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.