Materials Safety in the Studio

“Sunrise Study”
Oil on Panel
6×8″
2008

I’ve gotten a lot of emails over the past few years about what changes I made in the studio when I was pregnant with Aspen, and I’m getting them again, so I figured I’d put this out there for anyone who might be interested. I’ve got a degree in Chemical Engineering, so I’ve done a lot of research on the chemical properties of oil paints and mediums, and made what I think are some educated decisions about what’s safe and what’s not in the studio during pregnancy. For the record, I don’t know everything and I know there will be people who disagree with some of this, so take this all with a grain of salt!

1) Paint

Regular oil paints consist of pigment in a linseed oil base. Linseed oil itself is not a health concern – actually, a lot of people take flaxseed oil (same thing) supplements for their health. The pigments in the paint are another story. The earth pigments are okay (sienna, umber, ochre), but the heavy metals (cadmium) can cause health problems. Luckily, heavy metals such as cadmium are mainly a health concern if inhaled, as they are generally not absorbed by the body by ingestion or absorption through the skin. If you were to ingest cadmium paint, for instance, it is likely that your body would pass it through without actually absorbing the form of cadmium that is used in the paint. For the most part, the paint itself is safe; however, I do take the precaution of wearing gloves at all times when I’m painting, to prevent the chance of anything absorbing through my skin. I also don’t have food or drink in my studio, just as an extra precaution.

A lot of people have suggested that I use walnut oil paints, water-soluble paints, or acrylics to cut down on health concerns. Just to clear things up, walnut oil paints are the exact same thing as regular oil paints, only with walnut oil substituted for the linseed, so this doesn’t provide any health advantage on its own. Water soluble oil paints scare me because I don’t know enough about what chemicals they put in them to make them water-soluble. Also, acrylics and water soluble paints can still have dangerous pigments in them. Oil paint gets a bad rap, but I maintain that it’s the mediums and solvents we use with the paint that are dangerous, not the paint itself.

Oh, and I won’t go near pastels when I’m pregnant. Sometimes I like to play with pastel in the studio, but the pigments in the pastels are so easily inhaled that I won’t mess with it when I’m trying to keep a healthy studio. A lot of pastel artists have air filtering systems in place in their studios to keep things safe, but I don’t work with them enough to bother.

2) Solvents

I normally use Gamsol mineral spirits to thin my paint for washes and block-ins, but I don’t like to have any solvents in the studio at all when I’m pregnant. To keep my studio solvent-free, I substitute walnut oil for my mineral spirits, using it to thin paint occasionally and clean my brushes (this is where the health advantage of walnut oil comes in, btw – not in the actual paint).

I will admit that I actually hate having to do this. When you use oil to thin paint, your washes are very oily and you can’t paint over them easily with thicker paint. The paint takes ages to dry, and honestly, the oil isn’t that great for washing brushes. I end up using twice as many brushes just to keep things clean in the painting. I usually end up painting thicker (not a bad thing), using less washes, and washing my brushes with soap and water more than I normally would. I end up having to change my familiar technique and working methods, and it’s not easy – I miss my mineral spirits!!

3) Mediums

I don’t really use mediums normally, so this doesn’t make a huge impact for me. I occasionally use liquin when I need something to dry quickly, but the stuff makes me feel sick on a normal day, so I completely eliminate it from my studio when I’m pregnant. I’ve talked to a lot of artists who have had weird reactions to liquin and other alkyd mediums, and they stink so bad that I’m convinced they can’t be all that healthy. Also, the MSDS sheet for liquin actually suggests the use of a fan, fume hood, NIOSH mask, and barrier creams when using “large quantities” of the stuff or working in an unventilated area – makes me a bit uneasy.

4) Varnish

I usually varnish all of my paintings with a Winsor and Newton retouch varnish as soon as they are dry to the touch. The stuff is solvent based, and will stink up my entire house in a few minutes, so in the interest of having a solvent-free studio I won’t use it indoors while pregnant. I haven’t found a way around varnishing my paintings, so I wait until I have a batch of paintings ready, then I go out on the back deck, put on my gloves, and varnish outside where the air is fresh. I leave the paintings outside until they’re dry enough to not stink up the house – I figure it’s not good for any of us to be breathing the fumes.

Knowing that these changes make my studio a healthier place for me, I’d love to say I stick with these methods even when I’m not pregnant, but I honestly don’t – there are some things I do when I’m pregnant that drive me nuts when I’m painting (the walnut oil), so I’m usually excited to get back to my normal materials when it’s just me! Anyhow, hope that answers questions for some of you. I’m sure there are folks who will disagree with me, but I figured I’d put it out there for what it’s worth.

In other news, I’m still seriously digging to come up with paintings to post here – time to get busy in the studio (if only the dry heaves would subside…)!

Cat’s Out of the Bag

“Front Range Fall”
Oil on Panel
16×20″
2008

(Wow – this painting looks sort of atrocious on my blog background. Sorry about that. I don’t think it looks this contrasty in person?)

