The making of art is a combination of high adventure and hard work. Mostly it's hard work. We explore our world both mentally and physically. We push boundaries, continually seeking new ways to share our epiphanies about the world around and within us. One of the ways we push these boundaries is by experimenting with materials and techniques on a regular basis. This brings me to my point: artists work with a wide variety of materials. Many of them are toxic, or can become toxic, if used with sufficient abandon. We should abandon ourselves to our art. What we should not abandon are good health practices.
1. DRINK UP! Water is your body’s first line of defense. Sip it throughout the day. Water is the universal solvent, and not only for your paints. It is the medium by which your liver and kidneys remove toxins, including some heavy metals, from your body. Drinking 4 to 10 swallows at a time allows your intestines to absorb the water as needed. To get the maximum benefit, sip your water, don't chug. 2. EAT UP! Eat a high fiber diet. A bio-chemist friend tells me that every system of the body works better if there is plenty of fiber in the diet. Fiber works both as a sponge and a scouring pad. It absorbs the toxins dissolved by all the water you’ve been drinking and carries them out into the stool. Because who wants to be constipated, creatively or otherwise? 3. LOTION UP! Dry skin absorbs a little of everything it comes in contact with. If you’re an artist, that can include some pretty toxic substances. Dry skin is also more likely to crack, abrade, and even tear. Skin that is well hydrated from the inside and well moisturized from the outside is a supple barrier. Waterproof sunscreen is a particularly effective choice. Acrylic paint washes right off it – and you won’t get a sunburn. 4. COVER UP! You only get one skin. Seasoned professionals know the value of long sleeves, long pants, gloves, and sturdy shoes. If toxins can’t get to you, they can’t make you sick. Save the exposed skin for the art opening. *Heather, a muralist, was working on a massive, building-sized mural in oils. The project took about two weeks. She used a paint additive to increase the penetration and adhesion of the paint. One of the main colors was cobalt blue. It was a hot summer, so she was working in shorts and a tank top. She went home every day covered in blue paint. Cobalt is a heavy metal. Near the end of the project, her arms went numb. She ended up with a lasting ringing in her ears from cobalt poisoning, exacerbated by the paint additive, which helped it soak into her skin. Cobalt poisoning can also affect the muscle of the heart, making it flabby and inefficient. 5. MASK UP! Masks address two different problems: – Particles (pastels, charcoal, sanding, grinding, etc.), for which you wear a dust mask. Particles can collect in your lungs, combining with moisture there to make concrete-like substances that can impede breathing and are difficult for the body to get rid of. If you blow your nose and end up with a tissue full of charcoal dust, you need to put on a dust mask. * I worked on a job at which people were cutting marble tile in the next room. Then I did a big job in a warehouse that was full of loose plaster dust, where they used spray adhesive on another project. No one wore respirators or dust masks “because they made it hard to communicate.” Two months later, I had to be put on an inhaler. My lung capacity had been reduced by 25%. The marble dust, plaster, and glue in the air had accumulated in my lungs. My condition resolved itself in a few months. I count myself lucky. - Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which require a respirator. VOCs include spray paint, thinners, petroleum products, and acetone. Any time you atomize paint and spray it into the air, it can coat the inside of your lungs. These insidious compounds are small enough to be absorbed straight into the bloodstream through the lungs, mucus membranes, and even the eyes and skin. They can have a wide range of unpleasant effects on your body, from nausea and numbness to confusion and coma. VOCs can accumulate in the body over time, so the effects don't necessarily manifest immediately. 6. WASH UP! Oil and water do mix, and the resulting product is called an emulsion. An emulsion made from vegetable oil and soapy water is particularly effective against many kinds of paint and art grime. It can also be improvised from many basic materials available in nearly any kitchen or bathroom. Rub a generous amount of oil or lotion into your skin. This will dissolve any oily substances and loosen and break up many kinds of paint or ink. Add a generous dollop of liquid soap (or solid soap with a little water) on top of the oil. Work the soap into the oil. A whitish emulsion will form. Rinse well. Your skin will emerge smooth, clean, and ready for the next go-round. Any remaining bits of stubborn grime can usually be removed with a little bit of acetone. Always follow acetone with a soap and water wash and some moisturizer, as it is extremely drying to the skin. 7. READ UP! Be an expert. Solvents and pigments are toxic in specific ways and under particular circumstances. If you know your materials inside and out, you won’t be surprised by unexpected results. Take advantage of artists’ encyclopedias and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS, available on line and required by law). Learn what is and isn’t safe. Don’t rely on hearsay: be the one who knows.
Here are two sources that I rely on often: The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques: Fifth Edition, Revised and Updated, by Ralph Mayer, and Health & Safety - Product Info - BLICK art materials.
8. SHOW UP! None of these things needs to happen to you with a few simple precautions. You have the information you need. Pay attention to what is happening around you, and act accordingly. Now that you know how to protect yourself, dive in, make art, and share what you’ve got. Shared ideas from creative minds are what changes the world. Be the change.