A few weeks back I posted an article comparing oil paints. During research on the topic I was interested to read about health risks associated with artist materials. Recently I also happened to be talking to an artist and he mentioned two artists who were afflicted with Parkinson's disease. Although these artists lived normal llifespans it was noteworthy that they shared this disease too. Since exposure to solvents increases the risk of contracting Parkinsons maybe it was time to relook at basic studio safety.
It is well known that paint commonly used by the impressionists, for example, had lead content. The paint tubes were made from lead, which did not help. There was also the risky use of zinc in zinc white. These toxins were absorbed through the skin or ingested accidentally posing a higher risk. It has been suggested that Van Gogh even ate paint during his health problems. Not helpful! Fortunately lead and zinc usage in paint has been eliminated or at least, in the case of zinc, reduced and altered to safer proportions. Zinc still poses risks so use with caution.
What about solvents? The use of solvents to clean brushes is difficult to avoid for oil painters. There are water based oil paints coming onto the market, but traditional linseed oil based paints are still the most popular. The problem with solvents is that they can be absorbed through inhalation and through the skin. Hydrocarbons and petroleum distallates are the hazardous byproducts of these solvents. Consider this article by Michael McCann for a comparison of solvents and their risks. Remember that solvents include mediums such as liquin and other artist's mixing agents used to speed up or reduce drying times. Also note that alkyd additives to paints is growing in popularity as it speeds up drying time. Alkyds are also toxic so the usual precautions apply.
The most important point is to use good quality artists spirits that are entirely odourless. I have encountered artists using hardware store solvents that are not odourless. Not only do these intense odours induce headaches, but the volatile chemicals are inhaled and absorbed posing high risk of poisoning. Like I said the spirits should be entirely odourless not simply reduced in odour. You will sometimes find these cut-price solvents advertised as artist's spirits. Do not buy them. Citrus based spirits are also available and these are less risky too although more expensive.
Next tip is to use small amounts of solvent while painting. Much of the paint can be removed with tissue paper during your painting. Use several brushes too so that you do not muddy up lights and darks using the same brush. This will help to reduce the amount of solvent cleaning required in a painting session. You can also get good results using a bit of olive oil. Massage the brush into a little olive oil then clean off with tissue.
Safety is also increased if you use latex gloves while painting and cleaning brushes. I was hesitant about using gloves at first. I thought the gloves would feel odd and distract me, but actually I barely noticed them. Gloves also make cleaning up a cinch and save me hassle when painting outdoors especially when I have to drive back home - there is always paint getting onto the steering wheel! Latex gloves are cheap and available in bulk at the supermarket so it was no hardship to add this to my set-up.
When in the studio make sure there is sufficient cross ventilation. Do not let wastebaskets pile up with solvent and paint covered rubbish. Dispose of these items the same day. Avoid sanding dried paint off panels as the particles will be inhaled.
So need to get into a panic. A bit of common sense and a few precautions is all it takes.
Please add your artist safety tips or comments below.