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Overview of Safety

You would be outraged if someone brought into your home  industrial solvents, chemicals containing high concentrations of heavy metals,  and coal-tar derivatives-in other words, materials known to cause nerve damage,  emotional disorders, and cancer. Yet, as an artist, you commonly bring such  materials into your living and working environment, and then proceed to bathe  your hands in them, breath their dusts or vapors, or ingest them, allowing these  toxic materials to contaminate your body and your environment.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of artists poisoning  themselves. Over the years it has become so commonplace for artists to damage  their health with their materials that the stereotype of an artist’s personality  consists of chronic depression, irritability, aberrant behavior, frequent colds  or flulike symptoms, low back pain, and headaches. These characteristics are the  symptoms of low-level poison­ing, as well as of psychological stress. However,  most art dealers, historians, and collectors tend to attribute these aberrations  to creative genius. Van Gogh is a prime example of the way poisoning may have  affected not only the artist’s health but the appearance of his artwork as well.  One of the symptoms of lead poisoning, from which he was certainly suffering, is  the swelling of the retina of the eye, which is said to give the illusion that  objects have halos around them.

The toxic nature of materials is certainly better understood  today (although it was not unknown in Van Gogh’s time), primarily among  chemists, medical doctors, a few government agencies, and those who have been  injured. Unfortunately, this understanding has not been effectively communicated  to artists or to art institutions. The first such article on this subject was  not even published until 1963, when it appeared in Art News.

Artists are using many more hazardous materials in more unusual  ways than ever before. Just a few examples are the use of plastic resins in cast  resin sculpture; such solvents as hexane, benzene, and toluene in graphic arts  materials; metal fumes from welding; and heavy metals and carcinogens, which are  inhaled during airbrushing of watercolors, acrylics, and oil paints. In 1981,  The National Cancer Institute studied the deaths of 1,598 artists and found that  among many other chronic illnesses, they have two to three times above the  average rate for cancer.

Naivete and poor product labeling combine to cause this  situation. When it comes to hazards, most artists have either adopted a  fatalistic attitude or believe that the manufacturer or some benevolent  organization is protecting them from hazardous materials. The truth is that, in  practical terms, there are no institutions actively protecting you. The  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for example, regulates  toxic chemicals only in the workplace, while the Consumer Products Safety  Commission deals only with the labeling of prod­ucts that cause acute illnesses  such as poisoning. Artists’ concerns center on chronic toxicity and are,  therefore, in a no-man’s land as far as federal protection is concerned.

The only local regulation enacted at the time of this writing is  the amendment to the California Hazardous Substance Act, Assembly Bill No. 3438,  which came into effect, after several delays, in February 1986. It is supposed  to provide for the seizure and banning of all improperly labeled art and craft  materials that contain hazardous substances. This act is a trial balloon for  other states where legislation is pending. Six months after this amendment had  gone into effect, it had yet to be enforced. Although there is no direct funding  for its enforcement, no agreement as to what constitutes proper labeling of  specific hazardous materials, or even exactly what is hazardous, the major  manufacturers of artists’ materials are scrambling to comply. The predictions  for the effects of this law range from the creation of black markets, to the  total absence of professional materials from California until a standard is  agreed upon, to no enforcement at all.

What is happening now and what is likely to continue to happen is  that the available variety of materials is shrinking. Certain traditional  materials that may be questionable and for which there is no adequate  replacement are simply no longer being offered by manufacturers. Additionally,  smaller manufacturers, particularly foreign competitors, are bowing out of the  California marketplace. Although legislation such as this has proven successful  in other areas of our society, there is an inherent problem in attempting to  adapt it to a profession whose major driving force is creativity. All labeling  and regulation is based on intended use. If artists used everything as it was  intended to be used, I wonder if there would be any new art. Airbrushing, for  example, which is one of the fastest-growing methods for applying artists’  paints, violates the intended use of most artists’ paints. State legislation  such as this also works best when the con­sumer supports it. Most creative  people would not fancy restrictions on their freedom of expression by the  banning of certain irreplaceable, as well as traditional, pigments and colors,  and would look outside the state for mail-order suppliers.

Although I support proper labeling and I have lectured for years  on the haz­ards involved with artists’ materials, I feel that the professional  artist should not rely on either legislation or improved labeling. An example of  how unreliable labeling has become under new regulations involves one company,  which, when confronted with the possibility of strict requirements, produced an  ideal label. It had a large black X on an orange field with the word “harmful”  in seven lan­guages. It listed the major hazardous ingredients and stated, in  three languages, “Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed.  Danger of cumulative effects. Keep out of reach of children. Contains barium.  Should not be used on surfaces liable to be chewed or sucked by children.”  However, after the enactment of regulations the new labels for the same product  have none of this information, and, in fact, state that no United States health  label is required.

Your only real defense is through self-education about methods of  personal protection and a fundamental change in attitude to one that treats all  materials as hazardous or potentially hazardous. The primary purpose of this  chapter is to help you do these two things. I will discuss how we contaminate  ourselves and our immediate environments, and will provide practical remedies  for these problems. Since it would be impossible to describe all the hazardous  materials and situations encountered, I will emphasize an approach that will  immediately reduce the overall level of hazard for the artist who paints and  draws. Additional information can be obtained in Artist Beware, a book by  Michael McCann, Ph.D., or by contacting the Center for Occupational Hazards (COH),  5 Beekman Street, New York, NY 10038, (212) 227-6220, which is a national  clearinghouse for research and education regarding hazards in the arts.

