Detoxify Your Studio

By Tesia Blackburn

How can I use less-toxic paint and make it look like oil?

Use acrylic! I know it’s “plastic,” but it can look and work very much like oil. You can glaze, retard the drying time, build up impasto layers, make it shiny or matte. After you work with it for awhile you produce paintings that no one will be able to tell are acrylic. Golden Acrylic Paint (the paint I prefer) makes many different kinds of gels and mediums that you can use with acrylic paint to produce different effects:

  • Use Golden’s acrylic glazing liquid to create oil-like glazes that stay wet for a long time.
  • Mix acrylic paint with light molding paste or extra heavy gel to create impasto.
  • Depending on your preference, use matte, satin or gloss gels and mediums to create the surface you prefer, from really shiny to really matte.

I really, really don’t want to stop painting in oil — how can I work less toxic?

  • Give up turpentine

    . Use a less toxic substitute like odorless mineral spirits. Or use a small amount of linseed oil mixed with odorless mineral spirits as a medium for your paint. Not too much oil or your colors will yellow, not too much mineral spirits or the paint film will be too weak. Remember, “odorless” does NOT mean non-toxic!

  • To clean your brushes

    , wipe excess paint off onto newsprint or old phone books, then clean brushes with vegetable oil or baby oil and then soap and hot water. You do not need to clean your brushes with solvent!

  • To clean your palette

    , a little elbow grease goes a long way. Wipe all excess paint off with old phone book pages. Use a tiny bit of vegetable oil and clean off the remainder of your palette.

  • Use gloves when you paint

    . If you can’t stand to wear gloves at least use a barrier cream on your hands before you start painting.

  • Never, ever put your hands in turpentine

    or any other solvent. Turpentine is absorbed right through the skin, and once it’s in your liver it never leaves.

  • Never, ever eat or drink where you paint

    . Yeah right. At least try not to. Wash your hands before you eat (smart any time).

  • Give up all the cadmium colors

    ! They are poisonous. There are good substitutes — Hansa Yellow instead of Cadmium Yellow, etc.

  • Really ventilate your work space

    . A single open window will not do it. You need AIR FLOW. You must circulate the air so that the concentration of toxic chemicals is decreased to a safer level. Set up a fan so that air moves between you and your painting table towards a door or window. Leave the studio once every couple of hours and get outside. Leave your windows open when you leave the studio to flush things out.

  • Consider not using any mediums at all

    — the most toxic aspects of oil painting are the airborne particles and skin contact from solvents. Use oil paint right from the tube with a knife or stiff brushes.

  • Make your studio trash more palatable to Mother Earth

    — let your paint dry solid before disposing of it, and take it to a designated location for disposing of paint and chemicals.

Tesia Blackburn (

) is an artist and teacher working in the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Fe, New Mexico.