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Safety Check Up Time For Artists

| Diane Helentjaris

In the early 1600’s, Caravaggio filled his brush with yellow and white pigments to add the chiaro (light) to the scuro (dark) of his dramatic masterpieces. White linen sleeves, luminous flesh and a Palomino horse still gleam against his richly dark backgrounds. But the same lead white and lead-tin yellow pigments that brought light to his oil paintings likely also brought darkness and death to the Italian painter.

In 2010, researchers unearthed skeletal remains determined with “85% accuracy” to be those of Caravaggio. Lead permeated the bones. The researchers believed they had found an explanation for Caravaggio’s erratic, violent behavior (which included fatally knifing a man) as well as his mysterious death at age thirty-nine. Lead poisoning, an occupational hazard for painters, had done him in.

Four hundred years after Caravaggio’s death, artists continue to be at-risk for health problems caused by art supplies. The lead blamed for Caravaggio’s troubles still lurks in a number of art glazes and paints - though U.S. law has banned its use in house paint since 1978. At greatest risk for material-related ill health are those making two and three dimensional art: photographers, ceramicists, printmakers, sculptors, painters and their ilk.

Picture a factory worker using the dangerous chemical ABC. Frank the Factory Guy wears protective headgear, a lab coat, and works under a ventilation hood with an eyewash station nearby. Down the hall, an industrial hygienist answers his questions; further down, the company nurse checks his exposure levels regularly. Now, think of Sam the Sculptor. He also works in a factory, but it’s a soap factory built when Teddy Roosevelt was a Rough Rider. To burnish his metal, he uses the same chemical ABC as Frank the Factory Guy uses. Sam the Sculptor stores chemical ABC in a quaint old Espresso can. He sculpts alone, with only his cat for company. A ten-dollar fan ineffectively stirs the stale air. It’s not difficult to understand: Sam the Sculptor faces higher health risks from the identical chemical used by Fred the Factory Guy. The experimental, rule-breaking approach to life often found in highly creative people can lead to unconventional and unsafe use of materials and supplies. While it may be fun to “see what happens if I…” the results can be sad, health-wise. Creative upcycling and recycling can also bring unsafe materials into artwork. And finally, many artists - from full-time professionals to part-time dabblers - live where they work. This can expose their families and friends, including children, to hazards. Aunt Sally may be mixing her glazes on the same countertop where she spreads peanut butter on her little nephew’s toast.

A well organized workspace promotes safety A do-it-yourself safety check can pay off for artists. Follow tennis legend Arthur Ashe’s advice: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Little to no money may be needed to make your creativity less risky.

First, review all your supplies. Set aside a block of time and inventory your oils, glazes, solvents and inks. The biggest return on investment will be gained by reading the labels with an eye on safe use requirements. Most art supplies carry an ACMI (Art and Creative Materials Institute) label. An “AP” in the center of the ACMI logo stands for “Approved Product.” Materials labeled “AP” are considered safe and non-toxic. Other products will carry “CL” in the center of the ACMI logo. This is short for “Cautionary Labeling.” These products are not squeaky-clean safe. Those labeled “CL” have specific warnings attached for usage which should be followed.

Ceramic glaze with label showing NOT SAFE for foodFor supplies sold without safety labels, a call or online contact with the supplier or manufacturer should reap safety information. Regulations require manufacturers of potentially hazardous materials to provide Material Safety Data Sheets. These MSDS publications document what’s in the material and recommended first aid steps if someone is exposed in a potentially harmful manner. Don’t wait until you splash solvent in your eyes or mouth to download the MSDS. Get copies of the MSDS sheets for all your supplies ahead of time and file them in a binder near where you make your art.

Mysterious liquids, goos, powders and such found without labels should be discarded. The safest way to dispose of these unknowns is to consider them Clearly labeled lead free ceramic glazeshazardous waste. Local governments often support disposal with “Hazardous Waste Disposal” days. Develop the habit of labeling all your supplies and storing them only in containers that meet recommended requirements. Liquids and powders can interact with improper containers, causing problems ranging from loss of effectiveness all the way up to combustion and explosion.

Once you’ve completed your safety inventory of supplies, you’re ready to delve deeper. A great next step is to read the free “Art and Craft Safety Guide” published by the U.S. Product Safety Commission. You can find it at Additional information is at the An ACMI label for an Approved Product U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website section “Keeping the Artist Safe” at

Children are more vulnerable to problems from hazardous products. Their small size, rapid metabolism, and developing organs allow toxins to concentrate rapidly and cause permanent damage. Children also struggle to follow safety precautions. Pregnant women as well as and women planning to become pregnant should discuss potential exposures to toxic art products with their physician.

Artists who create artwork around or with children will find additional helpful information at and the National Capital Poison Center website at

Photo of artist wearing protective gear By applying the concepts of safe material use, an artist can create benefits beyond their own studio. Switching to safer materials and safer techniques is also better for the environment and for their customers. Everyone deserves beautiful and safe art.

Photos for this article were provided by photographer/writer Diane Helentjaris and taken at The Clay And Metal Loft


Additional articles for artists:

Paying for Your Creative Passion

Attending To Wholeness

Trying Another Medium