Attempts to solve the problem by substituting nonhazardous  materials for hazardous materials have rarely been successful because, even when  a possible substitute can be found, its quality and characteristics are often  unacceptable to the professional artist. At times it almost seems to be a law of  nature that the better the artists’ material, the more hazardous it is. The art  materials manufacturing trade’s attempts to deal with hazards has centered  almost entirely on labeling, and if you have made a recent purchase you may have  noticed that there is rarely any notification on the product as to its  hazardous, or nonhazardous, nature. When such notification is found, it is often  unclear and in some cases even misleading to the average consumer. When you  consider that 80 to 90 percent of artists’ materials are in some way hazardous,  as well as the incredible diversity of these materials and the types of possible  exposure, it would appear to be an insurmountable task for any organization to  create a set of guidelines to which all the different manufacturers throughout  the world would agree to con­form, and then be able to place such information on  or with such materials as sticks of pastels and half-pans of watercolor.

Recently, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)  has recom­mended a set of voluntary guidelines for the labeling of hazardous  substances in artists’ materials. These recommendations are set down in ASTM D  4236, Standard Practice for Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards. A copy of  this five­page document is available for a small fee from ASTM Sales Services  Dept., 1916 Race St., Philadelphia, PA 19103. The document itself does not  provide any information on what substances are hazardous, or how hazardous  material should or should not be used. The ASTM does no testing of products and  relies primarily on manufacturers for information and testing. The work  accomplished by this society is tempered by the fact that these guidelines are  voluntary and not mandatory. Because these guidelines are to be incorporated  into legislation in some states, it is thought that most manufacturers will  eventually comply. Many products are now being labeled with only the minimum  information required by ASTM D 4236 so that they may be allowed to state that  the product “Conforms to ASTM D 4236.” From my experience it is not clear what  such labeling as “Conforms to ASTM D 4236” conveys to the average consumer,  particularly when clarification can only be found by sending money to a  relatively unknown society with an address that is not readily available.

The Art and Craft Materials Institute Inc., 715 Boylston Street,  Boston, MA 02116, has expanded its role and set itself up to review products to  see if they indeed conform to ASTM D 4236. If a product does conform, the label  may say so using either the abbreviation CL for Certified Labeling or a longer  version “Health Labeling Conforms to ASTM D 4236 Certified by Art & Craft  Institute, Boston 02116.” Their certification process primarily involves the  submission by a manufacturer of a formula for a product for review by the  institute’s toxicologist; actual testing of materials is not done.

Today the whole situation is so confused and in flux with terms  being redefined and differing proposals for labeling among various states that  it is not unusual to find products that contain teratogens, or suspected  carcinogens, labeled nontoxic. A case in point involves the use of  phthalocyanine pigment. In theory, phthalocyanine blue or green in its purest  form is not considered hazardous. However, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),  byproducts formed during its manufacture, are rarely removed. PCB is a suspected  carcinogen and has been associated with chloroacne (skin eruptions). PCB-free  phthalocyanine is used almost exclusively in cosmetics, and is rarely used in  the manufacture of paint because of its great cost. In fact, not all paint  manufacturers even know about the possibility of PCB contamination, which occurs  in the production of several other organic pigments. There are many other  examples where hazardous contaminates can be found, such as arsenic in some  mineral pigments and asbestos in pastels, yet they are not presented with  appropriate labeling. Even the new California labeling law will, in most cases,  permit toxic contaminants up to 1 percent by weight without notification on the  label.

In addition to the presence of hazardous contaminates in certain  products, there are cases where the pure form of a chemical is nontoxic only in  a particular molecular arrangement. And if that arrangement is accidentally  changed through heating or the use of certain solvents or through contact with  other substances, it can become toxic. The major ingredient in a product may,  therefore, have undergone some undesirable change somewhere during the  manufacturing process, or during the actual use of the product, yet the product  may still carry a nontoxic label. Furthermore, most people do not realize that  the label “nontoxic” does not mean completely safe or nonhazardous in any case,  and refers only to exposure to adults, not children.

According to Professor Michael McCann, the author of Artist  Beware, “It is estimated that we are exposed to over 20,000 known toxic  chemicals, and 500 new chemicals are introduced into the market every year, most  of which have never been tested for their long-term effects on the human body.”  In addition to the introduction of new chemicals, many older chemicals once  considered safe are now being questioned and frequently moved to the list of  hazardous substances. Cadmium colors, for example, have been used since before  the turn of the century, yet until recently were not considered highly toxic.  The change in attitude about cadmium is due in great part to the illnesses  contracted by artists that were traced back to contamination with this heavy  metal.

Even with all the advances in artists’ materials through the  centuries, artists’ health, if not their very survival, still depends on taking  personal responsibility to deal with the dangers associated with the materials  in use. If it were only a matter of a one-time exposure or, even in some cases,  occasional exposure to some of the hazards described, there would be little  cause for serious concern. Most artists are beyond eating and drinking artists’  materials, as well as applying them directly to the skin. What does require  serious concern is the fact that we are repeatedly exposing ourselves over  decades to hazardous and potentially hazardous material without adequate  safeguards, and since there is so much uncertainty about what really is safe and  not safe, the single best way to protect yourself is simply to treat all  artists’ materials as hazardous.

It is also important to keep some perspective about the relative  danger involved in the use of artists’ materials. I have reviewed our hazardous  situation with a microscope and we should pull back and look around at other  dangers. On June 2, 1986, Newsweek reported that 43,500 people were killed in  automobile accidents in the United States in 1985, 150 died in their own  bathtubs in 1984, and 25 were killed overseas in terrorist attacks. When you  compare that information with the fact that there has never been any death  proven (many have been attributed, but not proven) to be caused by artists’  materials, it is difficult to maintain a high degree of panic. However, I would  suggest a high degree of concern accompanied by common sense.

