The canary in the mine


Dear Artist,

On Tuesday, Debra Lawson of Winnipeg, Canada wrote, “I’m curious to know how factors such as lead, turpentine, pigments, poor ventilation, and other carcinogens have contributed to or caused the mental and physical conditions and health ailments of artists during previous eras, perhaps giving them an inaccurate persona. Knowing what we do today, artists are aware of health risks associated with the materials we work with.”

Thanks, Debra. It’s pretty difficult to know if Vincent put paint in his mouth — but after the previous clickback, I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is about to try and find out. Speaking of today, it seems to me that in our “safe” world of food and drug administrations, we may not take 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 whole bunch 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, there is still formaldehyde, aerosols and other nasties. Goodness knows what acrylic resins, talc, clay dust, turps, or a hundred other substances might do if inhaled or ingested on a daily basis.

Two years ago, at the age of eight, 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.


Emily (1996-2003)

Best regards,


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, 1713, from the first known treatise)

Esoterica: Artist Beware by Michael McCann is perhaps the best organized and most reliable current resource. He shows how certain art materials can hurt your various bodily systems. He talks about studio safety and protective equipment — and what to do in case of illness or exposure. He’s also specific to painting, printmaking, ceramics, glassblowing, enameling, sculpture, metalworking, photography and crafts.


Fall of the Roman Empire
by John Cooper, Perth, Australia

The Romans were far too clever to poison themselves. They were good chemists …they developed concrete after all. The water carried by the lead pipes had a high calcium content that quickly lined the pipes and rendered them safe. The probable cause of the fall of the Roman Empire was malaria.


Living is dangerous
by Sandra Chantry, Loughborough, UK

Living is a very dangerous business! Any day I could get careless and walk in front of a bus or catch bird flu, eat bad food etc. The only way to avoid such dangers is to live in a glass bubble, insulated from the rest of the world, which would mean we could never give to the world our full potential and would die of boredom.

Just this last week a Scottish artist died of anthrax that they assume he contracted from the materials he used. I wonder when the last one was? And… how does that compare with the death risks of deep sea fishermen or miners? The best that anyone can do is to take all sensible precautions being aware of the risks involved, bearing in mind the mental consequences of not fulfilling the potential we all have.


Dangers of paint pigment
by Patricia Neil Lawton, Vernon, BC, Canada


“Canada Day”
watercolour painting
by Patricia Neil Lawton

I teach watercolours and always am amazed at how many (new) students aren’t aware of how dangerous it is to be making their brushes “pointy” with their lips, or how many sit eating an apple or whatever while painting. The first lesson I teach is the danger of paint pigment being ingested, or even left on their skin for hours as they are painting. In my classes we all wash often as necessary and “for sure” when we stop for a lunch or coffee break. I’ve had doctors in my classes who tell me that they are happily impressed when they hear me remind people of the danger of art supplies. Be careful out there. We don’t need to make ourselves sicker.


Dangers of lead solder
by Pat Cummings, Concord, NH, USA

To add to your list of possible agents that cause health problems, lead solder used in making stained glass should be at the top of the list. I once attended a workshop about health in the workplace for artists. The presenter stressed that stain glass work should be done somewhere other than in the home. Lead becomes airborne and is ingested into the lungs, or drops to the floor where a vacuum will never pick up the minute particles. However, they are stirred up any time someone walks on a floor and can be inhaled then. It was even suggested that someone using lead should have a shower in an area outside the house and change clothes there, rather than bringing the residue on them into the home. The body has no way to process lead, once in the lungs, and it is a known carcinogen.


Warnings exaggerated
by Ursula Reese, Cookstown, ON, Canada

As a pastel teacher at a College I have to be very aware of pastel dust and toxins, however, I feel much of it is exaggerated. Cadmium, Chromium and Cobalt has been removed from the production of artists’ material, but there are some old inherited boxes of pastels around which still contain these toxins. If you have one of those, just cover your hands with barrier cream, which is available in every art store, or wear gloves — not latex gloves, which can damage your immune system. Don’t blow on your pastel painting as you work, work outdoors or in a well ventilated room, and remove the pastel dust from your studio after you are finished.

I learned from an allergist at a pastel convention organized by the International Association for Pastel Societies that the pastel dust particle is too small to do any damage to the human lung. There are many more toxic materials in your household than artist materials. My dog ate a piece of those old Cadmium loaded pastel sticks and lived a happy normal life.


Spontaneous combustion!
by Lynn Sanguedolce, Tucson, AZ, USA


“the effects of spontaneous combustion”
photo by Lynn Sanguedolce

Your letter came in such a timely way for me. I have been concerned about the dangers of some of my artist’s materials, specifically this drying oil I have been using. How about fire? Yesterday, I had set out some oil soaked rags to dry in a plastic bag filled with large holes, thinking that the fumes would evaporate and I could then dispose of the rags safely later. Surprise! Spontaneous combustion!

