Creativity is key to a sustainable future. It breeds innovation, helps us design new ways of living that aren’t focused on capital and consumption, and it brings beauty and joy.
However, art can also bring some environmental impacts along with it. Longstanding traditional art practices and materials can be toxic to our health and harmful to the planet. Luckily, as in many other industries, sustainable options are on the rise.
So if you’re a creative who also wants to remain conscious and minimise impact, here are some things you may want to think about.
As the place where most artwork resides, surfaces are a key starting point:
- Check for FSC certification for paper or wood-based products.
- Choose Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) or Totally Chlorine Free (TCF). Chlorine is used to bleach paper but isn’t vital for production.
- Try recycled paper. Multiple suppliers sell entire sketchbooks made with recycled materials, while other options should list the percentage of recycled content they contain.
- Whether paper or canvas, opt for organic, recycled and nontoxic options where you can, such as hemp, flax, bamboo or cotton. German supplier Hanemuhle sells eco-friendly fine-art paper made from 90% bamboo/10% cotton, and free from optical brighteners.
- If you use cardboard, sign up with Packshare to use what others would throw away.
- Use a tablet and stylus where you can. Even if this is to create a design that will then be printed, it helps reduce overall paper usage.
- For mounting opt for biodegradable foamboards
- Or, go for a circular approach by sourcing discarded wood, fabric, furniture or other materials from your local disposal facilities.
These days many artists design digitally to then sell prints of their work. While this keeps paper usage and waste down, you can take this to the next level by choosing your print studio carefully.
If you’re looking to get art printed here are some examples of what to look for:
- Edinburgh Printmakers changed all classic printmaking methods to nontoxic ones by the mid-1990s, including acrylic resist etching, water-based screenprinting, relief printing and lithography using non-toxic chemicals
- Swansea Print Workshop use solvent-free, nontoxic printing methods by using water-based techniques and using vegetable oil instead of white spirit when cleaning up oil-based inks.
- Green Door Printmaking Studio is an open access artist studio dedicated to environmental printmaking.
- Hello Print Studio use water-based System3 inks for screenprinting and water-washable Caligo Safe inks for relief printing, as well as vegetable oil for cleaning and citrus-based solvent Zest-it, while most of the studio uses reclaimed and secondhand materials.
- PRINT.WORK are a Leeds-based sustainable printing company with a range of 100% recycled and FSC papers. They use inks made from organic biomass that can still be recycled at any plant, and carbon-neutral delivery
- If you have garments to print, organisations such as I Dress Myself offer eco-friendly shirts for artists, galleries and bands across the world.
There are two common types of ink used for screenprinting (predominantly on fabrics): plastisol and water-based. Plastisol is industry standard, and the default for commercial printers, because they’re cheap and good for mass production. However, most plastisol inks contain PVC, which is plastic. Plastisol also contains plasticiser to make the ink more fluid, which often contains phthalates, a toxic chemical. While some plastisol inks are now phthalate-free, PVC alone causes damage. Besides the environmental and health risks this causes, PVC also isn’t drain safe, meaning printers use harmful chemicals to break down plastisol from printing equipment and screens.
Water-based inks are a sustainable alternative that is increasingly popular. They consist of pigments suspended in water with no plastics, so screens and equipment can be washed with water that can go down the drain. Water-based prints can be more energy-intensive to dry and don’t easily print on darker fabrics. Overall they’re still the more sustainable option, which is why many printers have now adopted these technologies, and it’s easy to look out for who’s using this technology. In general you should be able to find water-based or nontoxic inks that work for whatever you want to do.
If you’re lino printing by hand, the good news is that lino is made from natural materials, recyclable and biodegradable (without releasing toxins). Opt for low-VOC, vegetable-based inks.
For the fine artists among us this is, understandably, an important area. Manufacturers often guard where they source their pigments for business reasons, but how and where these substances come from needs to be discussed.
Traditionally, many pigments were made from toxic heavy metals, vastly shortening the life expectancy of professional artists in the past. Lead-based paints are now banned in most countries, but many paints still contain toxins and heavy metals such as cadmium, manganese, ceruleum, and cobalt. As well as health risks these can all cause environmental damage; either through microorganisms breaking down the paint and leaching toxins and metals into the environment (and eventually the food chain), or through these metals entering the water system when washed down the drain.
Plastic is also a common ingredient in paint, usually under the name acrylic, polyurethane, polyester, or silicone. Acrylic paint isn’t water-based, it’s plastic-based with a solvent that makes it water-soluble, so rinsing acrylic paint brushes in the sink causes microplastic to end up in the environment.
Often art suppliers have minimal influence over chemical companies that take raw materials and make them into pigments for paints, as industries ordering vast quantities (eg. car manufacturers) who have the most influence on what colours chemical companies make, in what quantities, and how responsible the production is. This shows the need for cross-industry pressure and consumer pressure.
In the meantime, here’s what you can do:
- Always read warning labels, looking out for chemicals like formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, cadmium and lead.
- A less-toxic alternative to cadmium yellow, orange, and red are azo pigments, which are now widely available, alongside other imitation pigments for these heavy metals. Imitation pigments usually use the word hue, this means a pigment matches in terms of colour but doesn’t contain the actual pigment. “Manganese Blue Hue” won’t contain actual manganese, while “Cadmium Red Genuine” will contain cadmium.
- In general, where you can, opt for water-based paints, plant- and mineral-based pigments, and other nontoxic options.
- You can find water-soluble, also known as water-miscible, oil paints.
- Don’t be wasteful by squeezing too much paint onto the palette initially – you can always add more later!
