To mask or not to mask? That is the question!

Photo credit: Jon Tyson via Unsplash 

This isn’t about a virus. It’s about studio safety. 

Mask it up 

Artist studios are full of materials, including solvents, cleaners, powders, glues, resins, etc. Some of these can be pretty noxious, and others are odor-free.  

Additionally, in mixing or using various powders (blending pigments, using pastel chalks), many become airborne. These processes aren’t smelly, but in becoming airborne, powders can often be dangerous if inhaled.  

I really enjoy using soft chalk pastels with their wonderfully earthy smell. But I never thought about wearing a mask when using them until a few years ago when reading an article about different ways to work with them. I noticed a manufacturer actually recommended users wear a mask to protect themselves from the dust. It was a revelation for me. None of my art teachers in college or afterward told me it was dangerous to inhale chalk or pigment dust. Of course, college was a while ago, when we went around inhaling all kinds of things that weren’t good. 

Many solvents, glues, resins, or paints, smell chemical and unhealthy, and when using an you these I typically wear a mask. However, I personally love the smell of oil paint and walnut oil (blending medium), so I don’t wear a mask when painting – as neither of them is considered harmful to my lungs. But I also work in my garage, so it’s easy for me to get ventilation when needed. I use a solvent to clean my brushes but tend to open up the door for fresh air when doing this.

Photo credit: Clay Banks via Unsplash 

Now add in some gloves 

 Artists are tactile folks by nature. We like to get our hands into things – get dirty while we create. While I don’t mind getting dirty, and some of my colleagues are very neat in their creative endeavors, I often end up with paint in my hair (seriously, and I’m not sure how this happens most of the time). 

A significant safety supply in my studio is a box of nitrile gloves to wear when painting recreating mixed media. Some pigments in my favorite colors aren’t safe for skin contact. Since I use oil bars (big fat crayons made of oil paint and wax), I’m literally holding onto the paint with my hands while drawing on surfaces; gloves are essential to my process. And I can usually get a pair of gloves to last 3-4 painting sessions. 

Gloves are also helpful when using other toxic or questionably unhealthy mediums with pigments, such as glazes, resins, and glues. And they can be taken off before grabbing a water bottle or cup of coffee. (I keep all beverages near the door of my studio - well away from working areas - so that I have to walk across the studio if I want a drink. It forces me to think about taking off my gloves before touching my cup or water bottle. And no food in the studio - ever).

Photo credit: Jordi Boixareu via Shutterstock   

If it’s dangerous for me, is it unsafe for collectors too? 

If an artist’s materials are unsafe in a studio, is it dangerous to have art in your home? Does artwork off-gas? Do you need to wear a mask when in a museum or gallery?  

Oil paints are made using highly refined vegetable oil (walnut or linseed) and pigments. When used alone or with a blending medium like another oil or wax, oil paints don’t release any chemicals into the air. But used with a solvent containing petroleum distillate, like turpentine, harmful chemicals evaporate into the air. Many solvents are known to cause long-term neurological damage. 

Acrylic paints contain pigments with a polymer emulsion and a polymer binder. As acrylic paints dry, water, propylene glycol, ammonia, and sometimes formaldehyde are released into the air.  

Some research helped me understand that once artists’ paints, sealants, glues, and varnishes dry, there is no further danger to others. Once completely dried, these products and their dangerous components become neutralized. So you can breathe easy while admiring your art collection in your home or office. 

Just be smart about it 

I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the impact of the materials I use on myself, others, and the environment. By reading product Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and looking up unfamiliar ingredients, I work to choose the best, healthiest materials and supplies available. And even though The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) regulates my industry, many common artist supplies on the market are still harmful when regularly used. 

Like so many other things in life, we need to self-advocate. The difference for artists who create physical products is that we need to physically protect ourselves from the more hazardous aspects of our work.