When Learning Becomes a Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

Labels, labels, labels 

Do you read labels for products you purchase? Hair and skin products? Cleaning products? Packaged food? Have you ever looked up ingredients you didn’t recognize to find out what they are? What about labels for products or materials used in an artist’s studio? 

Learning is an adventure 

Merriam-Webster.com is my pal – I like to look up words I don’t know. Especially unfamiliar words on the labels of products I buy, including products or materials for my studio. 

One of the more significant challenges of being an artist on a sustainable journey is finding truly eco-friendly materials. Recycled papers are a gimme. But as a painter and mixed media artist, I have more challenges than paper. I use a range of pigment mediums (heavy metals are used to make many colors), gesso (commonly plastic), varnishes and solvents (turpentine or petroleum-based), and a variety of other materials. Fortunately, as I switch over to sustainable options, I’ve found that more and more companies understand artists are looking for healthier and greener alternatives. 

So how can I determine what’s safe to use in creating my art? I read the labels – then look up any of the ingredients I don’t know. If the definition is complicated, I keep reading. Technical words can describe a chemical process, and a string of Latin words can refer a non-toxic or organic substance that’s harmless. This research can definitely turn into a run down a rabbit hole. But I always have the option to call or email a manufacturer and ask for clarification.  

Does ‘natural’ mean safe? 

I try to be aware that when a product says it’s ‘natural,’ it doesn’t always mean healthy or safe. For example, turpentine is a natural substance that comes from pine tree resin. However, the distillation and processing required to make turpentine from pine resin creates an end product that’s flammable, combustible and a health hazard to humans and the environment. And turpentine is just one of many products in a studio. 

As each artist’s practice is unique, we need to decide what makes sense to us. Because of growing social awareness around sustainability and health, the artist supply market is expanding with many new environmentally-friendly products. Reading labels and investigating unfamiliar ingredients helps me decide if a material or product is suitable for my artwork and my goals.  

Photo credit: Sincerely Media via Unsplash