Check out the before and after photos of the little blue bench that was parked outside next to my rags. Artists need to beware.


Avoid unreasonable fear
by Gary Hoff, Des Moines, IA, USA


“The Patriot”
oil on panel, 20 x 16 inches
by Gary Hoff

Most art solvents are harmless in the quantities released into the studio, but it makes good sense to keep solvents covered and ventilate your space. It’s also important to realize that “smelly” doesn’t necessarily mean “toxic” or “poisonous.” Carbon monoxide has no odor. As to lead, it is true that lead poisoning in children has been a serious issue, but when was the last time you heard of adult lead poisoning? (It does happen, uncommonly, in people working around molten lead and lead vapors.) It doesn’t happen because the amount of lead needed to poison an adult is quite large, given that the response is related to body size. Speculation about the health of famous artists of previous centuries is nothing more than that — speculation — unless there is explicit evidence, and remember, many other things killed people in past centuries. Consider that many painters in previous eras lived longer than the average person (Titian lived to be nearly 90, for example) and they may have been exposed to a lot more lead than we are today since paint was commonly produced in the studio rather than in a separate location.

Please understand, I’m not saying one should not take precautions, just that it’s important to avoid unreasonable fear of materials that are very useful.


Listen to your body
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel


oil on canvas, 20 x 34 inches
by Ron Gang

Years ago when at art school I purchased bottles of “Siccative” to speed the drying of my oil paints. Made by a well-known Dutch artists’ materials firm, there was a health warning that it contained lead and to use only in a well-ventilated place. For a few years I continued to use this stuff only for my plein air work, mixing a small bit into my painting medium. I began to note that I’d return from my painting sessions with a slight queasy feeling in my stomach. After discontinuing the use of the siccative, I no longer experienced that sensation. I think it is important to be in tune with our bodies and the messages they send us.


Turpentine free!
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA

I’m an oil painter, and I’ve been able to eliminate turpentine and paint thinner from my studio all together. I use plain old grocery store safflower oil to clean my brushes, palette and hands. Another upside to this is it keeps the brushes, palette and hands soft and supple. I use only that which the manufacturers use in producing the paint to thin my paints — a small amount of purified linseed oil. You can use refined safflower oil too if you prefer. It’s just bit more expensive. Furthermore, using turpentine to thin your paints can break down the binding properties of the paint, which will cause the paint to begin flaking and or cracking after a period of time.


Lack of controls
by Stella Reinwald, Santa Fe, NM, USA

If a rosebush yields particularly beautiful roses but happens to be plagued by a fungus, the conclusion might emerge that the fungus somehow “caused” the beautiful roses. Never mind that the rest of the “ordinary” rosebushes in the garden also are afflicted with various fungi. Their roses are ordinary, therefore the fungus goes unnoted, or is perhaps the “reason” attributed to the “less beautiful” blooms.

It is a self-selecting process. The phenomena that attract attention (i.e. outstanding artists and extraordinary blooms, etc.) get scrutinized in an attempt to learn what created the extraordinary effect in an attempt to discover a way to recreate it or just explain it. Unless the occurrences are dispassionately analyzed with controls, there is no way to know if there is any correlation.


Van Gogh
by Helen Hickey, Oviedo, FL, USA


“Bob’s Garden”
acrylic painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Helen Hickey

I have to make a comment about Van Gogh: Since when I was in art school they told us the heavy slashes of paint were done because of his mental illness in anger. However, an artist friend of mine went to the Met. in N.Y.C. to see a show of Van Gogh’s work and it included sketches for some of his familiar paintings which had all the rhythmic lines placed to describe the directions of the brush strokes to come. He certainly suffered from mental illness, but a lot of clear thinking and creativity went into his paintings. I know lead poisoning can cause mental problems, but most mental disease, it seems, is caused by heredity. I have always felt sad that people have made such fortunes selling his work and that he was so poor during his lifetime. The more I study his paintings the more I like them.


Chemical fires
by Tom Bowler, New York, NY, USA

I worked in commercial art studios and advertising agencies art departments and art schools for 50 years. We handled and breathed rubber cement and the thinner Bestine by the gallon. I myself set a large drawing table top on fire while waiting for a large poster I had mounted with rubber cement and had floated it off with lots of thinner. While waiting for it to dry, I lit a cigarette and it blew up in my face and singed my beard and eye brows and hair on my head (I had hair then). Another time I had just finished another paste-up job removing lots of typo from a mechanical and had put the old wet type scraps in one of our large waste paper cans. I was talking to another person and standing by my table with my back to the large can in the corner beside my drafting table. I lit my cigarette, blew the match out and threw it over my shoulder into the wastebasket without looking — Whooom! We had an inferno 6 feet high. I covered the top of the waste basket with the mechanical (done on #172 Bainbridge board I believe) and smothered the flames. The yellow back of the Bainbridge board was a little scorched but “no problemo” — we thought it was hilarious!