Well, I was at the Governor’s Show for all of five minutes the other night when my friend Sallie asked me if I was pregnant. I was kind of hoping I could keep it a secret for a while, but apparently not!! So, there you have it – my excuse for only finishing one – yes ONE – painting in the past month and a half.

I’m three months pregnant (due Oct 29th), and I think I’ve been sick for about six weeks straight now. I didn’t really have this with Aspen, so I’ve been kind of a wimp about it. It’s been hard to do anything requiring movement without gagging, so standing at the easel hasn’t really seemed appealing most days. I did finish a 30×24″ painting the other day. The only reason I even got that one done is that I needed something decent on the easel for a photo session I had for an article in a local magazine. Once I started it, I had to finish it, so I managed to get it done.

I’m trying not to be too hard on myself, but not really succeeding. When I was pregnant with Aspen, I was working fulltime and painting for a new gallery, and even though I was tired I was getting things done. This time around, I feel like a sloth. My main priority has been to use what energy I have to be a decent mom to Aspen, so my art has really taken a back seat. I’m in a position where it’s okay, since this is a slow time of year for my galleries, and the economy is slowing things down too. I have a decent number of paintings in my studio and in my galleries, but I just feel guilty for not putting out the number of paintings I did last year.

So, here’s hoping that I feel better now that I’m nearing the end of my first trimester, and that I can get productive soon! I’m really digging for images to post on this blog (this one’s old), so I know it’s time to get to work.

Anyhow, assuming the weather folks in Denver are wrong and there is no blizzard tonight as forecasted, I’ll be heading down to Phoenix with Nate tomorrow morning for a long weekend of laying by the pool reading and relaxing. Hopefully I’ll get enough sleep that I’ll return refreshed and motivated (and hopefully with less gagging) and ready to paint next week!

Shows this Weekend

“Aspen Grove”
Oil on Panel
30×40″
2009

Hey all, I just wanted to spread the word about a couple of shows my work will be in this weekend.

First, the Colorado Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale opens this weekend at the Loveland Museum. I’ll have four paintings available in the show – Aspen Grove, December, Aspen Gold, and Red Rock View. The show opens on Saturday, starting with a demonstration by Mchelle Torrez at 2:00 pm, followed by a catered reception from 5:00 to 9:00 pm where the paintings are sold by draw. Tickets to the reception are $55 and include the full color catalog. The show is then open to the public through May 17th.

If you’re in Colorado, I’d highly recommend stopping by the opening, or at least making sure you see the show while it hangs. The Governor’s Show is a great art event, and includes some of the best painters and sculptors in Colorado. The opening is always packed, and is a great place for collectors and artists to chat. Nate and I will be heading up to Loveland to attend the opening on Saturday night, and would love to see you there!

Also, my painting Silence will be hanging in the Salon International at the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX. I know a ton of artists who are in the show this year, and wish I could make it to the opening – Salon International is always the same weekend as the Governor’s Show, so I have yet to make it to the opening of this one! The Salon Show is a collection of over 300 works of some of the best contemporary representational painters out there. If you’re in Texas, be sure to check it out. The show opens with a reception on Saturday from 5:00 to 8:00 pm, and runs through May 1st at the gallery.

Shaped by the Landscape

“January Sky”
Oil on Panel
30×40″
2009

(This painting photographed horribly – all the photoshopping in the world couldn’t get the colors quite right, and now it looks all dark – grrr!)

Sometimes I get all into my own head and start to wonder if my paintings have enough meaning or not – whether or not pure landscapes are as worthy a pursuit as something more abstract or narrative. Usually, I don’t think like this for long, because the fact remains that I have no desire to paint anything else. I paint what makes the biggest impact on me, and that happens to be the landscape around me.

I just started reading the book “Why I Came West” by Rick Bass, and he touches a bit on the landscape and its impact on the artist. I thought I’d share some of his words, because he says it so well.

“One often hears about how an artist sculpts or shapes his or her work and how, sometimes, the artist’s work then helps shape or direct culture. It seems to me that we hear less often how the artist’s subject sculpts the artist.”

I love how he words that – the way that the artist is actually sculpted by the landscape. Now that I live in the mountains that I paint rather than being a casual observer from the city, I feel that force in my own life. I know how the landscape can shape a person – how the seasons become metaphors for seasons in your own life. And of course, Bass says it better here:

“I am as entwined in the rhythm of the weather and seasons as any of the other plants or animals. I have become a part of my subject, enmeshed in it. I am no longer on the outside of it, an alien observer.”

I think that knowing what I paint is making me a better landscape painter. I’m no longer just aiming to paint pretty pictures – I’m trying to paint the essence of the landscape around me. And I’ve got a long way to go.

One last thought from Bass, that might be obvious but should be said:

“As an artist, I find it deeply important that such places, such wild places, be protected wherever they are still to be found.”

Easier said than done, of course!