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.


Anonymous said...

Richard, again a very interesting article coming from your writing hand. One thing though; you state you use nothing but earth pigments, which is not entirely correct is it. Yellow brown is not a natural earth pigment (it's a mixture of three synthetic pigments), neither is Venetian red or Oxide black to be picky, both of which are synthetically manufactured pigments. However, they both meet the qualities you describe in your article. As we both primarily paint the figure, we seldom find a need for any stronger, more chromatic pigments than what we can get from our beloved earths.
I use only earths, natural earths from Old Holland: Yellow ochre, red ochre, brown ochres, occasionally an umber and Ivory black (I have never been much a fan of Mars black all though I am fully aware of it's advantageous characteristics. Sometimes I use vine black as well, which is ground charcoal.

If I do need to augment my earths, I have e a few to choose from, again all from Old Holland. To boost my red I can use Flesh ochre (basically a red earth on steroids), Scheveningen red light and Madder lake deep. To augment my yellow mixtures I choose from Yellow Brown, Scheveningen Yellow medium or Indian yellow.
None of the above are toxic and all of them are permanent.
But having said that, I'll do 98% of my painting with the natural earths plus black and white.

As for whites, well we park our cars in the same garage. I have been a long time user and lover of OH Cremnitz white, and I think it's by far the best white out there. But lately I have been working with Sennelier's titanium, and just as you say it possesses lovely possibilities. So, once my stock of Cremnitz is done with, I'll probably make the switch to titanium permanently.
I use Swedish linen and make the ground myself, Swedish linseed oil and chalk forms the base of that.

As for medium, I don't really use it, but if I feel I want to change the character of my paint I usually add a little linseed oil, or some chalk ground in linseed oil which I have made and pre-tubed for convenience.

Lint free cloths, absorbent paper towels (the ones made for wiping little fragile baby-bottoms are the best) and that's about it. I clean my brushes first in linseed oil and then in soap.

I hope I get a chance to meet you some day, maybe in Stavern next year?

// Matt

New York City said...

Hi Matt,

Well, thank you, but I don't think this is my best writing. I wrote it hastily because I wanted to get the information down and get back to painting.

Thanks for your addition. Indeed, you're right. Before I studied with Odd, I was using yellow ochre, burnt sienna, a range of umbers -including green umber, and ivory black. And of course, at NYAA I used a lot of Cremnitz white. I still use flesh ochre quite often (love it) and sometimes kaput mortem if I really need to push the violet. But seeing the way Odd uses yellow brown got me hooked. And I also noticed that mars black makes a much better blue and dries faster than ivory or vine. So, I had to make some concessions with my earth pigment rule.

You're also absolutely right about the toxicity of many of the old master's pigments. Many of them seemed to live quite a long time, but they also didn't have as many environmental toxins that they were exposed to every day like we are. But looking at such limited palettes as Frans Hals and Anders Zorn, I find that these toxic pigments are often unnecessary and if they are, can be used strategically in small quantities at the end and to great effect (which appears to be your working habit as well). Most of Rembrandt's palette consisted of earth pigments also, and he only used a few toxic pigments in small quantities as I just mentioned. There's a great book on his materials and methods that I love, perhaps you already have it. If not, I highly suggest it.
"Rembrandt - Painter at Work"

I might be around next year and it would be great to meet.

matt said...

Hi Richard,

I know this particular article may not have been a fair indicator of how good you are with words, but I have read most of your articles here on AB and threads at FB, and I think it's quite obvious that you are a good writer, which combined with an interesting intellect makes for good reading.

I have that De Wetering book, and yes it is an amazing piece of work. I also recommend a "lite" version of it published by The National Gallery (UK) called Art in the making, written by David Bomford and others. If you don't already have it I strongly recommend you buy it.

If I may ask, your ground: do you not add any pigment (paint) to the mixture, just chalk and oil?


// Matt

New York City said...

