One of the first things my oil painting professor told my class is “you probably want to wear gloves when you are painting”. Oil paint is surprisingly toxic, particularly the cadmium pigments. Cadmium is an inorganic colouring agent (it makes bright yellows and reds etc.) often used in plastics. If you’re interested in learning a bit about paint and using it, keep reading. Like anything you buy, it’s important to be aware of what you are buying and how to use it safely.
While lead is no longer used in oil paint, there are still other heavy metals used, including cadmium. So yes, if you are ever feeling creative, I recommend you wear protective gloves. The toxins in oil paint can absorb through your skin and accumulate over time. Wearing gloves is an easy fix. It may seem excessive to put on a pair of gloves every time you handle paint, but to me it's no different than being careful about what you eat. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to limit the amount of toxins I expose to my body. Sadly though to protect myself, I bought a big box of disposable nitrile gloves. I do try to use the same pair for as long as I can, but I am still contributing easily avoidable waste to the landfills. As I said in the intro, I still have a long ways to go.
Along with gloves, proper ventilation should be used in painting studios. Ventilation is particularly important if you are working with solvents. I haven’t personally worked with solvents but for a basic explanation, solvents are solutions that can be mixed with your oil paint to change how it dries and how the oil paint works. The U of A lower level painting studio doesn’t allow the use of solvents because it doesn’t have proper ventilation (fun fact- the studio is underneath HUB mall and often smells like ketchup.) Most common solvents release harmful vapours into the air and are often flammable, which is why ventilation is important. But in the end, even with proper ventilation the vapours are still ending up in air. For some reason, it’s acceptable to use polluting products if they are polluting a large enough space and diluted...So maybe just don’t use solvents?
So gloves and ventilation are important for when you are working with oils, but what about buying them in the first place? As an art student it can be hard to be choosy, paint is expensive! Some pigments can be about $20 for a tiny tube. But read up on what you are buying. Golden is a good quality paint brand, and what I bought for this year. Only recently did I read their environmental statement. I was impressed at their transparency, and the amount of information they provided. They provide information on how to properly dispose of and recycle their products, and “tips to reduce waste”. However, I was semi-surprised to learn not all pigments are vegan! Pigments containing bone black are made from carbonized cattle bones. Additionally, while the paints themselves aren't tested on animals, many of the raw materials have been. Golden admits this is unfortunate and states that there is work towards a shared database to eliminate the need for repeated testing. So overall I was impressed and disappointed that I hadn’t looked into this sooner. I hadn’t really questioned paint before, and I’m glad I know more now. I plan to look into how to mix my own paints, but that’s a whole other story I won’t get into now.
It is interesting though, painting is never something I considered to be harmful to the environment or the painter, and it's not done at a large enough scale to be noticeably harmful. I’m not suggesting you stop painting, just that you take the measures to protect yourself and be informed!