How to Shop for Eco-Friendly Art Supplies
How do you ensure that your art supplies are better for the planet? | Jopie Louwe Kooijmans

Traditionally, art and creativity have been mediums to test the status quo, to initiate change, to criticize society, and to break taboos. And in this time of change and self-reflection, it has only become more important to better ourselves and try to be a part of solutions for a more sustainable world. For creatives, that means understanding where your tools and supplies come from. But how do you know if your art is truly cruelty-free? And how can you tell if you’re purchasing sustainable art supplies?

How to Be an Eco-Friendly Artist

While there is much information to be found on veganism, sustainability, and animal testing in food, clothing, and cosmetics, not much has been written about sustainable and vegan art supplies. Reliable information can be difficult to find—this particular industry is very polluting and offers very little transparency. Although many harmful thinners, solvents, pigments derived from heavy metals and other toxic and environmentally harmful ingredients are already banned or regulated by the European Union, just as many of them are still used today.

These are the effects of art supplies on your health and the environment. So how do you become an eco-friendly artist? Read on for our five tips.

How to Shop for Eco-Friendly Art Supplies
Here’s how to choose eco-friendly art supplies. | Jopie Louwe Kooijmans

1. Know what’s in your paints

Traditionally, many pigments were made from heavy metals, which are often extremely toxic. Because of this, the life expectancy of professional artists from the past used to be lower on average, and many artists suffered from symptoms of poisoning from the toxins they came into contact with every day.

Scientists suspect that the halos Van Gogh famously painted in some of his works were actually a result of lead poisoning. Lead white was praised for its opacity and lightfastness, but it is highly toxic and the fumes cause hallucinations and serious health problems. Nowadays, lead white and lead-based paints are banned in most countries.

Also notorious is the so-called Scheele’s Green, a popular emerald green pigment mostly used to dye fabric and wallpaper, which came into popularity in the 18th century. Scheele’s Green is made of cupric hydrogen arsenite, one of the most toxic substances in the world. It was so toxic that at some point in time many people died from it, and it is suggested that even Napoleon Bonaparte died of arsenic poisoning from the bright green wallpaper in his home in St. Helena, which was likely the cause for his stomach cancer.

Even today, heavy metals are still used in pigments—in particular, pigments based on cadmium. Cadmium was banned in the EU for a while, but is now widely used again as a basis for red, orange, and yellow pigments in paint and is praised by many artists for its lightfastness and beautiful color. Other heavy metals that are still in use today include manganese, ceruleum, and cobalt.

2. Choose less-harmful products

A less-toxic and more recent alternative to cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, and cadmium red are azo pigments, which fortunately are now widely available as well.

Imitation pigments of the above mentioned heavy metals exist, and these are widely available as well. These are less harmful to your health but often have a less beautiful color. Some artists prefer pigments from real heavy metals, despite the health risks.

You can recognize the imitation pigments by the word ‘hue’, which indicates that a pigment matches in terms of coloration, but does not contain the actual pigment it is named after. A color called “Manganese Blue Hue” will not contain actual manganese. On the other hand, a name like “Cadmium Red Genuine” indicates that the paint does contain heavy metals.

3. Watch out for plastics

Plastic is a very common ingredient in paint, varnish, lacquer, and glue. This often goes by the name acrylic, polyurethane, polyester, or silicone. Acrylic paint appears to be a water-based paint and you can also mix it with water if it hasn’t cured yet, but is actually plastic-based with a solvent that makes it water-soluble. Rinsing your acrylic paint brushes in the sink causes this liquid plastic to end up in the environment, where it can unintentionally cause major damage.

Plastic is also widely used in adhesives and sealants. While many glues are traditionally made from animal bones or rabbit skin, a lot of these have now been replaced by synthetic alternatives, often based on different types of plastics. This is cheaper and the adhesive strength is often better.

The same goes for varnish and lacquer. Acrylic and polyurethane-based varnishes are cheap, strong, cure well, and have a relatively long life. But because they are plastic-based with often harmful thinners, they can be very bad for the environment.

4. Be careful working with chemical solvents!

It is a well-known fact that inhaling turpentine fumes is very bad for your health. In the drying of solvents such as turpentine, but also in the curing of certain types of glue and varnish and to a (much) lesser extent in the curing of acrylic paint, toxic gases are released which are generally referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Many types of marker and pen inks also contain these harmful solvents.

Because of this, it is unwise to work with paint or glue in an ill-ventilated space. It is strongly recommended not to work near an open jar of turpentine or thinner.

Inhaling these toxic fumes can cause health problems such as headaches, nausea, burns, respiratory problems, and lung or kidney damage. You should always close your turpentine if you are not working with it directly. If you want to use a less harmful alternative for thinning your oil paint, use walnut or linseed oil.

To dispose of your turpentine, put any rags with turpentine in a well-sealed container or jar until they can be disposed of with small chemical waste. If there is oil on them, add some water as tightly packed cloths with oil may ignite spontaneously.

Many of the harmful substances used in paints and thinners are known to the European Union and are closely regulated. Is there a warning label on your paint, varnish, or thinner? There is a good chance that it contains toxins. But in general, you can assume that all of it is toxic to some degree unless you use paint that is specifically made for small children.

5. Dispose of your supplies properly

Proceed with caution. These substances are not only bad for your health, but can be downright devastating to the ecosystem. Separate your paint, thinners, and other chemicals and dispose of them appropriately along with other small chemical waste. Do not rinse your paintbrushes in the sink. Make sure you always work in a well-ventilated area and avoid toxic ingredients where possible. If you are mindful of these things, your health and the environment will thank you for it.

These art supplies contain animal ingredients

Because paint, paper, and brushes are sold without ingredient lists on the packaging and there is often little transparency in the production process, it can be very difficult to find out whether products are vegan or not. There is also little knowledge about the origin of certain products. Toxic or harmful substances are generally more well known, as they are often regulated by the EU and brands need to comply with certain laws to be able to sell them.

How do you know if your art supplies are vegan?

As a vegan artist, it can be very hard to navigate this complicated and often confusing world. Below is a list of companies that were approached for this article with information that might help with making an informed decision. Be mindful that not all of these brands are 100 percent vegan friendly, and the decision, if you want to use their products, is eventually up to you.

The only way to find out if your art supplies are vegan is to contact the brand or manufacturer. You’ll find that you’ll often receive unclear and complicated answers or even no answer at all. Sometimes brands are not even aware of the animal ingredients in their products. It’s usually best to be as specific as possible when asking questions. A few art brands have lists of vegan products available on their website or on request.

Reading ingredients is a good place to start when trying to determine if a product is vegan or cruelty-free. Here is a list of eight common animal-derived ingredients to look out for when shopping for art supplies:

  1. Beeswax and animal fat in crayons and pencils
  2. Animal hair in paintbrushes
  3. Animal gelatin in paper, glue, and ink
  4. Glycerine (derived from animals) used as a wetting agent in watercolor paint
  5. The animal-derived pigment ivory black in paints and inks
  6. Carmine (derived from insects) as a dye in ink
  7. Oxgall (derived from cows) as a binding agent in watercolor paint
  8. Animal shellac in varnish or India ink

This article was originally published by Shop Like You Give a Damn, Europe’s online department store for vegan, fair & sustainable fashion, cosmetics, and homeware.