April 22, 2016

Ways To Be A More Eco-Friendly Artist

Happy Earth Day! Let's talk about being eco-friendly as artists today. 
I used to believe that my efforts to be environmentally friendly in my art practice were not worth noting in a public setting and that these were ideals that belonged in my personal sphere. Now I know that my need to be kind to the environment goes hand-in-hand with my artwork, which is all about life. Hopefully by sharing some of the ways I try to reduce my impact as an artist; I may help to spread those ideas, save you some money, and a bonus -- keep toxic materials from entering your bloodstream!
Besides, someday sooner rather than later, artists will be forced to use kinder materials and run eco-friendly studios--so why not start that change now?

Ways to be a more eco-friendly artist: 

1. Lighting 


Change your lighting. If possible, move your workspace in front of a window to take advantage of natural light. If that's not possible as it is with my case, change out your studio lighting to CFL (compact flourescent lamps),  LED (light emitting diodes), or halogen bulbs. These are all energy efficient. I have a CFL bulb in my desk lamp, which costs a little more than an incandescent light but lasts significantly longer. They save you money in the long run. Check out this article by the simple dollar if you are interested in seeing the facts and numbers on how that may happen.


2. Materials


Look for art supplies in thrift stores or re-use-it stores.

Most major paper brands produce post consumer recycled papers. Look for that info in the fine print on the front of sketchpads and paper pads. Also search for non toxic alternatives to mediums and sprays.

Avoid toxic ingredients!!

Highly Toxic Ingredients:

  • antimony white (antimony trioxide)
  • barium yellow (barium chromate)
  • burnt or raw umber (iron oxides, manganese silicates or dioxide)
  • cadmium red, orange or yellow (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide)
  • chrome green (Prussian blue, lead chromate)
  • chrome orange (lead carbonate)
  • chrome yellow (lead chromate)
  • cobalt violet (cobalt arsenate or cobalt phosphate)
  • cobalt yellow (potassium cobalt nitrate)
  • lead or flake white (lead carbonate)
  • lithol red (sodium, barium and calcium salts of azo pigments)
  • manganese violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)
  • molybdate orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate, lead sulfate)
  • naples yellow (lead antimonate)
  • strontium yellow (strontium chromate)
  • vermilion (mercuric sulfide)
  • zinc sulfide
  • zinc yellow (zinc chromate)

 Moderately toxic ingredients:

  • alizarin crimson
  • carbon black
  • cerulean blue (cobalt stannate)
  • cobalt blue (cobalt stannate)
  • cobalt green (calcined cobalt, zinc and aluminum oxides)
  • chromium oxide green (chromic oxide)
  • Phthalo blue and greens (copper phthalocyanine)
  • manganese blue (barium manganate, barium sulfate)
  • Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide)
  • toluidine red and yellow (insoluble azo pigment)
  • viridian (hydrated chromic oxide)
  • zinc white (zinc oxide)

I pulled this list from Caroline Roberts' website. She is an artist and also has experience in the chemical industry. Last year I worked on creating a whole new MSDS labeling system for the Syracuse Ceramics Department, and I can tell you that this list of ingredients is indeed accurate and many of these ingredients will make you sick. Not only do ceramicists use these materials daily often without even using gloves or a mask, but anyone who buys acrylic paint, oil paint, and other dry materials are exposing themselves to dangerous ingredients.
If you have to use these materials then wear gloves while using them, wear a respirator if using dry/dusty materials, do not eat or drink in your studio, and dispose of them properly (I have some tips on this later). Artists often joke about dipping their paint brushes into their coffee cups accidentally... but this is really not something to be smiling about.

Be open to hand-me-down materials. Let the people around you know that you are always on the hunt for more materials. I am surrounded by crafters who often have leftover supplies. When they clean out their craft closets, they know they can dump their extras with me. I also am gifted hand-me-down materials and paints from my peers who I went to college with who no longer use their paints or paper from Painting I class.

Check the "oops" paint section at hardware stores. Sometimes people realize that the dark purple paint they bought to paint on their living room walls is actually a terrible color for a living room, so they return the opened can to the store. The store then sells it for a fraction of the price to you who will be able to give that gallon of paint some purpose.

Make your own materials. Making your own materials will not be the most archival option. If that is important to you, then buy non toxic and post consumer recycled options. If you do want to test out some recipes; here are a few recipes I've collected, used, and created over the years:

Sawdust Clay:
2 cups sawdust
1 cup liquid starch
1 cup flour

Papier-Mache Paste:
1 cup flour
5 cups boiling water

Wallpaper Paste:
4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 gallon warm water
1 quart cold water

Homemade Paste:
1 cup water
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

Homemade Glue:
3/4 cup water
2 tbsp corn syrup
1 tbsp white vinegar
2 tbsp cornstarch
3/4 cup water

Egg Tempera Paint instructions:
dry pigment (non toxic)
egg yolks

Nontoxic Printmaking Ink instructions:
dry pigment (non toxic)
rice paste
magnesium carbonate
gin (!!)

Purchase eco-friendly supplies. I am extremely dubious of this strategy. Honestly, I have not purchased many eco-friendly materials. Just because a label says "eco-friendly", does not mean that it is indeed 100% kind to the environment. Before investing in one of these products, do your research. Call the company and ask questions about where the materials come from, if there are any certifications associated with this product that prove it is sustainable, whether it is biodegradable or easy to break down after use (if yes, is this product acid-free so my artwork won't yellow?), does the product come to the store or the customer's house packaged in plastic or any other harmful material, and overall what makes this product "eco-friendly". If you have tried eco-friendly materials and could give me some insight into your findings, please let me know. I would love to know more.

3. Waste water


Golden Paints has been my resource for learning more about how to treat my waste water. In a nutshell, I no longer pour paint water down the drain because it is really terrible for our ground water. I save yogurt containers and small jars for my dirty rinse water. Once the water gets too dirty to use, I let the water evaporate out of the container and the paint to dry in the bottom. Solid paint waste is a much more friendly thing to dispose of than wet paint.
Though I haven't gotten to this point in my studio, Golden also has a great page on exactly how a painter should process their rinse water instead of throwing it down the sink. This process requires paper coffee filters, a plastic funnel, two plastic pails, a stirring paddle, aluminum sulfate, hydrated lime, measuring spoons, and pH paper.

4. Recycle


Be aware of what items can be recycled in your area. Putting everything that might be recyclable into the recycling system can actually really hurt the process and is a huge waste of energy.

Save bad paintings and gesso over them to reuse them. Collect junk mail and cut it up to create paper collages when you're feeling stuck. Save your swatch paper to send thank you notes out to people who buy your work or attend your exhibitions. Personally, I save every scrap of paper I would otherwise throw out, break it all down into paper pulp, add a colorant, and use it as a sculptural material that acts a lot like clay.

Donate your leftover materials to someone else who can use them or to that re-use-it store I told you to find materials at in the first place.

Fix tools which have broken instead of going out to buy new ones.



There are a lot of other ways that you can reduce your impact on the environment as an artist. If you have any suggestions, ideas, or questions for me please feel free to comment here or email them to me.
I'm always looking for more information on this subject. Happy making!


  1. Thank you! This is great information!!

  2. Do you know if there are any artists in the Sacramento Ca area that share/are will to accept leftover materials for their projects?
    Thanks for your article and concern for the environment...not enough artists take this seriously!

    1. I am not familiar with artists from that area. Consider calling some local galleries to see if they will put you in touch with artists who may be interested! Thanks!