Foam Centered Boards

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to  Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Foam boards were originally developed for use in  the graphic arts, but have now found their way into the world of fine art.  Foam-center boards are lightweight boards made of a rigid plastic foam with a  paper or plastic facing. They resist warping, are more dimensionally stable than  boards made from wood pulp, and are far less acidic. Despite the many advantages  of this type of board over most paper boards, it cannot be considered archival  because the core is polystyrene, or some variant of polystyrene, and this  material naturally decomposes over a long period of time and is said to give off  acid vapors. This aging process is greatly accelerated when exposed to  ultraviolet light (some of the newer boards have UV stabilizers) and air  pollution. Some manufacturers have begun to buffer the surface paper to help  maintain an acid-free surface. In museum style picture framing, where foam board  is used as a backing material, it is not exposed to ultraviolet light and the  elements. This would make its use in framing quite safe as long as it is not in  direct contact with the artwork. Unfortunately, some artists think this material  is safe to use as a painting or sculpture material for fine artwork when they  learn it is used in museum-style framing. Unless foam board is thoroughly  covered-particularly the exposed foam edges-with enough paint to seal the  surface from air and to prevent ultraviolet light exposure, it will deteriorate  too rapidly for fine art.

Foamcore Boards

Foamcore boards are made with a polystyrene core  and either a white claycoated or brown Kraft paper facing. The original white  foamcore board was produced for the graphic arts industry by Monsanto and was  named Fome-Cor. Today there are several other competitors, as well as a generic  version. The way the polystyrene bubbles are formed during manufacture allows  the edges to stay sealed, or at least crimped, during die cutting. This creates  a characteristic pillow effect. It also means that any accidental impressions or  dents can permanently damage the board. The foam center is not affected by  moisture, but the surface paper is, and outdoor use as well as wet mounting can  be a problem. The surface will readily accept oil paints and acrylic paints, but  the foam is sensitive to some solvents, particularly those in lacquers and  shellacs. Fome-Cor cuts easily with a razor blade, if the blade is sharp and  without defects; if it is not, it can tear the foam instead of cutting it. My  experience with this particular board is that it behaves as if it had a grain  and tends to cut well in only one direction. This board is commonly used in dry  mounting and vacuum mounting, as well as in wet mounting when counter mounting  is done.

There are three types of Fome-Cor: original,  acid-free, and super thick. The original is made in two thicknesses, 1/8 and  3/16 inch, and four sizes, 20″X40″, 32″ x40″, 40″X60″, and 48″X96″, of which the  first two are most common. In the 3/16-inch thickness, there is a greater  variety of available sizes, but only the first three are readily found. The  surface pH is slightly acidic, 5.5 to 6.5, and it is for this reason Monsanto  produces an acid-free Fome-Cor where the surface paper is buffered to a pH of  7.5 to 8.5. The printed literature for this board suggests that it is archival  and may be used as a substitute for museum board. This seems questionable  because, for example, the surface of this board is made from a Kraft paper and  not a purified cellulose, or cotton fiber. It is uncertain how much alkaline  reserve the buffer can provide in neutralizing air pollutants and the natural  formation of acid during the aging of Kraft paper. There are also questions  about the permanency of polystyrene itself. This board is obviously an  improvement on the original; nevertheless I have reservations about its archival  qualities. The acid-free foam core is produced in thicknesses of 1/8 and  3/16-inch, and sizes of 32″X40″ and 40″ x60″. The super thick variety, called  Fome-Cor ST, is identical to the original board but is -1/8-thick instead of  3/16-inch. The available sizes are 30″ x40″, 32″ x40″, and 40″ x 60″.

Prime-Foam-X ® Board

Prime-Foam-X is produced by Primex Plastics  Corporation. With all its similarities to Fome-Cor, it has some significant  differences. The outer paper facing is thicker, whiter, and glossier. The  formation of the foam bubbles and their higher density in this board allow for  better retention of shape and minimize damage. This board is said to have  “memory” because slight indentations tend to heal themselves. Consequently, in  die-cutting the edges do not crimp or seal as they do with Fome-Cor. I have  found that Prime-Foam-X does not have any directional cutting resistance and  cuts well in all directions. It is manufactured in the same sizes as Fome-Cor  and is also available in an acid-free version. This board is now produced with a  UV inhibitor to reduce the possibility of ultraviolet light breaking down the  foam. There are two thicknesses-0.125 inch, or ‘/e inch, and 0.210 inch, which  is almost 1/4-inch thick and is thus often referred to as ‘/a-inch nominal.  Primex prefers to use thousandths of an inch rather than fractions in referring  to thickness. The surface pH is between 6.5 and 7.0 for the regular surface and  7.5 for the acid-free surface. Prime-Foam-X is a little more expensive than  Fome-Cor.

Gatorfoam® Board

Gatorfoam has a foam center of Dow styrofoam  polystyrene with a Luxcell veneer. The veneer is a multilayered,  resin-impregnated, Kraft paper surface. Styrofoam is a much harder form of  polystyrene foam and is much more durable, but does not have any better aging  properties. The hardness of the core combined with the Luxcell veneer results in  a board that can only be cut with a table saw, which significantly reduces its  ease for use in picture framing and storage. The major advantage of Gatorfoam is  its thickness, which ranges from 3/16 to 1′ inches. The 3/16, t , and 3/4-inch  thicknesses are made in 30″ x40″ and 40″x60″. One inch and 11h inches are  available in 48″x96″ as well.

