Going Green: Environmentally Friendly Practices for Artists

By following these tips, you can help reduce the environmental impact of your studio practices. We only have one planet, and while your art helps to beautify it, we all can help protect it at the same time.

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Art is a great contribution to the world: it inspires us and improves us. However, sometimes the process of making art can end up hurting more than it helps. Working with oils, acrylics, resins, and other art-related chemicals can often do serious damage to the environment. Today, on Earth Day, it is important to remember that protecting our planet is just as important as bringing beauty to it. Here are some helpful tips from Agora Gallery experts to keep your artistic practices as environmentally friendly as possible.

Buying Environmentally Friendly Art Supplies

No matter what your medium is, you’re going to need light in your studio space. For photographers and painters alike, lighting is crucial to creating your work. Natural light is, of course, the most environmentally friendly option, but it’s completely impossible to control. Recently there have been a lot of advancements in making energy-efficient lightbulbs. Halogen bulbs, CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps), and LEDs (light emitting diodes), now completely overtake incandescent lights in terms of efficiency and environmental friendliness. They take less energy to run brighter for longer.

Now, for the art supplies themselves. Choosing grounds, supports, and media made entirely or partially from recycled materials is a great way to make environmentally friendly art without sacrificing any of the quality. Everything from the table that holds your supplies, the canvas, paper or board you work on, to the paints or pencils you use come in environmentally friendly forms. Recycled materials reduce the waste being created and limit the natural resources being destroyed.

Environmentally Friendly Sketchbook
Nearly every type of paper available comes in a recycled version. Entire sketchbooks now come with paper made from post-consumer materials.

Technology has advanced well enough that these art products are virtually the same quality as those made of new materials. Any art supplies made from recycled material will be labeled and will even tell you exactly how much of its composition is from recycled materials. (See image above.)

READ THE WARNING LABELS: Toxic Supplies

The next best thing you can do is to read the labels of your supplies and choose environmentally friendly and/or nontoxic supplies. Toxic art supplies and materials are those that are harmful if inhaled or ingested, or that cause harmful reactions when in contact with skin. These chemicals are dangerous to plants and animals for the same reasons. By knowing what materials are toxic and by limiting their use, you can help improve the overall environmental impact of your studio.

Read Labels Carefully
Read all labels carefully to ensure that your materials are safe. Many labels will also show instructions for proper use and disposal.

Most aerosols (ie: spray paint, fixatives for dry media) and heavy-duty adhesives (ie: wood glue), are toxic because of their chemical components. Both of these contain Trichloroethlyene, an airborne chemical that can cause damage to the nose and brain when inhaled in large amounts or too frequently. Always follow instructions on the bottle or can to prevent overexposure.

Oil paints, mineral spirits, turpentine, etc. all have chemical components that get into the air and are highly toxic in large quantities. Many still-used pigments contain small amounts of lead, or other known cancer-causing chemicals such as cadmium and manganese. Red and yellow pigments are particularly volatile. While not harmful when in sealed containers, or when used properly, prolonged exposure and improper handling can lead to serious health complications.

Most solutions for developing traditional photographs from negatives are also toxic, and especially irritating to the skin and eyes. All products should have labels on them that indicate whether they are toxic or not.

If your chosen medium is a known harmful substance, like an aerosol or corrosive, and there is no alternative for your technique, then the next best thing is to minimize your environmental impact.

PROPER VENTILATION: It Keeps You Breathing!

If you are working with known toxic materials, make sure your studio is properly ventilated and that you comply with all local environmental codes. A fume hood is a common fixture that helps limit exposure to fumes, vapors, and dusts that can be harmful when inhaled. Not only does proper ventilation keep you from breathing unhealthy toxins, it also spreads the substances in the outside air where they can naturally dissipate and no longer cause harm.

Wherever you live, there will be air quality guidelines available online or at your local municipal center. Not only are you protecting yourself legally, but you are protecting your health by following these rules.

→ Click here for New York City’s information about indoor air quality.

HANDLING WASTE IN YOUR STUDIO

Limit Your Waste: Buy Conservatively

Buying too much of any material is the leading cause of waste creation. Once you’ve decided on what material you are purchasing, make sure you buy conservatively. Plan ahead and get just enough material to complete the project.

Think of how often you buy food only for it to spoil before you are able to eat it. In anything you do, it is much better for the environment to plan ahead and get only what you know you will use. If you run out of paint, you can always get more, but if you have too much, it can dry up or go bad before you have another use for it.

Even if you plan perfectly, it’s possible that you’ll end up with some leftover materials. Let’s say you’ve got a palette full of paint and nothing to do with it. Well, let’s break it down by the type of paint you’re using:

PRESERVING ACRYLIC PAINT: Extending the Life of the Quick-Dry Medium

If you’ve got leftover acrylic paint, you already know that your work time is limited. Acrylic paints dry rapidly, which is both the blessing and the curse of the medium. The key to preserving acrylic paints is to prevent the water in the paint from escaping and drying out. The best way to save acrylic paint is to pack it, well-sealed, under plastic wrap, a palette lid, or other impermeable cover.

