SECTION 10: Painting and Drawing
The health hazards associated with painting and drawing
have been known since Ramazzini described such illnesses 1713. Working safely can involve changes in how you
select your art materials, and how you handle them.
PLEASE NOTE: For
turpentine and thinners, please use the pre-labeled mason jars supplied
by Visual Arts. Keep containers
sealed or covered with foil when not in use.
Do not use food or beverage containers.
Painters use pigments in oil paints, acrylics, watercolor
paints, gouache, encaustic, poster paints, casein paints and tempera. Sometimes commercial paints such as oil, enamel,
epoxy paints and automobile paints are used.
Paints are pigments mixed with a vehicle or binder. Both inorganic and organic pigments are used
as colorants. Dry pigments are
especially hazardous because they are easily inhaled and ingested. They are used in encaustic, paper-marbleizing
and in the fabrication of paint products, and will be discussed more thoroughly
in the section below on pastels.
Pigments vs. Hues
Most paints used in Visual
Arts do not contain metal
pigments and are considered non-toxic.
These are most easily identified by the product name. If the paint is described as hue, such as "chromium yellow hue",
there is no (or too little to be concerned about) toxic metal contained
in the product.
- Poisoning can occur if toxic pigments are inhaled or ingested. The
main hazard in standard painting techniques is accidental ingestion
of pigments due to eating, drinking or smoking while working, inadvertent
hand to mouth contact, or pointing the paint brush with the lips.
If methods such as spraying, heating, or sanding are employed
then there is an opportunity for inhalation of toxic pigments.
- The classic example of a toxic inorganic pigment in painting is white
lead, or flake white (basic lead carbonate).
Lead pigments can cause anemia, gastrointestinal problems, peripheral
nerve damage (and brain damage in children), kidney damage and reproductive
system damage. Other inorganic pigments may be hazardous,
including pigments based on cobalt, cadmium, and manganese. (See Table 1)
- Some of the inorganic pigments, in particular cadmium pigments,
chrome yellow and zinc yellow may cause lung cancer.
In addition lamp black and carbon black may contain impurities
that can cause skin cancer.
- Chromate pigments (chrome yellow and zinc yellow) may cause skin
ulceration and allergic skin reactions (such as rashes).
The long-term hazards of the
modern synthetic organic pigments have not been well studied.
- Obtain MSDSs on your paints to find out what pigments you are using.
This is especially important because the name that appears on the tube
of color may or may not truly represent the pigments present.
Manufacturers may keep the name of a color while
reformulating the ingredients.
- Use the least toxic pigments possible.
Do not use lead or carcinogenic pigments.
- Avoid mixing dry pigments whenever possible.If dry pigments are
mixed, do it inside a glove box (a box with a glass
or plexiglas top and holes
in the sides for arms) or inside a laboratory-type
- Wet mop and wipe all surfaces when using dry pigments.
- Avoid using dishes, containers or utensils from
the kitchen to mix and store paints and pigments.
Water-Based Paints (top)
Water-based paints include water color, acrylic, gouache,
tempera and casein. Water is used
for thinning and cleanup.
- See section above for pigment hazards.
- Acrylic paints contain a small amount of ammonia.
Some sensitive people may experience eye, nose and throat
irritation from the ammonia. Acrylics
and some gouaches contain a very small amount of formaldehyde
as a preservative. Only people already sensitized to formaldehyde
would experience allergic reactions from the trace amount of
found in acrylics. The
amounts can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
- Casein paints use the protein casein as a binder.
While soluble forms are available, casein can be dissolved
in ammonium hydroxide which
is moderately irritating by skin contact and highly irritating
by eye contact,
ingestion, and inhalation.
- All water-based paints contain a preservative to prevent mold or
bacterial growth. Sometimes
artists add preservatives when they make their own paints.
Although present in small amounts, certain preservatives may
cause allergic reactions in some people.
- See section above for precautions when mixing dry pigments.
- If you add your own preservative, avoid using sodium fluoride,
phenol or mercury compounds. For
tempera, a small amount of pine oil works for short periods of
- If you experience eye, nose or throat irritation while using
acrylics, opening a window is usually sufficient; if not try a
- If you mix casein paints using ammonium hydroxide, you will
need a window exhaust fan to provide ventilation.