Gatorfoam is manufactured with two surfaces, one  white, the other brown. The brown Kraft is better for receiving paint and for  mounting. There are also two grades: Gatorfoam I is the standard, Gatorfoam II  is a less expensive version with an expanded polystyrene foam center. This board  is primarily used in model building and as a lightweight substitute for plywood.

Gilman Board

Gilman board is like Gatorfoam II in that it has  an expanded polystyrene core, which is also known as block foam. The outer  sheeting, however, is a claycoated, white sulfate paper. This paper allows the  board to be hand cut by first scoring with a mat knife and then bending, which  makes it more practical for picture framing. Gilman board is produced in  thicknesses like Gatorfoam-from 3/16 to 1 inch, but only in 4’x8′ sheets.

Artcore

Artcore, manufactured by the Amoco Company, is  not a paper, or a paper surface foam board. It is entirely plastic. It is  polystyrene foam covered with a white styrene sheet. Since it is all plastic, it  is also waterproof. The surface sheet is treated with a UV inhibitor to reduce  deterioration from sunlight and fluorescent light. The nonabsorbency of the  styrene facing can, however, make mounting difficult. I have had areas of  several photographs separate from the surface after vacuum mounting. In fact,  after experimenting with this board I have found it has no advantages for  framing and storage over the paper-faced foam board. It would seem more  practical for making displays, models, and signs. Its surface pH is 6.0 to 6.5,  and it is manufactured in thicknesses of 1/16, 1/8, and 3/16 inch. The available  sizes are comparable to other foam boards.

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to  Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Arcylics

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Polymer Emulsion Paints and Media

AN EMULSION Is the suspension of tiny solids in a liquid. Milk is an example of an emulsion, and most solids, if made small enough, will tend to remain in suspension. A polymer is a larger molecule made of smaller and simpler chemical units most often arranged in a chainlike formation. A polymer emulsion is the suspension of polymers in a liquid. As the liquid evaporates, the suspended polymer solids come closer together until they touch and combine to form larger chains and eventually a film. A paint can be made by pigmenting a polymer emulsion. The type of polymer used determines the type of paint or medium acrylic polymers for acrylic paints and vinyl polymers for vinyl paints.

Polymer emulsion paints, by comparison with oil paints and watercolors, have a short history, which began in late 1948 with the development of polyvinyl acetate emulsion (PVA), commonly known as white glue. However, PVA was too sensitive to water and heat, and the paints made from it were not durable. The acrylic polymer emulsions now used in artists’ paints are a byproduct of the attempt to develop a new type of house paint during the early 1950s. (Today, however, the amount of actual acrylic binder in house paint is often quite low. In some states it can be as low as 20 percent and still be called acrylic paint. This would be too low to use in fine artwork.) The first artists’ acrylic polymer paint became readily available in North America around 1963 and in Europe about two years later.

Manufacturing of Acrylics

The manufacture of polymer emulsion paints is a balancing act. Mixing dry pigment directly into a polymer emulsion rarely creates a usable paint. Several additives are needed to produce a workable paint. The polymer solids must be coated with emulsifiers to prevent them from binding together before the liquid evaporates. Dispersants are necessary to keep the pigments that are added from clumping together and/or settling out of the liquid. Antifoaming agents are needed to prevent foaming during the application of a paint so that the dried paint film does not have a craterlike surface. Wet-edge agents, such as ethylene glycol (very poisonous) or propylene glycol (less effective, but nontoxic), are used to regulate the drying time, allowing sufficient time for mixing and applying the paint. Thickeners are used to transform the milky quality into a paintlike consistency. And last but not least important, a preservative is added.

The type of paint film that is formed depends on the specific polymer formulation used. For example, the Rohm and Haas Company, the supplier of acrylic emulsion to all paint manufacturers in North America and many parts of the world, offers several varieties of 100 percent acrylic emulsion (of which 44 and 47 percent of the emulsion is composed of resin solids). Rhoplex is the name it has given to its acrylic emulsion and each formulation is assigned its own number. The most commonly used emulsions that are dispersed in water are AC-22, AC-33, AC-34, AC-35, and AC-235. (There are also acrylic solutions such as Acryloid F-10, which is 40 percent resin solids in mineral thinner which are used in the manufacture of paint varnishes and acrylic paints that can be thinned with mineral spirits.) AC-22 has good flow and leveling properties, but is less durable than the other formulas. AC-33 was the first formula used in the arts and is still commonly used. AC-34 was designed for outdoor use on wood, but tends to be slightly more brittle. AC-235, the improved version of AC-35, is used to give paint a thicker quality and would be used in impasto painting.

Since each of these formulas has desirable qualities as well as undesirable qualities, most paint manufacturers blend the various polymers like chefs to obtain, what is in their opinions, the best working characteristics. A blend of more than one polymer is referred to as co-polymers; virtually all artist acrylic and vinyl paints are co-polymers.

The physical process of making acrylics resembles the process one would more expect to see in a pastry shop than in a paint mill. Some manufacturers do not use rollers to grind the paint mixture as would be done with oil paints, but simply mix the ingredients together. Mixed paints are less desirable for airbrushing and for watercolors where fine dispersion is important.