- Leftover paint on the palette can be preserved in a fridge or cooler, meaning it will last longer.
- Store caps from used tubes of paint, then if you lose one you have a backup to avoid paint drying up.
- When looking for paints for walls or similar surfaces, opt for water-based, low or zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) options
- Solvents and thinners can also release VOCs. If you do use turpentine don’t work with an open container and store rags in a sealed container to be disposed of with hazardous waste. If there is oil on them, add some water as tightly packed cloths with oil may ignite spontaneously. Walnut or linseed oil is a much safer alternative to thin oil paint.
- Solvent-based markers contain xylene, a chemical dangerous for the nervous system, kidneys, respiratory and reproductive systems. Opt for water-based options instead.
- Most aerosols (spray paints) are toxic as they contain Trichloroethylene, which poses significant health risks. Always follow instructions on packaging and work in well-ventilated spaces. Temporary chalk spray paint is said to be a more sustainable option.
- Glue also contains Trichloroethylene, look for nontoxic options instead.
- If you do work with hazardous materials, always keep your working space well ventilated.
- Avoid glitter, which is made from microplastics. While biodegradable glitter does exist, studies so far suggest damage to the environment is just as bad.
A good supplier should be transparent about the toxicity of their products and able to offer sustainable alternatives. If unsure, you can always ask for a material data safety sheet. They should also be able to answer questions on their supply chain and what green credentials items carry. For example, Jerry’s Artarama has a specific eco-friendly section, based on set criteria listed on their website.
Here are a few other options that come highly recommended:
- Blick’s eco-friendly product list.
- Natural Earth Paint, a small family business that creates paint using pigments from nature, us recycled packaging, biodegradable bags, and glass bottles, operate in a solar-powered facility.
- Utrecht offer cadmium-free paint options: made with organic blends, but with the same opacity, feel and weight as traditional products.
- M. Graham & Co. use walnut oil as a binder in almost all of its paints, eliminating the need for solvents when cleaning brushes.
- Eartheasy.com sells watercolour paints that use plant dyes and watercolour pencils made with sustainably sourced wood.
- Winsor & Newton use a rainwater collection system as a sustainable water source at their brush-making plant.
- Pilot’s B2P pens are made out of recycled water bottles.
That being said, this an area where you may need to be flexible. While online stores may offer these products, this may not be the best option for you if they need to ship halfway across the world to reach you. Buying local can keep costs down and reduce carbon footprints significantly. Look locally first, especially in independent shops who will have more information on their suppliers, before searching abroad. Plus, remember to check out what secondhand options may be in your area too.
Once your creation is ready, it’s time for the cleanup. Here are ways to reduce waste while you make:
- Plan ahead and only buy the amount of materials you need to complete a project – you can always buy more if you run out!
- Preserve acrylic paint by preventing the water escaping so it can’t dry out. Keep it well sealed and avoid extreme temperatures – frequent freezing and thawing ruins the paint’s consistency.
- Dispose of leftover acrylics in solid form to prevent microplastic pollution.
- Golden Paints has disposal tips for acrylic paint.
- Golden Paints also has instructions for removing acrylic from your water.
- Oil paint has a few days before it dries out, so can be saved for later use. Wrap it tightly or transfer it to glass and immerse the glass panel in water (oil and water don’t mix, so this keeps paints wet without dissolving them).
- Buy a toxic chemical container for all of your oil paint and mineral spirit waste, and take it to the nearest disposal centre when needed. This keeps these chemicals out of the environment and also seals vapours inside.
- Use excess paint to create another painting. Instead of putting your paintbrush in water, wipe as much excess paint off onto another canvas/surface. At the end you’ll have a second experimental piece!
- Don’t rinse brushes in the sink. Solvents break down paint to stop it reaching the environment, however they can also produce harmful fumes. Look for nontoxic options like citrus-based solvents or wipe clean with oils like safflower and linseed.
- You can reuse solvent too: place brushes in a container and gradually pour solvent in before leaving overnight. In the morning the paint will have fallen to the bottom, meaning you can strain the solvent and reuse it.
- When receiving supplies, hold onto the packaging for future art or shipping your own pieces.
- Sign up with Packshare to reuse packaging from others, or give your packaging on to others who need it.
- Before throwing materials away, check in with the local artist community to see if someone else can use them. Henderson has a guide for donating and recycling used materials.
Shifting the industry
If you want to adopt a more conceptual sustainable approach overall but aren’t sure where to start, there are multiple artists who work in innovative, eco-friendly ways.
Art is not the most financially lucrative career, leading many artists to be resourceful and low impact when they start out. Many upcycle found objects or use foraged and natural materials as a basis for their work, whether it be driftwood, discarded plastic or discarded household items.
For example, Jaynie Gillman Crimmins uses shredded mail, envelopes and catalogues, while Susan Beallor-Snyder uses Natural Manila Rope made from sustainable Abaca fibres. Ibrahim Mahama uses anything from jute sacks to abandoned objects from the colonial history of Ghana, while Olafur Eliasson filled an entire wall with reindeer moss. There are multiple ways to get involved, so have a think about where your interests lie and then get researching! You’ll be amazed at the ideas you come up with.
Beyond this, larger organisations are also working to change. For example, Creative Carbon Scotland trains organisations in carbon measurement, reporting and reduction, while The Green Museum remains a leading handbook for museums looking to operate more sustainably. If you have relationships with larger organisations, galleries or spaces, ask what they’re doing in this area too. It’s something the whole sector can, and should, get involved in.