- Wear gloves, goggles and protective apron when handling ammonia. An eyewash fountain should be available when
Non Water-Based Paints (top)
Oil paints, encaustic and egg tempera use linseed oil,
wax and egg respectively as vehicles, although solvents are often used
as a thinner and for cleanup. Turpentine
and mineral spirits (paint thinner), for example, are used in oil painting
mediums, for thinning, and for cleaning brushes.
Alkyd paints use solvents as their vehicle. In addition many commercial paints used by artists also contain
- See section above for pigment hazards.
- All solvents can cause defatting of the skin and dermatitis from
prolonged or repeated exposure. Turpentine
can also cause skin allergies and be absorbed through the skin.
- Acute inhalation of high concentrations of mineral spirits, turpentine
vapors, and other solvents can cause narcosis, which can include
of dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination,
coma, as well as respiratory irritation.
- Chronic inhalation of large amounts of solvents could result in decreased
coordination, behavioral changes and brain damage.
Chronic inhalation of turpentine can cause kidney damage and
respiratory irritation and allergies.
Odorless mineral spirits and turpenoid, in which the aromatic
hydrocarbons have been removed, are less hazardous.
- Ingestion of either turpentine or mineral spirits can be fatal. In the case of mineral spirits, this is usually due to chemical
pneumonia caused by aspiration (breathing in) of the mineral spirits
into the lungs after vomiting.
- Natural resins (copal, damar, rosin, Japanese Lacquer) may cause
skin irritation or allergies. Rosin
dust can cause asthma.
- Encaustic involves suspending pigments in molten wax.
If the wax is overheated, flammable wax vapors and wax decomposition
fumes are produced, which are strong respiratory irritants.
- Epoxy paints consist of an epoxy resin component containing the pigment,
and a hardener component. The
epoxy resin may contain diglycidyl ethers which are irritants, may cause
bone marrow damage, and are suspect carcinogens.
Epoxy hardeners may cause skin and respiratory allergies and
- Whenever possible replace turpentine or ordinary mineral spirits
with the less toxic odorless mineral spirits.
Mineral spirits is also less flammable than turpentine, since
its flashpoint is over 100 F (38 C), while turpentine has a flashpoint
of 95 F, (35 C).
- Apply the same health and safety considerations for the use of "citrus"
or "pine" solvents. These
have been found to be quite irritating to the skin and eyes.
- If possible, artists should set up their easel about 3 feet from
a window that has a fan exhausting at work level and pulling the
vapors away from your face.
- Techniques such as turpentine washes will require a lot of ventilation
because they result in the evaporation of large amounts of solvents
in a short period of time. Acrylic paint can be substituted for underpainting.
- Ventilation only needs to be provided while the solvent is evaporating
from the canvas, not during the time while the oil paint film is
- Wear neoprene gloves while cleaning brushes with mineral spirits
- Used solvent can be reclaimed by allowing the paint to settle
and then pouring off the clear solvent.
- Paint can be removed from your hands with baby oil, and then soap
- Wax should be only heated to the minimum temperature needed for
proper flow of the paint. Do
not heat with open flame or hot plate with exposed element. During
and nursing, switch to water-based paints to avoid exposure to
Airbrush, Spray Cans, and Spray Guns (top)
Artists use many products in spray form, including
fixatives, retouching sprays, paint sprays, varnishes, and adhesive
sprays. Airbrush, aerosol spray can and spray guns
- Spray mists are particularly hazardous because they are easily inhaled. If the paint being sprayed contains solvents,
then you can be inhaling liquid droplets of the solvents. In addition the pigments are also easily inhaled,
creating a much more dangerous situation than applying paint by
- Aerosol spray paints have an additional hazard besides pigments
and solvents. They contain propellants, usually isobutanes
and propane, which are extremely flammable and have been the cause
many fires. Other aerosol
spray products such as retouching sprays, spray varnishes, etc.
solvents, propellants and particulates being sprayed.
- Airbrushing produces a fine mist which is a serious inhalation
hazard because artists work so close to their art work.
Airbrushing solvent-containing paints is especially dangerous.
- Spray guns are less common in art painting but usually involve
spraying much larger quantities of paint than either spray cans
or airbrush. Spraying solvent-based paints is a serious
- See section above for precautions with pigments.