Paint Film Characteristics

After the liquid of a polymer emulsion evaporates, such as with an acrylic polymer, a tough waterproof film forms. Although the chains formed by polymers are broken by ultraviolet light, there is such an overwhelming number of these chains that little or no visible damage occurs from exposure to indoor lighting. Visible damage can occur, however, when the emulsion is exposed to large amounts of direct sunlight outdoors, or when the emulsion has been thinned excessively before application and then exposed to direct sunlight. If a polymer emulsion is applied to a nonoily, absorbent surface, it will remain permanently attached. Although polymer films are quite flexible, there are situations where they can crack. Cracking can occur when a polymer emulsion is overloaded with particulate matter, such as additional pigment or sand, or when a significant amount of polymer is washed out of a paint mixture during the painting process. And an extremely absorbent painting ground can draw out enough polymer from a polymer paint to cause cracking.

The color range of polymer paints is limited for two reasons. The first concerns pH. Alkaline-sensitive pigments cannot be used in the manufacture of acrylics because acrylic emulsions are alkaline. Acid-sensitive pigments cannot be used in vinyl paints because vinyl emulsions are acidic. The second reason is that in polymer emulsions, subtle differences between similarly colored pigments often cannot be seen and are therefore pointless to manufacture.

Acrylic Polymer Emulsion Paints

Golden Artist’s Arcylic, Liquitex, made by the Binney and Smith Company, and Atelier, a lesser-known acrylic paint made by Chroma Acrylics, are examples of the differing formulations of acrylic paints in the marketplace today. Two different formulations are used for Liquitex, one type for the paint that comes in tubes, and the other for the paint that is available in jars. The paint in tubes is designed to have a thicker consistency and to leave brushstrokes the way oil paint can. The paint that comes in jars is designed to behave more the way an enamel paint would; the paint film tends to level out and the brushstrokes tend to disappear. Most other manufacturers’ jars of acrylic paint are made with the same formulation as their tubes. Thinning tube paints will rarely achieve the same effect as Liquitex that comes in jars, and you usually end up with a thinned paint that still leaves brushstrokes.

Atelier is an example of a new type of acrylic for which updated formulations are used. It is designed to appeal to the impasto painter, who desires texture, thickness, and that heavier oil paint appearance. No matter how a manufacturer decides to formulate the consistency of the colors, additives or media are always supplied to alter the consistency to suit the artist’s wishes.

Acrylic Polymer Solution Paints

There are certain formulations of acrylic polymer, such as Acryloid B-72 manufactured by Rohm and Haas, that form a solution, rather than a emulsion, in mineral spirits. Magna Color, made by Bocour Company, is an example of a paint made with this solution as the binder. Its consistency and general working characteristics are like oil paint, but it dries like acrylic. However, this type of paint has never attained even half the popularity that acrylic emulsion paints have.

Acrylic Polymer Media

A number of auxiliary products are available for use in acrylic painting. They are designed to prepare a surface for painting, to slow the drying time of the paints, or to enable the artist to create texture on a surface.

Polymer Gel is a thickening agent that may be added to a polymer medium. For example, sodium polyacrylate can be added to acrylic polymer emulsions. Gels allow for an impasto style of painting with polymer paints. The more gel used, the more transparent the paint film. Gels are resistant to cracking and are excellent as adhesives for collage.

An Acrylic Retarder is either a gel or an additive that evaporates without a trace. It is designed to slow the drying time of acrylic polymer emulsion paints. The recommended amount of retarder to be used varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and if specified amounts are exceeded, the paint film will not form properly. Most retarders, when mixed properly with a color, will slow the drying time to approximately three hours. This allows areas of a painting to be blended or reworked in much the same way as can be done with oil paint.

Acrylic Modeling Paste is a unique product. It is a waterborne, puttylike substance that dries matte and opaque. It is an acrylic polymer medium mixed with marble dust and titanium dioxide. This product is used to build up textured surfaces and sculptured reliefs on absorbent surfaces. If it is to be applied to a flexible surface it must be mixed half and half with gel medium or cracking may result. When this paste is dry it may be carved, sanded, and painted with either waterborne or oil paints. Acrylic polymer paints may be mixed directly into it. Acrylic Polymer Gesso is not the same as the traditional gesso formulation of white pigment and chalk mixed with hide glue. Although both are designed to create a primed surface for painting, the traditional gesso can only be used on a rigid support, such as a wood panel, since it is not the least bit flexible and will crack if applied to anything that moves or bends. Acrylic polymer gesso is a combination of gypsum, or chalk, titanium dioxide, and just enough acrylic polymer medium to keep the undiluted mixture from cracking on a flexible support, such as canvas.

Acrylic polymer gesso can be used to prepare any absorbent surface to receive either polymer emulsion paints or oil paints. Recent investigation seems to indicate that acrylic gesso may be more resistant to chemical attack by the pollution in city air than traditional gesso for rigid supports or the traditional combination of rabbit-skin glue and lead white for canvas supports. Today, acrylic polymer gesso has all but replaced all traditional gessos.

Although acrylic polymer gesso can be applied without thinning, it is much easier to work with if it is thinned. Because it has a minimum of acrylic polymer to provide a very absorbent painting surface, it can crack if diluted only with water and applied to a flexible and highly absorbent surface. It is therefore wise to add some acrylic polymer medium whenever water is added. Excellent results can be obtained using a mixture of 25 percent polymer medium, 25 percent water, and 50 percent acrylic polymer gesso for priming canvas.

Artists have reported that some brands of less expensive acrylic gesso may be more subject to cracking. The problem occurs when the gesso is not properly formulated-when it contains too much particulate matter (pigment and filler) in relation to the acrylic emulsion. As the gesso dries, the overloading of pigment prevents the acrylic resin particles from forming a complete paint film, and the resulting paint film is weak and brittle. Problems such as these teach two important lessons-read the instructions on the jar, and combine acrylic polymer gesso and acrylic polymer paint made only by the same manufacturer.

