to be environmental and re-use a canvas, I’ve ended up using more materials such as primers and thick oil paints, and made a bigger wasteful mess than I would have if I’d started with a fresh canvas. Some artists transform their painting into something else, like an integrated painting or a weaving, or a deck of unusual business cards. This just isn’t my thing, so for me it is less wasteful to either donate an ugly painting to goodwill, or remove it from the stretcher bars and stretch a fresh canvas. For re-usable stretcher bars, I’d avoid the pre-stretched canvases, and opt for assemble-your-own stretcher bars like these beautifully built Richeson stretcher bars. Whereas the pre-stretched canvas is one-use only, good stretcher bars can be re-used again and again and again. If a painting doesn’t work you can disassemble the whole thing, and reuse the components. Rags I paint with blue shop towels. Unfortunately this produces some waste. Alternatives are to use a rag service, old t-shirt rags, or telephone book pages. Rag washing services have mixed results environmentally, since the washing uses a fair amount of water, and whatever was in the rag is introduced into the water system. As far as using old t-shirt rags, I do this when I can, but honestly this is the area I would most like to improve for my environmental painting practices. I’ll see what I can do.