Are your art supplies toxic?

The therapeutic aspects of art are well-known and indeed, practising art can have a positive impact on mental health and create a sense of wellbeing. However, what is lesser known is that the use of art materials containing toxic chemicals can be detrimental and affect both physical and mental health. There are several instances where artists’ ailments have been attributed to the use of heavy metals in paints and pigments, and the presence of other toxic chemicals in their surroundings.

The occurrence of metals such as cadmium, lead, chromium and cobalt in paints, fumes from solvents and fine dust from corrosive materials that are used in sculptures are some of the ingredients considered hazardous and are known to impact health on prolonged exposure. From allergies, cardiopulmonary and dermatological issues to carcinogenic risks, there is a whole spectrum of health issues associated with constant exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from delusions and other physical and mental ailments, used thick impasto paint, which was exceedingly pigmented with high lead content. It is believed that he had a tendency to lick his brushes, which in all probability led to ingestion of lead in significant quantities over time and could have contributed to his health problems. Similarly, exposure to cadmium, a metal found extensively in bright reds, oranges and yellows, is linked to respiratory and renal issues and increased cancer risk.

Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne were some of the famous artists who used cadmium paints in their works to add that beautiful touch of vibrant reds and yellows. Another example is Henri Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’ an iconic and radical work in forceful red, a painting that challenges the concept of spatial illusion.

Arsenic, which is similar to lead in its poisoning action, was used to paint the floral patterns on wallpapers in the late 18th century. The green colour, made of copper arsenite, was known as Scheele’s Green after its inventor, and was hugely popular in the 19th century. Later on, it was found to be toxic, especially in damp surroundings, which allowed mould to grow and subsequently release arsenic into the air. Conjecture surrounds Napoleon’s death with theories ranging from murder to cancer; toxicology results on tests conducted long after his death found high levels of arsenic in his hair. By some accounts, the arsenic was attributed to the wallpaper in Napoleon’s exile home in St Helena, which was papered with Scheele’s Green!

Apart from paints, solvents containing benzene, xylene, acetone, methanol, trichloroethylene, and carbon tetrachloride, to name a few; carbon monoxide, dust, epoxy resins and polyester resins in sculpture making, and clay dust, glazes, silica, lead, cadmium, toxic metals, talc and asbestiform in ceramics, are just a few chemicals that can cause serious health conditions in artists and restorers.

Fortunately, with growing awareness, most art materials follow stringent safety guidelines now and are usually marked ‘non-toxic’ if produced according to safety standards. Despite this, constant innovation by artists and the use of new materials and processes in artmaking carry an element of risk. It is crucial therefore to handle chemicals with caution and use appropriate safety equipment as much as possible.

The author is a Bengaluru-based art consultant, curator and writer. She blogs at Art Scene India and can be reached on [email protected]

Dab Hand is your fortnightly art world low-down.