However, easier than preserving acrylic paint is using it. You can use it for the underpainting of your next work, or you can do some small studies, practice your techniques, or plan out your next work on scrap pieces of canvas or paper.

PROPER DISPOSAL: Environmentally Friendly Disposal of Acrylic Paint

If you can’t preserve or reuse your leftover paint for whatever reason, make sure you properly dispose of it. Improperly disposed supplies can get into the water supply, into the soil and ingested by nearby plants and animals. Not following proper disposal methods could poison your garden or yard, your pets, and even yourself.

Golden Paints, one of the leading producers of artist grade paint in the US, has a handy list of disposal tips for acrylic paint. They cover product storage tips to ensure all your tools stay usable, tips for cleaning your tools, and special instructions for disposing your acrylics.

Some highlights from their guide include:

– Avoid keeping your paint in extreme temperatures, as frequent freezing and thawing ruins the paint’s consistency.
– Wipe down your brushes, palette knives, and other tools with a paper towel before rinsing them; it helps keep paint out of the water supply.
– Dispose of leftover acrylics in solid form. Acrylic paint forms a film as it dries to lock pigments in, and this keeps them from getting into the environment.

Golden Paints also has a special instructions sheet for removing any acrylic from your water before you dump it.

Dumping your paints down the sink is the last thing you want to do. Not only does it clog up your sink, but it also releases incredibly harmful chemicals into the sewer system and groundwater. When poured down the sink, the chemicals in the paint dissolve and can no longer be separated from the water in the sewer lines. In solid form, the paint can go to a special disposal site, or into a landfill.

Golden Paints How To Process Acrylics Rinse Water
Image from Golden Paints: How To Remove Water-Based Paint Solids from Rinse Water – Just Paint Issue #3

 

Golden Paints advises using granular aluminum sulfate and powdered lime to re-solidify (or flocculate) the acrylics in the water, and a paper coffee filter, plastic funnel, plastic pail, and stirring paddle (most of which are available in your average hardware or paint store), to separate the paint from your water.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL GUIDE TO OIL PAINT:

Proper handling of leftover paint is one of the best things to learn as an artist concerned about the environment. Incorrectly disposing of things like oil paint and turpenoid/turpentine/mineral spirits used for cleaning is one of the most harmful things you can do to the planet. As mentioned before, many of the components in oil paint and solvents are toxic, and you don’t want to be releasing these toxic chemicals into the environment.

WORK LONG, WORK STRONG: Preserving Your Oil Paints and Solvents

Oil paint has a few days of life before getting too dry to work with, so you can always save it to use on a later piece. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, or transfer it to glass and immerse the glass panel in water (as a reminder, oil and water do not mix, so this will keep your paints wet without dissolving them).

Mineral spirits are actually reusable if you let your container sit for a few days. All the paint residue will settle along the bottom of the container, and you can pour off the clean mineral spirits to use again and again. It keeps the chemicals out of the environment, and it gives you a lot of mileage on them, saving you money on new supplies.

HEAVY DUTY DISPOSAL: Get a ‘Toxic’ Box

If you want to go the heavy-duty, extra-careful route, buy a toxic chemical container for all of your oil paint and mineral spirit refuse, and periodically bring your waste to the nearest disposal center. Those “CAUTION: TOXIC” barrels don’t only exist in movies. They are a real thing and can help you dispose of your toxic paints and art materials properly. Not only does this keep these chemicals out of the environment, but it also seals up the evaporating gasses, preventing you from breathing them in.

RECYCLING BOXES, BAGS, CONTAINERS

So you’ve used up all of your paints and are left with an empty jar or tube. What do you do next? Paper products, glass, and metal cans are recyclable as part of regular recycling collection. Check labels on all plastic material to see what is recyclable. You’ll recognize the triangular label with a number in it. Most of these things will be collected by your town or municipality on a designated day of the week.

Environmentally Friendly Art - Recycling 2
The symbol here reads 2, so this container can go out with regular NY recycling.

Check with your local municipal center or look online to see what materials are publicly collected. Anything else will have to be brought to a special collection center that handles special materials.

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

By following these tips, you can help reduce the environmental impact of your studio practices. We only have one planet, and while your art helps to beautify it, we all have to protect it at the same time.

This post is also available in: Spanish

4 comments

  • Great article and I am most inspired by the simplest tip, to use the leftover acrylic paint on your palette for small studies or underpaintings. Just imagine what spontaneous creations could come about by incorporating this into your routine!

    • That’s right, Michelle! And to think, many artists are throwing away that extra inspiration by tossing their unused paint. We’d love to see some of your leftover paint studies!

  • Excellent article! I’ll have to try that acrylic processing before with lime and aluminum sulfate.

    My own green tip for acrylic painters who work with pouring medium is to work over a plastic covered surface, let the “drips” of paint dry fully, then peel them up and use them for collage on canvas or board. I have made whole new artworks just from these beautiful scraps of marbled paint that fell to the floor.

    • Thanks for the tip, Kirsten – that must make for a very interesting collage!

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