Acrylic Polymer Varnishes

Unprotected polymer paint films are not very durable because they are relatively soft compared to oil paint films and can be marred easily as the result of abrasion. They are also more porous and the pigments and paint film can be affected by air pollution. A varnish can, however, provide the necessary protection. A varnish can also be used to control the surface appearance in terms of matte and gloss.

Acrylic polymer solution varnishes, which are dissolved in mineral spirits, are the best protection for acrylic paint films. They are more durable, forming a harder protective film than acrylic emulsion varnishes, which are waterborne. Acrylic polymer solution varnishes also provide better protection against air pollutants because they seal the painting’s surface more thoroughly.

An acrylic polymer emulsion varnish is the same as an acrylic polymer emulsion used as medium, except that the varnish contains a hardener. Unless specified by the manufacturer, an acrylic varnish should not be used as a painting medium. Most manufacturers discourage the thinning of acrylic varnishes, and if diluted with more than 50 percent water, the clarity of the dry varnish film can be seriously affected.

The application of a varnish should be smooth and consistent, and areas that might require more varnish should not be reworked. Reapplying a varnish to a partially dry area can result in streaking, evident brush strokes, and a milky appearance. It is best to wait the hour or two until the varnish dries, and then apply a second coat. Matte varnishes are particularly susceptible to this problem.

The painting surface shine can be regulated not only by choosing a matte or gloss varnish, but also by using a mixture of the two. A matte varnish, despite the hardeners added to it, is not as durable as a gloss varnish. And the matte surface can be rubbed or polished to a shine.

Permanency of Acrylic Paints

Oil paint has been used for several hundred years, and its range of permanency is well established. Although oil paint is subject to some yellowing and cracking over the centuries, it is still a highly durable medium. Acrylic polymer paint, on the other hand, has been in use only for several decades. Its range of permanency is not established, but is instead implied through accelerated aging tests. Although aging tests have often proven to be quite accurate, they can never take into account all the variables. For example, acrylic and vinyl polymers seem to be more vulnerable to weakening from exposure to ultraviolet light (clear acrylic sheeting used in displays and picture framing does yellow in time from the ultraviolet light in sunlight and fluorescent light) and sulfur air pollutants than previously thought. This is not to say that such paints are unsafe, but rather that all the data are not yet in and there is still some uncertainty as to the actual longterm stability.

As an example of this uncertainty, Binny and Smith rate its most permanent colors in Liquitex, artists’ acrylic emulsion paints, as having slight or no color changes after the equivalent of one hundred years of indoor museum exposure. Many of these same colors in oil paint often carry a rating that is equivalent to two hundred or more years before any visible changes occur. Oil paint with ratings of seventy five to one hundred years are often classed only as durable. Again, the point here is not that acrylics will not last as long as oil paint, but rather that no one can yet say, even with accelerated aging tests.

Oil Paints and Acrylic Paints

There is a longstanding debate over whether it is safe to use oil paint over acrylics because they are made with different paint vehicles. New research seems to indicate that these two types of paint film do adhere quite well to each other, but only more complete testing will tell if the original optimism about the ability of oil paint to bind to acrylic emulsions is justified. Acrylic paint, however, should never be applied over oil paint.

Many people have noticed that oil paint seems to look “richer” than acrylic paint. This is partly due to the fact that oil paint vehicles can hold more pigment than can acrylic emulsions. Also, due to cost, most companies that manufacture acrylic paints use less pure grades of pigment when making colors such as cadmium red and cadmium yellow. (At present, Liquitex’s cadmium colors, for example, are made with cadmium-barium pigment instead of pure cadmium. The manufacturer claims that a switch will be made to pure cadmium in the near future.) One company, Winsor & Newton, is now marketing a line of acrylic colors that are made from chemically pure pigments. It uses pure cadmium instead of the cadmium-barium pigment that most other companies use. Whether it makes a great deal of difference if pure pigments are used in acrylic paints seems to be a matter of personal taste. For instance, different types of black pigment such as Mars black and ivory black, which are easily distinguished from one another in an oil paint vehicle, look similar when ground into an acrylic emulsion because of differing refractive properties of oil and acrylic media.

Hazards of Acrylic Paints

The polymer emulsion itself has hazards of its own that must be considered. Although most major manufacturers have replaced the highly toxic ethylene glycol (wet-edge agent) and toxic preservatives with less hazardous ones in their polymer emulsions, they cannot be considered safe. Some of the polymers evaporate with the water and can be inhaled. Although the amounts are not significant in most painting situations, there are many painters who still do stain painting and color field painting, which involve the use of large amounts of acrylics, and the artist stands directly over the drying paint without any protection.

There are painters and small manufacturers making polymer paints who are not aware of the hazards involved in the manufacturing process and how they can be passed along to other users of their paints. For example, the raw acrylic polymer emulsion used in the manufacture of paint contains significant levels of highly toxic and volatile monomers that must be reduced or eliminated for safe use before handling. Not only can the vapors be hazardous, but mural painters should know about the experience of a well-known mural painter who was hospitalized for acrylic and heavy metal poisoning. She was working outdoors on a mural for the Olympics. The heat of the day apparently opened the pores of her skin, allowing a significant amount of acrylic polymer and pigment to be absorbed. Although polymer paints are not especially dangerous, they are not as safe as the prevailing opinion, and appropriate precautions are necessary.

