Toxic Tips

By David Langevin
I use my hands a lot when I am painting, esp with acrylics, and more so when there is a lot of texture in the piece. It is good to understand the health hazards when creating your masterpieces, and there is a long history of painters getting sick from their craft.  Goya’s ills in his middle years and Van Gogh’s famous mental and physical health problems have since been attributed to the ingestion of paints.  In fact, the glow that Van Gogh painted around lights and stars in his later works is thought to be the result of lead poisoning which causes swelling in the optic nerve – he actually saw that glow around objects!
For us painters, the most TOXIC element we deal with are the pigments themselves, regardless of the medium (oils, acrylics, watercolors). They range from a couple that is non TOXIC, to mildly and moderately so, to high, and all the way to extremely TOXIC. In small amounts, even highly toxic pigments are not necessarily a big problem, but small amounts over a long period of time can result in serious health issues. Poor Van Gogh can attest to that.
There are 4 ways that you can get pigments into your blood, I will list them here in order of highest to lowest risk:
1. Breath the pigment in powdered form. The small pigment particles can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream thru the lungs.  This is a concern for artists that make their own paints and are handling the dry powder pigment. This was a major problem for hundreds of years when artists made all their own paints right in the studio. Artists working with dry pastels also need to have careful working habits for this reason.
2. Eating your paint. This is the most common cause, normally due to frequent and incidental habits like biting your nails or the end of a paintbrush, accidentally dipping your brush in your beverage or getting wet paint on food,…
3. Cleaning paint on your hands with solvents. The pigment in the paint that gets on your hands, like in the picture I posted, will not enter the bloodstream thru the skin unless it is carried thru by a solvent like mineral spirits or turpentine which is readily absorbed. Solvents themselves are also moderately TOXIC.
4. Getting the paint into the body thru open wounds. I expect this to be a rare and unusual occurrence for most painters.
Author: David Langevin
Date: July 8, 2021

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