- Try to brush items rather than spraying if possible.
- Use water-based airbrushing paints and inks rather
than solvent-based paints.
- Use spray cans or an airbrush in a spray booth
- If ventilation is not adequate, then respiratory
protection is necessary while air brushing or spraying.
Contact EHS for selection and fit-testing.
- Never try to spray paint by blowing air from
your mouth through a tube. This can lead to accidental ingestion of the
Dry Drawing Media (top)
This includes dust-creating media such as charcoal
and pastels which are often fixed with aerosol spray fixatives, and media
such as crayons and oil pastels which do not create dust.
- Pencils are made with graphite, rather than lead and are not considered
a hazard. Colored pencils have pigments added to the
graphite, but the amounts are small so that there is no significant
risk of exposure. Over 10 years
ago, a significant hazard in pencils was from lead chromate paint on
the exterior of yellow pencils. However
this has since been eliminated as a risk.
- Charcoal is usually made from willow or vine sticks, where wood
cellulose has been heated without moisture to create the black
color. Compressed charcoal sticks use various resins in a binder to create
the color. Although charcoal
is just considered a nuisance dust, inhalation of large amounts
dust can create chronic lung problems through a mechanical irritation
and clogging effect. A
major source of charcoal inhalation is from the habit of blowing
dust off the drawing.
- Colored chalks are also considered nuisance dusts.
Some chalks are dustier than others.
Individuals who have asthma sometimes have problems with
dusty chalks, but this is a nonspecific dust reaction, not a
- Pastel sticks and pencils consist of pigments bound into solid
form by a resin. Inhalation of pastel dusts is the major hazard.
Some pastels are dustier than others.
Pastels can contain toxic pigments such as chrome yellow
(lead chromate) which can cause lung cancer, and cadmium pigments
cause kidney and lung damage and are suspect human carcinogens).
Blowing excess pastel dust off the drawing is one major
source of inhalation of pastel pigments. Pastel artists have often complained of blowing
their nose different colors for days after using pastels, a clear
- Crayons and oil pastels do not present an inhalation hazard,
and thus are much safer than pastels. Some
oil pastels can contain toxic pigments, but this is only a hazard
- Both permanent and workable spray fixatives used to fix drawings
contain toxic solvents. There
is high exposure by inhalation to these solvents because the products
are sprayed in the air, often right on a desk or easel.
In addition you can be inhaling the plastic particulates
that comprise the fixative itself.
- Never try to spray fixative by blowing air from your mouth through
a tube. This can lead to accidental ingestion of the
- Use the least dusty types of pastels, chalks, etc.
Asthmatics in particular might want to switch to oil pastels
or similar non-dusty media.
- Spray fixatives should be used with a spray booth that exhausts
to the outside. If use of spray fixatives is occasional, you
can use them outdoors with a NIOSH-approved respirator equipped
organic vapor cartridges and dust and mists filter for protection
against inhalation of solvent vapors and particulates.
An exhaust fan is also needed to remove organic vapors and
- Don't blow off excess pastel or charcoal dust with your mouth. Instead tap off the built up dust so it falls
to the floor (or paper on floor).
- Wet-mop and wet-wipe all surfaces clean of dusts.
- If inhalation of dusts is a problem, a respirator
may be appropriate. Contact EHS for selection and fit-testing.
Liquid Drawing Media (top)
This includes both water-based and solvent-based pen
and ink and felt tip markers. Hazards
of dry erase or white board markers can be considered here, although they
are more used in teaching or commercial art.
- Drawing inks are usually water-based, but there are some solvent-based
drawing inks. These usually
contain toxic solvents like xylene.
- Permanent felt tip markers used in design or graphic arts contain
solvents. Xylene, which is a highly toxic aromatic hydrocarbon,
is the most common ingredient; newer brands often contain the less
propyl alcohol (although it is an eye, nose and throat irritant). The major hazard from using permanent markers
results from using a number of them at the same time at close range.
- Use water-based markers and drawing inks if possible.
- Alcohol-based markers are less toxic than aromatic solvent-based
- Solvent-based drawing inks and permanent markers should be used
with good dilution ventilation (e.g. window exhaust fan).
Never paint on the body
with markers or drawing inks. Body
painting should be done with cosmetic colors.