Safety

Excerpts  from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven  Saitzyk © 1987

Overview

You would be outraged if someone brought into your home  industrial solvents, chemicals containing high concentrations of heavy metals,  and coal-tar derivatives-in other words, materials known to cause nerve damage,  emotional disorders, and cancer. Yet, as an artist, you commonly bring such  materials into your living and working environment, and then proceed to bathe  your hands in them, breath their dusts or vapors, or ingest them, allowing these  toxic materials to contaminate your body and your environment.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of artists poisoning  themselves. Over the years it has become so commonplace for artists to damage  their health with their materials that the stereotype of an artist’s personality  consists of chronic depression, irritability, aberrant behavior, frequent colds  or flulike symptoms, low back pain, and headaches. These characteristics are the  symptoms of low-level poison­ing, as well as of psychological stress. However,  most art dealers, historians, and collectors tend to attribute these aberrations  to creative genius. Van Gogh is a prime example of the way poisoning may have  affected not only the artist’s health but the appearance of his artwork as well.  One of the symptoms of lead poisoning, from which he was certainly suffering, is  the swelling of the retina of the eye, which is said to give the illusion that  objects have halos around them.

The toxic nature of materials is certainly better understood  today (although it was not unknown in Van Gogh’s time), primarily among  chemists, medical doctors, a few government agencies, and those who have been  injured. Unfortunately, this understanding has not been effectively communicated  to artists or to art institutions. The first such article on this subject was  not even published until 1963, when it appeared in Art News.

Artists are using many more hazardous materials in more unusual  ways than ever before. Just a few examples are the use of plastic resins in cast  resin sculpture; such solvents as hexane, benzene, and toluene in graphic arts  materials; metal fumes from welding; and heavy metals and carcinogens, which are  inhaled during airbrushing of watercolors, acrylics, and oil paints. In 1981,  The National Cancer Institute studied the deaths of 1,598 artists and found that  among many other chronic illnesses, they have two to three times above the  average rate for cancer.

Naivete and poor product labeling combine to cause this  situation. When it comes to hazards, most artists have either adopted a  fatalistic attitude or believe that the manufacturer or some benevolent  organization is protecting them from hazardous materials. The truth is that, in  practical terms, there are no institutions actively protecting you. The  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for example, regulates  toxic chemicals only in the workplace, while the Consumer Products Safety  Commission deals only with the labeling of prod­ucts that cause acute illnesses  such as poisoning. Artists’ concerns center on chronic toxicity and are,  therefore, in a no-man’s land as far as federal protection is concerned.

The only local regulation enacted at the time of this writing is  the amendment to the California Hazardous Substance Act, Assembly Bill No. 3438,  which came into effect, after several delays, in February 1986. It is supposed  to provide for the seizure and banning of all improperly labeled art and craft  materials that contain hazardous substances. This act is a trial balloon for  other states where legislation is pending. Six months after this amendment had  gone into effect, it had yet to be enforced. Although there is no direct funding  for its enforcement, no agreement as to what constitutes proper labeling of  specific hazardous materials, or even exactly what is hazardous, the major  manufacturers of artists’ materials are scrambling to comply. The predictions  for the effects of this law range from the creation of black markets, to the  total absence of professional materials from California until a standard is  agreed upon, to no enforcement at all.

What is happening now and what is likely to continue to happen is  that the available variety of materials is shrinking. Certain traditional  materials that may be questionable and for which there is no adequate  replacement are simply no longer being offered by manufacturers. Additionally,  smaller manufacturers, particularly foreign competitors, are bowing out of the  California marketplace. Although legislation such as this has proven successful  in other areas of our society, there is an inherent problem in attempting to  adapt it to a profession whose major driving force is creativity. All labeling  and regulation is based on intended use. If artists used everything as it was  intended to be used, I wonder if there would be any new art. Airbrushing, for  example, which is one of the fastest-growing methods for applying artists’  paints, violates the intended use of most artists’ paints. State legislation  such as this also works best when the con­sumer supports it. Most creative  people would not fancy restrictions on their freedom of expression by the  banning of certain irreplaceable, as well as traditional, pigments and colors,  and would look outside the state for mail-order suppliers.

Although I support proper labeling and I have lectured for years  on the haz­ards involved with artists’ materials, I feel that the professional  artist should not rely on either legislation or improved labeling. An example of  how unreliable labeling has become under new regulations involves one company,  which, when confronted with the possibility of strict requirements, produced an  ideal label. It had a large black X on an orange field with the word “harmful”  in seven lan­guages. It listed the major hazardous ingredients and stated, in  three languages, “Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed.  Danger of cumulative effects. Keep out of reach of children. Contains barium.  Should not be used on surfaces liable to be chewed or sucked by children.”  However, after the enactment of regulations the new labels for the same product  have none of this information, and, in fact, state that no United States health  label is required.

Your only real defense is through self-education about methods of  personal protection and a fundamental change in attitude to one that treats all  materials as hazardous or potentially hazardous. The primary purpose of this  chapter is to help you do these two things. I will discuss how we contaminate  ourselves and our immediate environments, and will provide practical remedies  for these problems. Since it would be impossible to describe all the hazardous  materials and situations encountered, I will emphasize an approach that will  immediately reduce the overall level of hazard for the artist who paints and  draws. Additional information can be obtained in Artist Beware, a book by  Michael McCann, Ph.D., or by contacting the Center for Occupational Hazards (COH),  5 Beekman Street, New York, NY 10038, (212) 227-6220, which is a national  clearinghouse for research and education regarding hazards in the arts.

