The Oil Painter's Guide to Protecting Yourself and The Environment


Protecting yourself and the environment

An awareness of health and safety practices may not always be the priority for artists, but it’s essential to protect yourself – and to look after the environment.

Bones discovered in Tuscany in 2010 were almost certainly to be Caravaggio’s in part because of the alarming levels of lead they contained. 

We’ve moved on since then and are much more aware of harmful substances: the use of the most dangerous ones is either much diminished or has vanished altogether. But artists still work with toxic materials and are rarely exposed to the inspections and procedures that keep other businesses mindful of the hazards involved. Here’s an overview of what you should be doing to protect yourself, others, and the environment.

While at work in the studio


Oily rags should be kept in an airtight metal container

Clean-up and disposal

It’s very important that nothing goes down the sink. Solvents and heavy metals are toxic and must be disposed of responsibly. Have a good clean-up and disposal system that is as ethically responsible as possible.

  • Palette cleaning Clean up by scraping your palette into newspaper, then putting that in a sealed bag for disposal.
  • Brush cleaning Wipe and scrape excess paint off the brush into a rag or newspaper. Soak the suspended brush in a suitable paint thinner – preferably a low odour solvent such as Winsor & Newton Sansodor. Over time the pigments will settle at the bottom. Decant the excess thinner to be used again. Dispose of the residue as responsibly as possible. You can finish cleaning your brush with a product such as Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner.
  • Oil rags Rags are a key element in any oil painters’ practice. As the oil is drying on the rag it produces heat, and air gets trapped in the folds. The rag is usually made of a combustible cloth that can become a source of fuel. Heat, oxygen and fuel are all that is needed to create a fire, which is why oily rags, when not disposed of properly, can spontaneously burst into flames. Oily rags should be kept in an airtight metal container, and then transferred into an airtight sealed plastic bag for disposal.
  • Disposal of hazardous waste Oil paints and solvents, and rags that have been soaked in them, constitute hazardous waste. This should not normally be disposed of in mixed municipal waste such as household and garden waste. In some cases, your local council may be able to collect the waste from you, though there may be a charge for this. Alternatively, you may be able to deliver it to a household recycling or civic amenity site, free of charge. Your local council will be able to advise you on where to take all types of hazardous waste in your area.