Like many of you I strive to be as green an artist as possible. If you are doing the same you know how challenging it can be. When I started looking into having a green studio I was shocked how environmentally toxic the process of creating art can be. The good news is manufacturers are providing more sustainable options every day.
I am by no means an expert on this topic. However, I do continually look for ways to have a greener studio. I’m convinced there are no good or right answers and the whole conversation of green art is one of shades of gray. Difficult decisions need to be made every day, and when making those decisions I try opting for what I believe to be the lesser evil. At the end of this post, I’ve included some resources I’ve found helpful and hope you will as well.
Studio Location Makes a Difference
I used to be able to walk to my local art supplier which is a pretty ideal situation on every level. Last year I moved to a different city without, so far, an art supply store. I am near a developing arts district which will be fantastic when it gets going, but for now there isn’t enough going on to warrant an art supply store. Sadly, this means I must have my supplies delivered. A setback on so many fronts.
I do try to reduce gasoline consumption by requesting bundled orders ensuring delivery drivers only need to make one trip. I also reduce the trips by doing occasional stock up orders rather than frequent small orders. Since everything is ordered at the same time supplies usually run out around the same time.
Sketchbooks & Paper
The first place I began making changes was in the sketchbooks I use. My first change was to Canson Recycled and Strathmore 400 series sketchbooks. Both are 30% post-consumer recycled paper. Not great but a step in the right direction. As I mentioned earlier, I stock up on supplies so I have sketchbooks and paper to last me a while. Then again, I’m in an experimental phase right now and working pretty much only on paper so another order probably isn’t too far off. When I do reorder, I will also be looking for plant based and synthetic sizing as well as sustainably sourced paper. I hear bamboo paper is quite nice.
To make the best use of what I have I use the backs of paper sketches, test papers, and failed pieces. I also cut them into greeting cards and book marks. The cardboard, kraft paper, and other packing materials I receive are reused as well. I fold over, and tape, cardboard boxes to make a support for paper works. Craft paper is used to make templates and cartoons. Packing supplies can also be reused as packing supplies, of course. The small scraps or unusable pieces go in the recycle bin.
I do what I can to avoid using paper towels. I wipe tools on my clothes or on paper for an under painting or beginning of a sketchbook piece. However, sometimes they are necessary & are even used as a tool.
I balked at the price of shop towels but one towel will last for weeks so they are MUCH cheaper and less wasteful in the long run. I’ve even heard of artists rinsing them out & using them over & over.
Besides, for some reason I love getting art supplies at the hardware store.
I am trying to get away from using brushes as much as possible. I like the alternative methods I’m finding and it eliminates a whole list of considerations. Since I begin by pouring paint most of the color application is done without using a brush.
My alternatives to brushes are old plastic cards, like credit cards, insurance cards, and most often used are the plastic cards sent in promotional mail. You know the ones; sign up for our service and you can start using the enclosed card today until your personal card arrives. I hate pulling that junk mail out of my mailbox so finding a way to make it useful helps. I spread the word and have gotten the junk mail cards from friends as well. I frequently use palette knives and my favorite tool is my fingers.
Then there is the issue of cleaning the brushes; one that has become fairly controversial. I clean the brushes in a tub of water rather than under a running faucet. I’ve been opting for letting the paint water evaporate. One of the objections to this method is the necessary disposal of the residual paint. Since I use mostly fluid paint the fine paint residue clings to the sides of the jar making them a colorful addition to my supply cabinet. The jars are empty glass containers from the kitchen that I am unable to recycle where I live. (these, specifically, are Oui yogurt jars, which I find the perfect size and shape)
I haven’t been able to completely eliminate brushes from my practice but when I do buy them, I have been looking for synthetic or cruelty-free options made from nylon. I have discovered there are now some natural, cruelty free, options I can consider if buying brushes again. For example, Craftamo. They are PETA certified as Vegan & Cruelty-Free, the handles made from sustainable bamboo, and the ferrules from recycled & recyclable brass. https://www.craftamo.com/products/bamboo
While wood and glass can work for oil paints, those palettes didn’t work well for me and my acrylic paints. There was a time when I used those palette pads with sheets made of waxy paper. When done with the page it is torn off and thrown away. Sometimes I used disposable (picnic ware) plates and bowls. I cringe when I think of that now.
For a few years I have used a reusable palette that I really like. I do still have the issue of paint disposal but I’ve lowered my palette waste considerably. While I’ve only been able to reuse a small portion of the paint from the palette scraping, I was never able to reuse any paint from the old palette methods. Below is a brief demo.
I have many boxes of used cotton canvas from when I was experimenting with new painting methods. Now I’m either correcting or painting over my ‘failures’. Moving forward I will look for linen as it is much more environmentally friendly. Who knows, by the time I’ve worked my way through what I have hemp may be a more readily available canvas source. It exists as artist canvas now but is difficult to find.
This is by far the most problematic supply in my studio. I paint with acrylic paints for their vibrancy, versatility, quick dry time, and I don’t have to use solvents. They are, however, derived from a petroleum-based polymer so issues are twofold. First using them supports the petroleum industry which I’m not crazy about. Secondly, since they are essentially liquid plastic, disposal is a problem. This is why the brush cleaning method has become so controversial. I don’t want to wash the paint down the drain, but there are those who argue letting the molecules evaporate into the air isn’t good either. Like I said in the beginning, there are not good answers.
On a more positive note, currently, the bulk of my paints are by Golden. They are the best, for me, acrylic paints I’ve found. According to their spokesperson they purchase “100 percent ‘clean’ electricity generated entirely from wind and low-impact hydro sources, which definitely resulted in a smaller carbon footprint for our paints.”
They get their raw materials from companies with no “environmental violations or less than state-of-the-art pollution control practices.” They have recycled thousands of gallons of latex house paint collected from annual local-household hazardous-waste collection days.
I have looked into Oregon-based Natural Earth Paint. They have a Gold certification from Green America, their pigments are all natural and they have an “acrylic” medium that they say is “non-toxic with ZERO petroleum byproducts. Free from harmful additives, stabilizers, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals. Safe to wash down the drain and won’t damage pipes.” They also claim to have the world’s only non-toxic, vegan Gesso. The drawbacks are a limited pigment selection (many of which I don’t use) and I’d have to do the paint mixing myself.
Being a green artist can be a complicated balancing act. Creating art is a deeply personal thing and certain tools and materials will resonate with each individual artist differently. As the eco-conscious do in all areas of life; make the best choices possible and support positive changes within the industry.
Ethical Unicorn Blog Post How To Be A Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Artist
Sustainability Page for Dick Blick Artist Supplies
Jerry’s Artarama Eco-Friendly page
The book “The Artist Guide to Eco Friendly Art” by Scott Denholm available in paper and e book formats. It should be noted that Mr. Denholm is in Australia. If you are in North America, like me, this means his product recommendations would have to be shipped half way around the world making them considerably less sustainable. I still found the book very helpful and it guides me on making choices closer to home.