By Eileen Hutton
In recent times, there has been a development in understanding the ways in which human beings impact the environment and the earth. Notably, this increased awareness is reflected in contemporary artistic practices conceptually as well materially; meaning that the ecological notion extends beyond what is represented into how it is represented.
More specifically, there are ethical environmental implications associated with the creation of art and as contemporary artists we must be aware of the impact our art and arts practices have on our surrounding environments, including ourselves.
When calling to mind an artistic practice that is largely or wholly non-toxic, one often thinks of environmental artists and namely of artworks that involve land reclamation, water remediation or are otherwise ecologically/environmentally beneficial. However, in a discipline long dominated by brilliant but toxic cadmium yellows and oranges, chrome reds and lead whites, many painters are seeking alternative solutions, with the idea that what is healthy and sustainable for themselves will, for the most part, be healthy and sustainable for the environment.
For painters who do not practice safe studio habits or who have a high sensitivity to toxic substances, the types of materials used can mean the difference between health and low level cumulative poisoning. Making safe studio choices however is not always instinctual or obvious – such as wearing gloves while painting, avoiding toxic solvents, or using water-based mediums. For example, some artists may make the dangerous assumption that earth-colored oil paints are safer to use than say Zinc White or Naples Yellow. Unfortunately, “umber for instance, whether burnt or raw, always contains manganese, up to 25 percent” and manganese, the element that gives umbers their rich dark brown color, has long been considered toxic. However one company, Golden Artists Colors, since the mid 1990’s has been developing a line of organic pigments they claim are in many ways similar to cadmium colors – though not identical. They state the biggest variation is how the colors mix to create new colors. “Organics typically produce cleaner, less muddy mixtures. Other colors, such as the iron oxides, can be added if muddier colors are needed.” Is this solution perfect? No, but it is a significant advance in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the first step in reducing toxicity levels in your practice is to know the relative hazards of your materials and to then act accordingly. A list of resources is supplied below.
Paradigm shifts, especially in a discipline grounded in historical precedents, tend toward the difficult if not impossible. What are the tradeoffs when using less toxic, non-toxic or water-based materials – diminished hue or color position, diluted color saturation, decreased tinting strength? What are the benefits – reduced toxicity, minimal environmental impact, a clearer conscience? It is one thing to advocate responsibility and stewardship for ourselves and surrounding environment, it is another thing altogether to implement this ideology into a daily practice.
Encouragingly, one such American painter has done so. Kari Van Tine has, for a number of years, painted with non-toxic pigments made from materials such as tea, dirt, berries, green algae, and juice. In Van Tine’s paintings, the viewer encounters luscious purples, translucent grays, warm earth tones as well as a variety of deeply satisfying pigments that balance organic forms with delicate, intricate textures. No cadmium or manganese to be missed here, her paintings reveal a practiced eye and hand. Just as intriguing is her methodology, in part because she creates her own organic pigments but also because of the ways in which she acquires raw materials. She states, “I now collect dirt from anywhere I go, especially places with interesting soil colors like the red dirt of Hawaii or the yellow of Western Pennsylvania. I have also found beautiful colors from the mud flats in Maine and have friends from around the world that send me handfuls of dirt from their travels.” Her process adds a depth, complexity and alluring subtly to her paintings and ultimately exemplifies the ways in which a contemporary painter can develop a holistic practice.
It is said that when addressing global concerns one acts locally in order to create sustainable impact. In today’s environmental crisis, the actions that begin with a notion of care in our studio practices – whether for ourselves or our surrounding environment – are the ones that will have sustainable impact. Ideally, it is as contemporary artists that these ecological notions of care are not mutually exclusive.
List of Resources
The following are informative resources, including material safety handbooks for artists as well as a link on how to make your own non-toxic paints without synthetic dyes or pigments and basic recipes for juice dyes.
- http://www.greenamerica.org – Are art supplies Toxic? A guide to making your own materials
- http://www.paintmaking.com – Making Artist’s Paint An Easy To Follow Guide
- Golden Artist Colors — www.goldenpaints.com – Organic pigments
- http://environmentaldefence.ca – The Healthy Artist Guide to a Less Toxic Studio
- Creative Materials institute: http://www.acminet.org – Provides the public with art and creative materials for children and artists that are non-toxic.
- ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials by Steven Saitzyk.
- The Artistʼs Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer.
- The Artistʼs Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol.
- Artist Beware by Michael McCann.
- Colors from the Earth, the Artistʼs Guide to Collecting, Preparing, and Using Them by Anne Wall Thomas.
Paintings by Kari Van Tine
- Cantadora – the Storyteller. Dirt, tea, ink, acrylic and tape. 18 cm x 31 cm. 2009
- Smoke Orchid. Smoke, wax, graphite. 15 cm x 18 cm. 2010
- Cave Light. Dirt, tea, ink, watercolor and acrylic. 15 cm x 13 cm. 2009
- Aura Body. Berries, juice, charcoal, ink, watercolour and gesso.
13 cm x 18 cm. 2011
All images reproduced with kind permission by the painter.
 From: Safety is Your Responsibility. Make it Your Priority. An easy guide to making artist’s paints for students and professional artists.
Eileen Hutton has a PhD in Studio Art specializing in art and ecology.