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12 Practices for Artists to "Go Green"

By Diana Moses Botkin

It is human nature to want to leave a legacy. But passing on a legacy of beautiful art shouldn't also mean leaving behind a toxic mess in our environment.

Can artists avoid contributing to pollution and "go green"? What does this mean? It doesn't imply that artists have to 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 don't have as much impact on the environment as the commercial paint coatings industry and those who apply the products (contractors, house painters, etc.), we do need to be careful not to pollute.

Here in this article are ideas directed to oil painters in my first few points. The other tips are useful for all artists to help save energy and avoid pollution.

Perhaps you already practice these and other conservation habits. If you don't, here are a dozen ways to help you "go greener".

1. Clean up Wisely, Reuse Solvents

Painters who directly remove paint from brushes with soap under the faucet will wind up putting pigment down the drain. This affects the environment, and should be avoided.

Oil painters clean most of the pigment in their brushes when they rinse them in solvent. A brief soap and water final wash for brushes then removes solvent and minor residual paint. Very little pigment is washed down the drain with this brush cleaning method.

Solvents can easily be reused. In the studio, employ two clean labeled containers with lids. You can use glass, an inert material. However, glass can break. If you are concerned about this potential, glass jars can be set inside metal containers with a lid which should also be labeled.

The recycling system works like this. Dirty solvent is put into one of the jars and left to stand. The next day, the pigment in the solvent will have settled to the bottom of the jar. The clean solvent can then be poured into the second jar and reused.

After that, the pigment sludge at the bottom of the jar should be poured into a separate lidded container.

If you're painting outdoors, avoid dumping used paint thinner on the ground.

Watercolorists and acrylic painters can employ a brush washing system with water, similar to the suggested solvent recycling system in this point.

2. Dispose of Toxic Materials Properly

Next you must decide what to do with that pigment sludge you've collected. If you use colours containing lead, heavy metals, and other poisons, the sludge is hazardous waste. This must be disposed of at a hazardous waste facility and not put in household trash or burned. You can contact your local recycling facility for hazardous materials requirements.

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

Pigments not made with heavy metals or other toxins do not pose an environmental hazard and can be dealt with as household trash.

3. Limit Waste of Paint

To avoid wasted paint, squeeze out only what you need on your palette. You can always get more from the tube. Some artists use a covered palette system to store unused paint between painting sessions. Putting the whole thing in the refrigerator or freezer between painting sessions slows down the drying process and is useful to extend the life of paint.

If you're an artist who uses big piles of paint, saving the remaining pigment on your palette in the freezer for the next painting is a good option. Leftovers can also be used as a toned painting ground and applied to panting supports, or used as greys for the next painting.

Have you ever lost a lid from a tube while painting outdoors? Save the caps from used up tubes of paint and keep a few in your paint box for emergencies like this.

For stuck lids on paint tubes, try immersing them in hot water to loosen. It’s a good idea to clean up paint tubes after working to avoid dried paint gluing lids on. After pigment is cleaned off the insides of lids and screw threads, add a little smear of petroleum jelly around the screw threads. This will make future cleaning and lid removal much easier.

4. Choose "Green" Supply Companies and Safer Materials

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 colours.

Acrylic paints are not necessarily safer to use than oil colours. Acrylics can contain ammonia and formaldehyde and the specific pigments can be just as toxic as those used in oils.

Although there are desirable working properties and characteristics associated with toxic pigments such as cadmium, lead, cobalt and others, some artists avoid them. Instead, they substitute non-toxic colours. Art supplies sold in the USA must be properly labeled for health hazards. Look for these words on the label: Health Label conforms to ASTM D-4236. If the material poses dangers, they will be disclosed.

Also look for labels from the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI). Art materials analyzed by ACMI will bear the organization's seal. To find which products which are nontoxic get those with the AP (approved product) label. On older materials there may be a CP (certified product) or "nontoxic" HL (health label) seal rather than the AP label.

Be aware that the AP and CP labels don't mean that a product is entirely free of toxins. Instead, it means that the material contains no toxins "in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans."

5. Reuse Supports and Other Materials

Painting over failed works is one way to recycle canvases and panels and avoid 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.

