How To >> Browse Articles >> Art Materials, Safety & Care


Using Artists Materials Safely

Using Artists Materials Safely


Simple Safety Measures – A helpful list of methods and best practices you should employ in your studio.

Avoid Overuse and Misapplication of Solvents.

Solvents are common ingredients in many art supplies, allowing quick, easy application of a broad category of substances, with fast evaporation that allows rapid overpainting and no residue to spoil a varnish or paint layer. The fact that solvents offer a cheap, easy way to dissolve, thin and rinse just about anything means that they are used much more often than necessary in the studio. The quick evaporation rate means the lost substance enters the air as vapor; the more you use, the denser the fumes. Just as it can be easy to overuse solvents and build up an unhealthy exposure level, it’s simple to limit the amount you use, and avoid solvents for tasks where they aren’t really needed.

Rinsing Brushes

At the painting station, relatively little thinner is needed to rinse color from brushes. As a bonus, the same practices that make it possible to use less solvent while painting will also lengthen the life of brushes. To keep a small amount of solvent clean for a long time, scrupulously squeeze excess paint from the brush with a rag before dipping into the rinse. Use a Silicoil tank to gently clean brushes and keep sediment separate from your bristles.

Turpenoid Natural is an excellent brush rinse with no harmful fumes; its slow rate of evaporation means that it can be left uncovered with no worry, and it acts as a conditioner for brush hairs. Brushes should be wiped with the rag to remove excess Turpenoid Natural before resuming painting. Artist’s grade odorless mineral spirits can be used as a rinse, as well.

Pure gum spirits of turpentine should be avoided as a brush cleaner. Its high evaporation rate gives no benefit in this application, and its lower permissible exposure level compared to mineral spirits means it shouldn’t be left uncovered for as long as would be needed for brush rinsing.

Thinning Paint

As a solvent component for painting mediums, or as a thinner alone, artists’ grade odorless mineral spirits is an excellent choice. Its low evaporation rate keeps fumes down, and its relatively high flash point makes it a much lower fire risk in the studio.

During Painting

The technique responsible for creating highest concentrations of fumes is the application of a solvent wash underpainting or imprimatura in the first session of a painting. Finding alternatives to this technique will dramatically cut exposure to vapors. Try diluting paint less, and instead rely on mechanical force to spread paint. Use stiff bright brushes to apply a thin all-over coating of the color of choice, and try wiping out the underpainting with clean cotton rags (not the same one used for wiping brushes). Over-dilution of oil paint with thinner scrubs away the vehicle that’s necessary to bind pigment to your canvas, so correcting this practice will also enhance the longevity of your art.

Gum spirits of turpentine produces a large volume of vapors and can produce allergic sensitivity, so it’s a good idea to save it for what it does best- making and diluting varnish. Using turpentine to rinse brushes and thin colors would be kind of like using drain cleaner to wash your windows- it might get them clean, but the special handling necessary just isn’t worth the effort.

Use Genuine Artist’s Grade Materials and Supplies

In a college art studio, you can find almost anything being used to make art: house paint, drywall compound, caulking, wallpaper paste, and any number of salvaged scraps of unknown origin. In the spirit of experimentation, when you don’t expect to keep the finished piece, don’t care if it doesn’t last, and would never charge money for it, anything goes. However, many artists would never give up the benefits and assurances behind genuine artists’ grade supplies. Generally, real art materials cost less than substitutes, perform infinitely better and carry a wealth of information to help use them safely and effectively. Any artist who has had to work next to someone with a smelly, generic can of “paint thinner” as their sole medium and rinse knows why it’s a good idea not to substitute.

Schools and art organizations concerned with providing a healthy work environment should consider recommending specific, trusted brands of supplies, or providing a choice brand of thinner as part of a lab fee. A work-study or volunteer can act as “lab tech” for the day, distributing measured amounts of solvents at the start of class, and monitoring disposal afterward, along with checking that everyone adheres to the prescribed supply list.

Store Materials Safely

Containers should be closed when not in use, and excess material should be cleaned off the outside of containers. This commonsense step prevents getting paint and mediums on skin and clothes and preserves unused supplies. Keeping threads on the tops of tubes free from excess paint makes lids fit better and prevents leaks and spills.

Store art supplies in the correct temperature range according to package guidelines. Keep solvents away from open flames.

Dispose of Waste Correctly

At the end of a painting session, exhausted thinner should never be poured down a drain; this is an explosion hazard, and is harmful to the environment. It’s unnecessary to discard solvents after a single use. Keep a large glass or clear, solvent-proof plastic jar for dumping used mineral spirits. When sediments settle out, the clear liquid can be poured off for re-use. When a large plug of sediment forms, find out the collection schedule in your area for drop-off of hazardous waste, and allow for proper disposal. (The same rule applies to aerosol cans.)

Oily rags can build up sufficient heat through oxidation to combust. This applies to any oil, even cooking oil. A foot-pedal can with lid should be used to store used rags for disposal. Water should be present in the can to saturate rags. Empty trash every day.

Invest in Protective Equipment

Depending on the scale of activities in the studio and the nature of materials used, special equipment may be necessary to handle certain tasks safely. For handling dry pigments, plaster, stone and any other particulates, dust filter masks are advisable; a powerful fan blowing away dust is useful when working outdoors.

Rubber gloves should be kept in the studio for handling substances that should not come in contact with skin. Although some artists wear gloves while painting, others opt for barrier cream, which is a waxy lotion that blocks absorption through skin.

Goggles are essential eye protection when using tools of all kinds, including hammers, staple guns, framing joiners and fitting tools.

Tips for Healthy Oil Painting

Find the right campus or online art or design program for you!