Poisoned By Painting : The problem of toxic art-supplies

By Tesia Blackburn

“A case-control study of workers in particle-board, plywood, sawmill, and formaldehyde glue factories demonstrated a statistically significant association between chronic exposure (longer than five years) to terpenes (the principal component of turpentine) and the development of respiratory tract cancers.”

– U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration

The bloody noses in the morning, the dizziness, nausea and headaches it all finally got to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was poisoning myself with oil-based paint.

When I started painting in the late ’70s we weren’t as aware of the toxicity of turpentine and solvents. Or maybe we were and we just didn’t care. I was in art school and it was one of those things you did if you were a painter. No one I knew could afford a studio, so we all painted in our bedrooms.

It was a badge of honor, painting and eating and drinking and sleeping all in the same room. When we slept it was six feet from the easel with a can of open turpentine on the floor.

When we were at school, we worked 20 or 30 students to a room with many open cans of “turp.” We were in the painting studios at school six or eight hours a day, and then maybe in a silkscreen class.

Silkscreen was cool. Up to our wrists in acetone. Wonder why the rubber gloves are melting? Oh well, let’s go get a beer, come back and work some more. When I got complete double vision I knew it was time to get outside. I’d usually catch the bus and go home then, maybe.

Right after graduation I had a two-woman show in Seattle. The pressure was on. I painted like crazy, up to my wrists in turpentine washes, four or five paintings going at once in my apartment.

I shipped that show off and continued working. I kept working like this after graduation. Then I applied for some time at an artist’s colony in Massachusetts. I ended up spending that October and November in a cabin painting, in freezing weather, with a wood stove for heat. In retrospect it baffles me that I survived that winter.

I did open the window but I was painting eight or 10 hours a day, in a poorly ventilated room with a wood stove blaring. A potentially explosive combination. I was working on big paintings, sloshing paint thinned with turpentine all over the canvas.

Then I would make a slapdash attempt to get my hands clean and join the other artists for dinner.

But I was doing some damn fine work! Yes I was. And I had these headaches all the time. I stopped drinking alcohol and thought I’d feel better. After all, it must be the alcohol, right?

But I was still nauseated most of the time, had raging headaches and double vision. The cuticles on my hands were always split and bleeding no matter how much I attended to them.

I never wore rubber gloves to paint because they would just “melt” away.


Jay DeFeo died

. She was an artist on the painting faculty at Mills College in Oakland, and a woman I admired. Her health had been ruined back in the late ’50s and early ’60s by obsessively painting, over a span of seven years, a monumental piece called the Rose.

When it was finished the Rose weighed over a ton and was up to eight inches thick in places, comprised mostly of lead white and gray paint. DeFeo was so sick after completing the Rose that she didn’t paint at all for four years. Her health was affected for the rest of her life. The Beat Museum website says that when she died at age sixty 60 in 1989, “she was at the height of her creative powers.”

Her passing left me dumbstruck. Something in what was left of my brain started to click. I started graduate school, then started teaching, first at the old Letterman Army Hospital in the cancer ward, then with seniors in Bayview and finally the clincher — a printmaking workshop at the Mendocino Arts Center. It had to be completely non-toxic — the school required it.

That did it. After long and arduous exploration in acrylic paint, I finally gave up using oil-based paint and solvents completely. I remember crying the day I got rid of my oil paint. That was about eight or nine years ago. I still can’t go into a studio with oil-based solvents — I immediately get sick.

I have learned, however, to paint and work in acrylic (I use Golden Acrylics — www.goldenpaints.com/) just like I did with oil paint. I’m not nauseated anymore, I don’t have headaches and my vision is completely clear. It was a difficult lesson to learn — I hope it doesn’t have to be difficult for you as well.

Tesia Blackburn (


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


4 Responses to “Poisoned By Painting : The problem of toxic art-supplies”

  1. Donia Schloot says:

    I remember when I was a child, in 1978 or ’79, my mother had these paints that you “draw” on these special paper. My mom remembers this, but does not what they were. The paints were in tubes and of course, you can smell the stuff – solvents or turpentine, I’m not sure what they were. And my mom would let me use them. One time I was watching TV and accidentally and absentmindedly chewed on the end of the tube and got paint in my mouth. I was wondering if I have permanently harmed myself by doing that because I do have strange symptoms. I have severe chronic depression for 17 years and fatigue that I could never get rid of. The problem is I have no clue to what they are. I don’t know doctors would believe me or not. I have been deaf since birth and never could catch things by hearing. I learned mainly through reading. I searched for info on these 70′s paint “markers.” The reason why I never questioned this was that it never occurred to me until last night when I was lying in bed. It just hit me square in the head like, “Oh, my god. What if….” I would really appreciate your answer to this one. And my apologies for taking your time away from your painting. My condolences for the loss of your artist mentor/inspiration that led you to discover the dangers of oil/turps. I don’t get headaches, but I have certain issues. Thank you so very much.

  2. Rachel says:

    I used to be a painter too- oil paints mostly- until I got so freakin sick from them (and from mold, and from the laundry mat down the street…). Now I’m completely disabled because I can’t handle even low exposures to most chemicals, especially solvents and artificial fragrance. I cried a lot too when I sold my oil paints to some flakey, pretentious, starry eyed bay area artist. I cried because I could see a wall of paintings that would never be painted. Oh well. I’m content for now with water color paint when I can handle it- I’d love to know if anyone knows of zero-toxic, all natural, no solvents, tempera paint (acrylic I don’t think I could trust again, I had to sell those too). Anyway, kudos on the article and it is great you can keep painting!

  3. SAM says:

    I started using oil paints about 2 weeks ago. Yesterday I awoke with a slight headache. It wasn’t a big deal, and I started painting about 1… by 5 my head was pounding and I was nauseous. I went to bed, and awoke this morning feeling fine – until I smelled the paint. I immediately felt icky… will be owrking in acrylics today while I research the oil paints I used…

  4. Hi Everyone
    I’m posting a follow up here. I did not realize this article was still live on the web. Nothing ever leaves the Internet does it?

    I never went to a doctor and was diagnosed with turpentine poisoning but it made the most sense and agreed with symptoms that I read about. That being said, for anyone who is experiencing headaches, nausea etc., get yourself out of the toxic situation and into fresh air immediately. Then limit your exposure to the chemicals. I’m not a doctor (nor do i play one on tv!) so I can’t give you medical advice but I do know fresh air makes all the difference. I now paint with acrylics exclusively but I’m still a fresh air freak. Tons of fresh air and good ventilation have gone a long way to making it possible for me to continue to work.

    Good luck!
    Tesia Blackburn
    San Francisco October 2012

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