Even items like paper towels, napkins and tissues can be reused in the studio. A paper towel that has been used for drying hands can be left to dry, then reused for such tasks as wiping charcoal off paper or paint off brushes.

Pastel dust can be collected and recycled. If you add a little water to collected dust, it can be rolled into sticks again. Some nice greys are often the result of blended pigments.

Even x-acto blades can be reused. Instead of tossing a dulled blade, prolong its life by sharpening it on a whetstone.

Household and studio metal waste, such as aluminum foil and packaging, copper or brass fasteners, etc., can be reborn as jewelry, cast sculptures or functional art such as towel hooks and cabinet pulls.

Likewise, you might find local artists who would love to have these materials if you are not going to use them yourself. Glass is also a material that has many possibilities as artistic recycled projects.

Speaking of re-use: consider rechargeable batteries for studio and household use. They offer a greener alternative to disposable batteries by eliminating manufacture, transport, packaging, and the pollution effect of disposables.

Cast off furniture and clothing offers abundant opportunity to reuse. In times past, our grandmothers made floor rugs from worn blankets and clothing, or quilts from scrap fabric. Used clothing can be reborn into supply bags and a variety of other creative projects. Although the rag man is a character of the past, there are abundant uses for our modern "rags", from turning them into padding when mailing art to using them for clean-up instead of paper.

6. Cut Down on Paper, Recycle It

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

Recycling used paper is nothing new, and most communities have centers to accommodate this and other recyclable materials.

7. Reuse Packing Materials

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

8. Limit Energy and Water Consumption in the Studio

Using energy efficient lighting and climate control can make a difference in your energy bills and also your effect on the environment.

Like your mother told you, wear a sweater in the winter and dress lightly in the summer, and turn off lights when they're not in use. 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 use power.

Being careful with water consumption benefits the environment, whether you are washing brushes or dishes. One of the simplest ways to cut down use is to turn off the faucet. Maybe you think that water going down the drain while you soap up your brushes doesn't matter much, but it adds up.

9. When Building or Remodeling Studio Space, "Go Green"

Numerous good 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 going to the landfills. Check with contractors in your area who are renovating to see what might be free for the hauling. Some communities have centers where these materials are available. Other sources for finding used materials are in the sidebar which help match demand with supply.

You might also want to consider alternative energy sources for greener power for your studio, including solar, wind or hydro. Plan energy conserving options for equipment too, such as a heat pump for temperature control and low energy computer system.

10. Repair and Recycle

Sometimes equipment, furniture, appliances, or a business vehicle wears out or breaks. If an item can be fixed or updated, this is usually the greener choice. Exceptions might be replacing a car or appliance with one that is more energy efficient.

When it's time to get rid of electronics, furniture, and other business items, donate them to charities where someone else can use or repair them. Or make use of sources like Freecycle, Habitat for Humanity ReStores, and Craigslist.

11. 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, it makes sense to order supplies from the internet, or from catalogs. Shipping costs, often less than mileage, and sometimes free for large orders, can also help your bottom line.

Additionally other business chores can be done online rather than in the car, including some banking chores and public relations. Sending photos and news releases online is easier and usually preferable for publications rather than hand delivering typed pages to editors.

Shipping paintings to galleries instead of personally delivering them can also be a greener choice.

When possible, walk, or ride a bike. Choose a vehicle that works for your art needs, but also one which gets good mileage.

12. Reduce Mailings and Shipping Services

If those repeat ad mailings or multiple catalogs added to mail orders just go in the trash, phone the company to request that they quit sending them. Suggest that they include a box on their online form and mail orders which allows customers to opt out of printed ad materials sent with orders.

Additionally, you can also contact catalog companies and ask to be removed from their lists if you are getting unwanted promotionals. Printed advertising materials use resources. When those unsolicited mailings are not directed to interested consumers, it is wasteful.

To your own customers offer incentives to bundle orders. For online sales, encourage buyers to combine items. Ask if they want an additional piece so you can mail them together. You can offer customers another similar product like their purchase, often at a discount, with no additional shipping charges. This is not only a better environmental option for seller and buyer, it is good business.

©2013 Diana Moses Botkin
Used by permission of the author.

Diana Moses Botkin is a wife, mother and grandmother, and award-winning artist who enjoys painting a variety of subjects from figurative to landscapes.

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