Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Sustainable Studio

Hermetica Oil on Linen 46" x 60"

Whether or not you agree with the conclusions of climate change science (and I certainly do), we can all agree that our studio practices as artists can be very toxic. With the vapors from solvents, carcinogenic heavy metals in pigments, chemical dryers; even a simple painting studio holds many dangers to ourselves and especially to children and pets. It also has larger economic and environmental effects that I choose to take into consideration.

With this in mind, I've set out to reduce the toxicity of my studio (in the interest of my health) as well as the environmental impact of my studio practice as a painter. Over the past two years,I've developed and implemented a few points that will help reduce your risk of cancer, put more money in your wallet, support your local economy (when possible), and even reduce your carbon footprint. Of course, your own system should be adjusted to your working methods and your aesthetic philosophies, as I have had done, but even a little change can make a difference. Above all, I don't suggest that we should feel that we need to compromise our work or our creative vision, but it turns out there are so many things we can do without effecting the quality of our work and our working process, that that idea needn't even be on the table.

1. Oil Paint: Since my work is very inspired by the old masters, I really enjoy the color harmonies of working within a limited palette. So, it's no sacrifice for me to use only earth pigments such as yellow ochre (I use yellow brown - much more yellow than it sounds), mars black, venetian red, etc... and instead of using lead white (which has it's own wonderful qualities) I prefer to use Sennelier titanium white. It's non-toxic (just don't spread it on your toast every morning) and dries faster, both qualities that I prefer. As you can see in the painting above, I find that with a little knowledge of color theory, I can get a broad range of color, as saturated or as muted as I need. Also, because I often use my fingers and can't paint with gloves, it's nice to know that I'm not absorbing anything through my skin.

A few added bonuses are that earth pigments tend to be cheaper than modern pigments and they have a proven track record of lasting a very long time (even cave paintings 40,000 years ago!). I prefer to buy locally made paints when I can. For instance, in NYC, Vasari, Robert Doak, Williamsberg, and Kremer pigments make excellent paints, by hand. Earth pigments require less processing, therefore less energy, less shipping, less manufacturing, and buying locally reduces the amount of shipping necessary as well as supports the local economy. For me this is a perfect solution.

2. I stretch linen canvases myself and make my own ground out of Blanc de Medeun and linseed oil. It's an incredibly strong surface and is far superior than any factory made ground or gesso. This gives me more control over the dimensions of the composition, the surface, and more man power usually means less machine power. Two birds with one stone!

3. Recycle old clothes and cut them into pieces to use as painting rags.

4. The biggest issue I've had is with solvents. The vapors can be harmful and disposal is tricky. For my medium (just stand oil and turp), I find that I can't replace old fashioned turpentine. I've tried mineral spirits, turpenoid, gamsol, etc... and it just doesn't have the same quality and all of these still release vapors, even if you can't smell them. However, I've discovered a solvent produced from soy that has no vapors, is completely non-toxic, bio-degradable, and works quite well: SoySolv. I've known both painters and printmakers who love this product. Since I'm in Europe, the lack of availability and cost of shipping would be prohibitive for me, but for people in the states, this might be a good solution.

Update: At the suggestion of my good friend Alexander Rokoff, I've begun cleaning my brushes with Safflower oil. I've been able to substantially reduce the amount of turpentine I use and an added benefit is that it conditions and preserves the bristles so they stay soft and supple for around two weeks. Additionally, I save time on clean-up because I don't have to wash my brushes with soap and water every time I use them.

5. For drawing supplies, I've found that Strathmore makes a paper which is manufactured completely with renewable energy. Legion Paper sells several papers that are tree-free and chlorine-free, produced with solar, wind, or water power.

You can recycle your old or second rate drawings and make your own paper. In fact, recycling is not such a new concept: during the Renaissance, painters and draughtsmen would reuse their old drawings to make rag paper out of them (originally made from rags). Though, it was because of the great expense of fine paper and not for environmental reasons, it was a common practice for hundreds of years. Paper making.

This is just my studio practice, but the ideas of sustainability have been applied by artists working with nearly every medium. Here are some very interesting and innovative solutions that others have come up with.

If you have any ideas you'd like to add or suggest, I'd love to hear them. And if you've already made some innovations in your own studio practice, please share your work.