Dear EarthTalk: At a meeting of a local art association, an artist who paints in acrylics said that doing so is more eco-friendly than painting in oils. I somehow doubt it. Aren’t acrylics petroleum based? And aren’t some oil paints made from natural materials?
— Linda Reddington, via e-mail
Of course, there are no easy answers. There are environmental and health issues with both oil and acrylic art paints. The big downside of oil paints is the paint thinner required to clean them up. While some of the pigments in oil paint might be toxic or poisonous depending on color — reds, yellows, some blues and many whites are produced using potentially toxic heavy metals — the paint itself is typically made of food-grade linseed oil, which could hardly be more harmless to the environment (where it came from, after all). But oil paint is notoriously hard to clean up; getting those brushes, palettes and work areas clean requires the use of paint thinners, such as turpentine or mineral spirits, that are not only potentially toxic if used improperly but give off noxious odors and are highly flammable.
As for acrylic paints, they are water-based so clean-up is a breeze: Just wash it down the drain with some warm water, no paint thinner required. But acrylic paint is a petroleum-derived polymer, i.e. plastic. While cleaning it up might be easier than cleaning up oil paints, do we really want to be rinsing plastic down our drains? How good could this be for surrounding ecosystems? The other negative, of course, is that just buying them contributes to our reliance on petroleum.
So what’s a green painter to do? One option is to go for so-called water mixable oil paints that, according to manufacturers like Grumbacher, appear and behave in the same manner as traditional oil paints in every aspect except when it comes to clean-up — like acrylics, they thin and clean up with water instead of noxious chemicals. Water mixable oils are ideal for those sensitive to chemical fumes. Art supply chain Utrecht sells a wide variety of water mixable oil paints online and at its retail locations across the U.S.
If you must use traditional oil paints — many professional artists just prefer them for their thickness, color brilliance and other qualities — you can go with a brand that pays attention to the environmental impact of its products and operations. Oregon-based Gamblin Artists Colors Company uses only high-quality raw materials in its paints, avoiding preservatives that degrade the quality and release chemicals. Gamsol, the company’s paint thinner, uses mineral spirits that evaporate much more slowly than turpentine, which has a reputation for irritating breathing passages and inducing nausea. Every spring the company cleans its machinery, and instead of throwing the filter dust out, it recycles it and gives away tubes of the resulting gray paint free to artists through retail locations, and hosts a contest for art created with the unique color.
Another way to go would be truly all-natural. Berkeley, California-based GLOB crafts its paints from food-grade botanical extracts, so it’s even safe for kids aged three and older. Colored by real fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices, GLOB paints are all-natural, non-toxic, and free of chemicals, parabens, petroleum and synthetic preservatives. The palette is limited to just six colors, but creative artists should be able to mix to their heart’s content. The paints can be mail ordered, and they come in a dry powdered format, which saves weight, money and energy when shipped — users add water and start painting.
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