Artists of the past often suffered poor physical and mental health due to the materials they worked with: lead, powdered pigment, turpentine, carcinogens, etc. It’s difficult to know if Vincent van Gogh put paint in his mouth, but someone, somewhere, may be trying to find out. Clinical pathologist Dr. Paul Wolf of the University of California cites that illnesses, rather than being obstacles, can be the paths to genius. He mentioned the likes of Einstein, Warhol, Newton, Cezanne, Goya, Michelangelo, Turner and Berlioz. According to Wolf, these folks suffered varying degrees of depression, autism, myopia, anxiety, chronic pain, gout, stroke and dementia.
Historically speaking, we artists have been through a hundred years where “artist” has been aligned with “nut case.” It hasn’t always been so. I, for one, am working to have this current connection declared null and void. Actually, clear-sighted individuals with no known diseases may be the ones who are doing most of the good work.
Today, in our “safe” world of food and drug administrations, we may not be taking as many precautions as we might. Artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci certainly knew they were working with nasty chemicals because they prepared their own. They were very much aware of lead poisoning. Indeed, the fall of the Roman Empire had a lot to do with drinking water supplied through lead pipes. But it does stand to reason that a lot of painters died early because they didn’t protect themselves from the ingestion of toxic lead-based paint–particularly through their skins. There have been no prophylactic gloves reported from Florence or Rome. To my knowledge, the exhuming of painter’s bodies for the purpose of measuring traces of lead, arsenic, etc., has not yet happened.
My feeling for today’s studios is to err on the side of caution and to apply common sense. Even though modern-day paints are largely free of the really bad stuff, formaldehyde, aerosols and other nasties can still be found. Goodness knows what acrylic resins, talc, clay dust, turps, or a hundred other substances might do if inhaled or ingested on a daily basis.
In 2003, at the age of 8, my lovely Airedale Emily died. She was my constant studio companion. In autopsy, veterinarian experts were not able to identify the hundreds of tiny black nodules that filled her abdomen. When I insisted on an answer, I was assured that this was not the result of toxic substances from my studio. Were they trying to salve my feelings of guilt and sadness? I’ve always wondered if Emily was the canary in my mine. I have now more frequently thrown open my doors and run my fans. I try to keep my paws out of my paint.
PS: “I have observed that nearly all the painters I know, both in this and other cities, are sickly. Especially the most distinguished. For they handle and smell red lead, cinnabar, white lead, varnish, nut oil and linseed oil, as well as pigments made from various mineral substances.” (Bernardini Ramazzini 1633-1713) from Diseases of Workers , the first known treatise)
Esoterica: Artist Beware by Michael McCann is perhaps the best organized and most reliable current resource on this subject. He shows how certain art materials can hurt your various bodily systems. He talks about studio safety and protective equipment and what you can do in case of illness or exposure. He’s also specific to painting, printmaking, ceramics, glassblowing, enameling, sculpture, metalworking, photography and crafts.
This letter was originally published as “The canary in the mine” on August 18, 2006.
Included in this letter are excerpts from “How sick are you?” published August 15, 2006.
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