I’m 70 and quit smoking 12 years ago so I guess I’m lucky and should be painting more now that I don’t work commercially that much. Your letters are inspiring.


Air filter system that actually works
by Vivian Matz-Levi, New York, NY, USA


Nelson Shanks teaching
Studio Incamminati

Regarding the topic of studio safety, I am very much the canary when it comes to fumes from solvents and charcoal dust. I developed migraine headaches after teaching very large workshops (50-plus students) with portraitist Nelson Shanks. I tried small air filter systems that sat on the floor but they didn’t seem to work. I had to give up teaching workshops and turn down a position teaching painting at the Art Students League in New York. The workshops resulted in the establishment of a school in Philadelphia. After much research, I am pleased to report that the Philadelphia School installed an industrial air filter system that actually works!

Large tubes run across the ceiling and run down pillars in the studio. The tubes open up at a height just above where palettes and solvent cups are placed. The fumes are sucked into a current that draws them horizontally into the tubes. The fumes, even from multiple palettes, never reach mouth or breathing heights. The idea of setting up a current to keep fumes below breathing levels is the key.

For more information on the industrial air filter system, please contact Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia, PA.


Concept of safety not universal
by Richard Tomkinson, La Conner, WA, USA

One month ago, I returned from a four week workshop in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Our three instructors were all graduates and teachers at the Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg, an institution that has been teaching art and art related disciplines for 250 years at the same address. Repin, Serov, and Fechin are but a few of the graduates from this school. Some of our work time was in a small atelier, and some was out and about in the city. In our group of six, we had one collapse from the heat and fumes while we were in the small atelier. The materials we used were those from the art supply store local to the academy as we could not transport much of our paint supply by air. Amazingly, the low VOC paints and related materials such as gloves were not available. We also visited artists’ professional studios and again, no safety related stuff was in evidence.

Two years ago in Brisbane, Australia, I attended evening painting classes at a local art college. There were many beginners each with their magic “medium” to help them paint like the masters. Even with an open door the air was beyond unsafe. The instructor and the students seemed miffed when I suggested some basic changes (like not using medium) to make the experience more enjoyable and safe. Later, I researched and found that basics like walnut oil and alkyd walnut oil are not available at all in Australia.

The painting experience is more creative and enjoyable if we don’t have fumes and hazardous materials to deal with. There is no reason why an oil paint studio need be any more or less safe than a watercolour or acrylic studio. I would like to say that it is mostly the attitude of the artist that makes a difference, but in some parts of the world, the concept of safe materials and practices simply has not “arrived.”





Golden Symbols


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Mark D. Gottsegen of Climax, NC, USA who wrote, “Monona Rossol’s The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide is much better. I’ve known both Mike and Monona for many years, and she seems to stay more on top of things.”

And also Sandy Davison of Lansing, MI, USA who wrote, “For a good source of technical info on lead absorption through the skin, here’s what the National Library of Medicine and Health published: The use of sweat to monitor lead absorption through the skin.”

And also Glenn Waggner who wrote, “I had cancer a few years ago, and asked my doctor about painting with oils. He said it is not that hazardous, and the best thing to do is work in a ventilated space and wear gloves. Surprisingly, I don’t mind the latex gloves, and it makes washing my hands much easier.”

And also Vicki Allwardt of Red Bluff, CA, USA who wrote, “One of my teachers said that artists are the worst polluters of cadmium in the world, and any waste water and residue should be taken to a toxic dump.”

And also Nancy Moskovitz of Ocala, FL, USA who wrote, “Why do we still use turps or turpenoid for cleaning up in the studio? I often read of artists cleaning with baby oil or vegetable oil when traveling. This is followed up with soap and water the same way as a solvent clean-up. For one less toxin, why not switch entirely?”

And also Linda Unger of Medford, NY, USA who wrote, “As a figure model in a Life Painting class, I’ve noticed and brought attention to several painters who, using more than one brush at a time, hold the other in their mouths! It seems to be a natural habit, but one that seems to me to be worth breaking.”

And also Lawrence Chamblee who wrote, “There is a teacher at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena Ca., Steven Saitzek, who specializes in the toxic effects of art materials and, I think, teaches a course in that subject.”

And also Maxine Cassin who wrote, “Even in the USA, patients in institutions are not allowed to have guns. Why was Vincent Van Gogh allowed to have a gun?”




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