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12 Ways Artists Can "Go Greener"

By Diana Moses Botkin

It’s human nature to want to leave a legacy, and many artists feel this strongly. But passing on a legacy of beautiful art needn’t also mean leaving behind a toxic mess that hurts our environment.

Can artists avoid contributing to pollution by “going greener”? What does this mean? It doesn’t imply that artists must abandon archival materials and practices. But it does promote the idea that we must be careful with the art materials we use and the way we operate our studios.

If I were a sculptor working primarily in clay or wood, or an artist using only found materials, my negative influence on the environment would be minimal. However, my primary medium is oil paint. While fine art painters certainly aren't going to have as much impact on the environment as the commercial paint coatings industry or those who apply the products (contractors or house painters, for instance), we still need to be careful not to pollute.

In this article, I’ll be sharing ideas specifically directed to oil painters (Points 1–6). The remaining six tips are useful for all artists interested in helping save energy and lessening pollution.

Perhaps you already practice these and other conservation habits, but if you don’t, here are 12 ideas to help you “go greener.”


1. Re-use Solvents


Oil painters who clean their paint brushes with solvents can easily recycle them. In the studio, two clean glass containers with lids can be used for recycling. (Label the jars “OMS.”)

Glass is inert, which means solvents won’t leak out of it or interact with it. However, glass is capable of breaking. If you are concerned about breakage (especially if your studio has concrete or other hard flooring), the glass jars can be set inside metal containers. Again, the lids should be labeled clearly.

The recycling system works like this: Dirty solvent is put into one of the jars and left to stand overnight. By the following day, the pigment in the solvent will have settled to the bottom of the jar. Pour the recycled solvent into the second jar for reusing. The pigment sludge at the bottom of the jar can then be poured into a separate container and disposed of.


2. Dispose of Toxic Pigments Properly


Next, you must decide what to do with pigment sludge. If you use colors containing lead, arsenic, or other heavy metals, the sludge that results is considered hazardous waste. This must be disposed of at a hazardous waste facility, not discarded with household trash or burned. Contact your local recycling facility for guidelines regarding disposal of hazardous materials.

Pigment on painting rags from palette cleanings and in empty paint tubes must also be disposed of properly. Some artists mistakenly believe that once paint has dried, it poses no threat to the environment. This is a false assumption. The dry paint film is not inert and will affect the environment if it is burned, or dumped in a landfill or sewer. Microorganisms in the soil will eventually break down the dried pigments, which can then become part of the food chain.

Pigments not made with heavy metals or arsenic do not pose an environmental hazard and can be disposed of as household trash.



3. Avoid Washing Pigment Down the Drain When Cleaning Up


Oil painters remove most of the pigment from their brushes by rinsing them in solvent. A brief soap-and-water final wash for brushes then removes the solvent and residual paint. Very little pigment is washed down the drain when this brush-cleaning method is used. However, painters who directly remove paint from brushes with soap under the faucet will be rinsing pigments down the drain. This method affects the environment and should be avoided.

Likewise, acrylic painters and watercolorists wanting to go green should use only non-toxic colors that contain no pigments containing heavy metals or arsenic. Acrylic painters can also employ a water brush-washing system similar to the solvent recycling system in Point No. 1.



4. Limit Paint Waste


One way to limit the amount of paint that needs to be disposed of is to squeeze out only small amounts onto your palette. You can always squeeze more from the tube, but you can’t put it back in the tube at the end of a painting session. Some artists use a covered palette system to keep unused paint fresh between painting sessions. Placing this palette in the refrigerator will slow down the drying process even more, and further extend the life of your squeezed-out paint.

Leftover pigment can also be used as a painting ground and applied to painting supports. Paint that has slow-drying properties is not the best choice for this, however.


5. Choose Art Supplies from Companies that Practice “Green” Methods


Art materials manufacturers are more concerned these days with protecting the environment. Some companies have been committed to environmentally protective practices from their beginnings. If you don’t know your favorite paint company’s “green” policies, inquire.

Additionally, buying ready-made paint is safer for artists and the environment than grinding your own colors.


6. Reuse Supports When Possible


Painting over earlier or failed works is one way to recycle canvases and panels, and eliminate the problem of what to do with the dried paint on the support. Certainly, sound painting practices should be considered when doing this. You will want to make sure the painting you are covering is not still in the drying stages.


7. Cut Down on Paper Use and Recycle Used Paper


Many businesses are beginning to do this, and artists should too. One simple way to do this is to save paper that has only been used on one side. Then, when you need to print something for a draft or file copy, it can be printed on the reverse side of the previously used paper.

Recycling used paper is nothing new, and most communities have programs or recycling centers for paper and other recyclable materials.


8. Reuse Packing Materials


This is a no-brainer and lots of businesses do it. The only downside about saving bubble wrap, Styrofoam™, and cardboard boxes is that the stuff takes up space in your studio. I keep a small supply of packing materials in my office area for quick packing when I sell one of my daily paintings. For larger sold works or for shipments to art shows, I trudge out to my garage to retrieve one of my reusable commercial packing crates or a sturdy flat box and bubble wrap I’ve saved from a frame order (or rescued from someone’s trash).


9. Limit Energy Consumption in the Studio


Using energy-efficient lighting and climate control can make a difference in your energy bills and lessen your impact on the environment. Like your mother told you, wear a sweater in the winter, dress lightly in the summer, and turn off the lights when you’re not using them. That goes for coffee makers and stereos too.

Additionally, computers and printers can be shut down at night and unplugged, thus saving power. Even in sleep mode, computers do use power.


10. When Building or Remodeling Studio Space, “Go Green”


Numerous options are available for “greener” construction now, including flooring, wall paint, and other materials. Additionally, recycling used building materials is a sensible way to save construction costs and prevent stuff from being dumped in a landfill. Check with contractors in your area who are renovating and reconstructing to see what might be free for the hauling. Some communities have centers where these materials are available as well.

You might also want to consider alternative energy sources for greener power for your studio, including solar, wind, or hydro power.


11. Repair and Recycle


Sometimes equipment, furniture, appliances, or a business vehicle wear out or break. The greener choice is to fix or update these items. Exceptions to this rule might be replacing a vehicle or appliance with one that is more energy-efficient.

When it’s time to get rid of electronics, furniture, and other business items, consider donating them to charities where someone else can use or repair them.


12. Reduce Gasoline Consumption


Cutting down on driving may be one of the best things we can all do for the environment. With more online shopping options than ever before, it makes sense to order supplies online or from catalogs. Shipping costs are often cheaper than gasoline costs, and sometimes they’re even waived for larger orders.

Try to do other business chores online rather than in person, including banking and public relations. Publications and editors usually prefer receiving photos and news releases online rather than in person. Shipping paintings to galleries rather than personally delivering them can also be a greener choice.

Finally, whenever possible, walk or ride a bicycle. If you must drive, choose a vehicle that works for your art needs, but also one that gets good mileage.




©2008 Diana Moses Botkin
Used by permission of the author.

Diana Moses Botkin is a wife, mother of five, and award-winning artist who enjoys painting a variety of subjects from figurative to landscapes. She lives and works in north Idaho. Diana can be contacted through her website:

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