Artists Looking to Buy 'Green' Paints Have Trouble Finding Safe Products

In many areas of life, consumers may buy products that are less harmful to the environment than other brands, such as purchasing a hybrid automobile or bathroom tissues made from recycled paper or food from farms that practice "sustainable agriculture."

Artists, too, strive to be good stewards of the environment through the purchases they make, but it is not easy as switching to a hybrid car or using recycled materials. Over the past 40 years, art supply manufacturers have focused most of their attention on producing products that are safer for artists -- less lead (because of the association with neurological disorders) in white paint, for instance, or moving away from oil-based to water-soluble materials (in order to lessen the problems of fumes that may damage lungs, the liver and the central nervous system). When products are water-soluble, however, artists are less likely to assume that they are harmful to the environment and just pour everything down the drain, according to the product manager at an art supply company. It is probably more important for companies to inform artists how to dispose of waste in a responsible manner.

The website of the Portland, Oregon-based Gamblin Colors ( offers some guidance for studio practices in its "Newsletter" section, but the essential information largely boils down to one sentence: "Call your local recycling center for disposal instruction." Many other art supply manufacturers do the same or just hope that artists will know what to do. "On our tubes, we provide a very general statement, 'Dispose of appropriately,'" said Art Guerra, owner of Guerra Art Supplies in Brooklyn, New York.

Waste disposal requirements differ from one county or municipality to another, requiring artists to find out which agencies are in charge and what their rules are.

If you want to be green as an artist, it means taking complete responsibility for everything you do in the studio, especially how you dispose of waste. Art supplies are chemicals; even watercolors and gouaches, which are more environment-friendly than many other products, have pigments that are chemicals, and you don't want these things in your body or in the environment.

In other words, artists cannot just buy their way into "green-ness" but must be vigilant about what they do with all the supplies they use. It requires artists to find out things and be proactive.

In these environmentally anxious days, when everyone is striving to be more eco-friendly and green, a growing number of artists' materials suppliers are marketing themselves as being safe to the planet and nontoxic. Some manufacturers of easels indicate whether or not the wood used comes from a plantation or sustainable forest, rather than harvested from an older-growth forest, for instance. Rex Art, an art materials supplier based in Miami, proudly claims on its Web site that "Here at Rex Art we do our best to be green. Our offices and warehouse are painted with low VOC paint, we use non-toxic cleaning products and we recycle shipping boxes and packing material. We've installed efficient lighting fixtures throughout our facility and programmed our thermostats so that we use less energy. We even made sure our desks were certified to have less of an impact on the environment throughout their lifecycle." (VOC stands for volatile organic compounds.) Glob Paints, in Berkeley, California (, touts the fact that its paints in six colors (Lemon Verbena, Tangerine, Plum Purple, Berry Blue, Pomegranate and Basil Green) "are made from fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices" and "are gluten-free, soy-free and vegan." The Earth Pigments Company in Cortaro, Arizona, for its part, makes the claim that "[a]ll of our pigments, binders, and mediums are safe, non-toxic, environmentally friendly," in large measure because they do not contain certain hazardous metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury or tin. That's fine as far as it goes, but many artists want more than just earth tones. They will end up looking for metals, such as the cadmiums and cobalts, and their choice is simply to purchase it from some other supplier. It is important to note that artists' materials suppliers don't make or produce pigments themselves but purchase pounds and kilos of them from mining companies abroad whose main buyers have industrial uses in color-making. In fact, these companies are not necessarily mining for pigments at all and instead are seeking a certain kind of ore when they happen to run across a vein of ochre or something else. This will be sorted out and sold to middlemen who are the suppliers to the makers of artist materials. The mining companies themselves operate under different national laws, which are generally strict and (one hopes) enforced.

With companies that produce artists' paints, the "green" claims principally involve how they dispose of waste. Golden Artist Colors, a manufacturer of water-based paints in New Berlin, New York, for instance, has a multi-step process of treating the 2,000 gallons of waste water produced each day. The water is not dumped down the drain but put through an initial filtering process that separates the acrylic solids from the clear wate. Those solids form a largely dry "waste cake" that goes to a landfill, while the remaining water undergoes a reverse osmosis filtering system that separates chemicals in one stream (sent to a waste treatment facility) and clean water in another (to be reused back in the factory). The company recycles many different things - electronic equipment, paper, printer cartridges, you name it - but its largest concern is the water we use here.

Gamblin Artist Colors, whose factory is 100 percent wind-powered and seeks to "buy the materials we need as local as possible" in order to limit the transportation carbon footprint, has another way of reusing what otherwise might be viewed as waste material. The company uses an air filtration system to protects employees from exposure to pigment dust. Every year, this pigment is collected and, rather than sending it to the landfull, Gamblin uses this mish-mosh to form a generally dark gray paint, which it calls Gamblin Torrit Grey (named after the company's Torrit Air Filtration system) and markets toward the end of April around Earth Day.

Like "all-natural" and "organic," "green" isn't a term regulated by governmental agencies but often is defined by whomever is using it. Because of the concern over their proprietary formulas and trade secrets, manufacturers of artists' materials continue to be reluctant to reveal completely what is contained in the products they sell.

Monona Rossol, director of the New York City-based Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, an organization that evaluates health-related concerns of performing and visual artists, noted that she is often skeptical about the "green" claims of many art supply companies. "You need to separate their environmental practices from what is safe for you in the studio," she said. She noted that citrus oil, which is regularly marketed as a safe substitute for turpentine, "is considered green, because it's biodegradable. However, it's every bit as toxic as turpentine for you." In general, she doesn't trust many of the artists' materials manufacturers, "because they won't tell you all the ingredients in their products" on the federal government-required Material Safety Data Sheets. "Many of the ingredients in their products have never been tested for toxicity, so how can they claim they won't harm you? But, still, most of these companies put the nontoxic label on their products."