Thanks, I'll have to get the Bomford book.
Yes, I do tint my ground - sometimes a warm middle tone, sometimes cool depending on the what I want to do with the painting.

Matt said...

That's interesting Richard. Care to comment on your choice of ground color in relation with your choice of motif?

I myself have always used some sort of variant of red-brownish gray, but more out of habit than anything else.

Griffith said...

great info.

one question, though: where do you get blanc de meudon in the u.s.? you don't happen to know a non-french term for it, do you?

New York City said...

Well, when I want to focus more on turning the form in flesh, I will often choose to make my ground a neutral-ish warm green. When you layer warmer earth pigments on top it's very easy to get a great breadth of temperature and hue shift which really emphasizes the volume. Also, it has some nice surface effects, warm pigment scumbled or glazed over a cool ground can create a nice opalescent shimmering.

If I'm looking more for compositional effects (that is I choose to compress the volume of the form a little in order to make the masses read more as shapes), then I will often use a warmer red brown, almost a somewhat neutral orange. This works especially well if I'm going to be doing a lot scraping and sanding as the warm ground comes through and emphasizes the glow of the light. This ground is also great if I'm planning for the painting to be very cool. A good rule of thumb is warm over cool and cool over warm. (Of course rules are meant to be just helpful guidelines and can be broken to great effect if you understand how they work.)

If I'm not sure what my plan is (which is very often) I'll usually use the reddish brown grey ground that you're speaking of. It can go in both directions and is very versatile.

It's just another means of exploration.

Hi Griffith,
About the ground.


According to these people, precipitated chalk looks like it would be the same thing as Blanc De Meudon (Spanish Whiting) and I found a US supplier here


It looks like its synthetic though so I'm not sure

Matt said...


Thanks a lot for your answer regarding ground color.

Pardon me for diverging further from the topic of your article, but I find this to be very interesting to talk about, and thus I can't stop myself from going on talking about it.

I tend to cover my canvas opaquely, in many layers, so the color of my ground has little, if any, impact on the final appearance. My choice of ground color is partly based on aesthetic preference; I simply like how my brownish transparent drawing looks like against such a ground.

The "Warm over cool" (and vice versa) element of painting can of course be handled with controlling the actual temperature of your color, such as blue over orange, or green over red. But also, and this is how I tend to work it, is by using dark colours over light (which will produce a warmish effect) and scumbling light color over dark, which would then produce a coolish effect, such in for example cool/neutral halftones.

As for chalk; in my experience you can use pretty much any chalk available for making your ground. Go to your local framer, who most likely will have a few different chalks you could surely have a small quantity of for testing at home.
There is one type of chalk which is very finely ground and has a very white color (maybe it's Bologna chalk?). This one I don't feel is particularly well suited for making your own ground (it requires too much oil) but it is perfect for using as an additive to your paints in order to give them more body, or if ground in linseed oil, which makes for a wonderful putty-medium for making opaque colours more transparent.

Ok, I'll shut up now Richard. :)

The best,

// Matt

New York City said...

Hi Matt,
Oh, it's not a problem. Please feel free.

Thank you for sharing your information on chalk!

Indeed, I also completely cover my ground opaquely and use a full range from trasparency to impasto, especially glazing on top of the opaque and impasto layers, but perhaps the difference in our approaches is there are some areas in my painting that I may sand (dry or wet) or scrape down with a palette knife, removing paint to reveal previous layers. And sometimes the ground is only covered by a translucent or semi-opaque layer. Another reason I, personally, think about this, is that it subtly effects my choices of color through my working process (I don't use Munsel, but instead develop a relative color system for each painting) and further, as the painting ages, the layers of paint become more transparent and the ground will ever so slightly effect the image.

As far as cool over warm, vice versa, we're on exactly the same page.

adebanji said...

Some real good information! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi...I think you meant Blanc de Meudon (whiting)...Calcite (the main ingredient of whiting) is just a magical substance!