The oil painter’s guide to protecting yourself and the environment

The oil painter’s guide

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

Today we 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 is an overview of what you should be doing to protect yourself, others, and the environment.

While at work in the studio

  • Avoid eating, drinking and smoking in the studio, as you risk ingesting toxic materials.
  • Avoid excessive skin contact with materials, particularly solvents.
  • Do not allow solvents to evaporate. When inhaled they can cause dizziness, nausea and worse. Only use the smallest amount necessary for the job in hand.
  • Always allow good ventilation of the studio, for the reasons above.
  • Clean up spills immediately.
  • Wear an approved mask when dealing with dry pigments to avoid inhalation.
  • Oily rags should be kept in an airtight metal container.
oily rags should be kept in an airtight metal container
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 your brush (suspended in a jar so as not to crush the fibres) 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.