Since learning new non-toxic printmaking practices, hanging out at The Drawing Studio print lab (mostly non-toxic), and helping out the students in the non-toxic intaglio printmaking classes, I have discovered many things about the safety of art materials! Most are not very safe at all, especially printmaking. Even "semi-non-toxic" isn't really ideal. I would add oil painting and ceramics to the list of next most toxic art making practices as well. I've been printing using the non-toxic methods since I took the workshops at Making Art Safely in Santa Fe and am doing pretty well with staying safe but I could do much better.
However, in the last 10 days, I decided to try a traditional printmaking process: using petroleum-based hard ground, a spray paint aquatint, and turpentine/spirits to make an image on a copper plate. The copper plate was very small and I used good ventilation. I sprayed the enamel outside with a mask. I wore gloves. I kept all containers closed and only poured a tiny amount of hard ground into a dish and kept that covered. Despite all of the precautions, I still noticed the effects of the solvents: sore throat and a cough that lasted for two days after I did the aquatint. The smell of the materials was nostalgic, the effects were a huge red flag.
So what did I learn in the last three print lab sessions? That this stuff is toxic and you shouldn't use it.
No more hard ground, no more spray paint, no more paint thinner. And certainly no oil-based printmaking inks, at least for me anyway. I truly love my Akua inks and they do work on copper really well.
I used denatured alcohol for years at a former job. We used it to clean everything. Gallons of it. I now hesitate to use it to wipe off the press bed, like I have been doing since I started working at the print lab. I will be switching to ethyl alcohol or even start bringing my own cheap vodka in a spray bottle. Solvents, even "no-odor solvents" like "odorless turpentine" have VOCs and are still toxic even if they don't have much odor. VOC=Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs are VERY BAD for you.
If you are an artist, take the time to read the Safe Painting Guide on this website. (Scroll down and make sure you check all of the links).
It's quite a bit of information but please persevere. Read it twice if you teach art and commit it to memory if you teach children. Read and find out more about safe solvents and safe materials. Here is a list of what I already do at the print lab and what every artist should consider if you are using oil-based paints, solvents, chemicals, glazes, and similar stuff to make your art. These are also the same rules I tell my students and practice in my own studio.
- Hands are clean, keep them clean! Clean hands mean clean paper, clean art, and a safer studio.
- Use a barrier cream, such as Gloves in a Bottle, under your gloves.
- Wear non-latex gloves unless handling paper.
- Absolutely no food or open beverage containers in studio work areas. Eat in the kitchen or dining area.
- Use unscented Baby Wipes to keep hands clean before picking up paper. Baby wipes will remove Akua ink from your hands.
- Use non-toxic ink for printmaking if possible. I use Akua for intaglio and monoprints.
- Wear an apron or lab coat to keep artists materials off your clothing. Don't take this stuff home with you.
- Use safe solvents and cleaners: ethyl alcohol, vinegar, vegetable oil, orange zest solvents, soy-based cleaners, etc.
- Use safe materials for making the images: acrylic-based stop out and ground, vegetable oil-based lift grounds, acrylic airbrush aquatints, acrylic paint, etc.
- Read the MSDS. If you teach art, you are required to have these for every solvent and art materials you might supply.
- Clean up as you go; wash hands before and after lunch.
Now that I think about it, if the product states "Use with adequate ventilation", then I don't need to use it to make art, do projects in my garage, or paint my living room. "No-VOC should become your mantra. In fact I did just start painting my guest room over the weekend. I used Glidden Lifemaster paint. You can't get it at the big box store, you have to go to a Glidden (Formerly Dulux Paints) professional paint store but it's soooo worth it. Gorgeous paint. No VOCs at home and no VOCs in the studio! Welcome to the the modern age of green art materials.