Attempts to solve the problem by substituting nonhazardous  materials for hazardous materials have rarely been successful because, even when  a possible substitute can be found, its quality and characteristics are often  unacceptable to the professional artist. At times it almost seems to be a law of  nature that the better the artists’ material, the more hazardous it is. The art  materials manufacturing trade’s attempts to deal with hazards has centered  almost entirely on labeling, and if you have made a recent purchase you may have  noticed that there is rarely any notification on the product as to its  hazardous, or nonhazardous, nature. When such notification is found, it is often  unclear and in some cases even misleading to the average consumer. When you  consider that 80 to 90 percent of artists’ materials are in some way hazardous,  as well as the incredible diversity of these materials and the types of possible  exposure, it would appear to be an insurmountable task for any organization to  create a set of guidelines to which all the different manufacturers throughout  the world would agree to con­form, and then be able to place such information on  or with such materials as sticks of pastels and half-pans of watercolor.

Recently, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)  has recom­mended a set of voluntary guidelines for the labeling of hazardous  substances in artists’ materials. These recommendations are set down in ASTM D  4236, Standard Practice for Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards. A copy of  this five­page document is available for a small fee from ASTM Sales Services  Dept., 1916 Race St., Philadelphia, PA 19103. The document itself does not  provide any information on what substances are hazardous, or how hazardous  material should or should not be used. The ASTM does no testing of products and  relies primarily on manufacturers for information and testing. The work  accomplished by this society is tempered by the fact that these guidelines are  voluntary and not mandatory. Because these guidelines are to be incorporated  into legislation in some states, it is thought that most manufacturers will  eventually comply. Many products are now being labeled with only the minimum  information required by ASTM D 4236 so that they may be allowed to state that  the product “Conforms to ASTM D 4236.” From my experience it is not clear what  such labeling as “Conforms to ASTM D 4236” conveys to the average consumer,  particularly when clarification can only be found by sending money to a  relatively unknown society with an address that is not readily available.

The Art and Craft Materials Institute Inc., 715 Boylston Street,  Boston, MA 02116, has expanded its role and set itself up to review products to  see if they indeed conform to ASTM D 4236. If a product does conform, the label  may say so using either the abbreviation CL for Certified Labeling or a longer  version “Health Labeling Conforms to ASTM D 4236 Certified by Art & Craft  Institute, Boston 02116.” Their certification process primarily involves the  submission by a manufacturer of a formula for a product for review by the  institute’s toxicologist; actual testing of materials is not done.

Today the whole situation is so confused and in flux with terms  being redefined and differing proposals for labeling among various states that  it is not unusual to find products that contain teratogens, or suspected  carcinogens, labeled nontoxic. A case in point involves the use of  phthalocyanine pigment. In theory, phthalocyanine blue or green in its purest  form is not considered hazardous. However, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),  byproducts formed during its manufacture, are rarely removed. PCB is a suspected  carcinogen and has been associated with chloroacne (skin eruptions). PCB-free  phthalocyanine is used almost exclusively in cosmetics, and is rarely used in  the manufacture of paint because of its great cost. In fact, not all paint  manufacturers even know about the possibility of PCB contamination, which occurs  in the production of several other organic pigments. There are many other  examples where hazardous contaminates can be found, such as arsenic in some  mineral pigments and asbestos in pastels, yet they are not presented with  appropriate labeling. Even the new California labeling law will, in most cases,  permit toxic contaminants up to 1 percent by weight without notification on the  label.

In addition to the presence of hazardous contaminates in certain  products, there are cases where the pure form of a chemical is nontoxic only in  a particular molecular arrangement. And if that arrangement is accidentally  changed through heating or the use of certain solvents or through contact with  other substances, it can become toxic. The major ingredient in a product may,  therefore, have undergone some undesirable change somewhere during the  manufacturing process, or during the actual use of the product, yet the product  may still carry a nontoxic label. Furthermore, most people do not realize that  the label “nontoxic” does not mean completely safe or nonhazardous in any case,  and refers only to exposure to adults, not children.

According to Professor Michael McCann, the author of Artist  Beware, “It is estimated that we are exposed to over 20,000 known toxic  chemicals, and 500 new chemicals are introduced into the market every year, most  of which have never been tested for their long-term effects on the human body.”  In addition to the introduction of new chemicals, many older chemicals once  considered safe are now being questioned and frequently moved to the list of  hazardous substances. Cadmium colors, for example, have been used since before  the turn of the century, yet until recently were not considered highly toxic.  The change in attitude about cadmium is due in great part to the illnesses  contracted by artists that were traced back to contamination with this heavy  metal.

Even with all the advances in artists’ materials through the  centuries, artists’ health, if not their very survival, still depends on taking  personal responsibility to deal with the dangers associated with the materials  in use. If it were only a matter of a one-time exposure or, even in some cases,  occasional exposure to some of the hazards described, there would be little  cause for serious concern. Most artists are beyond eating and drinking artists’  materials, as well as applying them directly to the skin. What does require  serious concern is the fact that we are repeatedly exposing ourselves over  decades to hazardous and potentially hazardous material without adequate  safeguards, and since there is so much uncertainty about what really is safe and  not safe, the single best way to protect yourself is simply to treat all  artists’ materials as hazardous.

It is also important to keep some perspective about the relative  danger involved in the use of artists’ materials. I have reviewed our hazardous  situation with a microscope and we should pull back and look around at other  dangers. On June 2, 1986, Newsweek reported that 43,500 people were killed in  automobile accidents in the United States in 1985, 150 died in their own  bathtubs in 1984, and 25 were killed overseas in terrorist attacks. When you  compare that information with the fact that there has never been any death  proven (many have been attributed, but not proven) to be caused by artists’  materials, it is difficult to maintain a high degree of panic. However, I would  suggest a high degree of concern accompanied by common sense.

Terminology

Types of Exposure

Allergic Reactions

In Case of Illness

In Case of Fire