I am an artist with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS, a physical reaction to even the smallest amount of a variety of seemingly unrelated chemicals). I have had to give up painting a few times in my life due to getting sick from the art materials. After much research and trial of various mediums and materials I am so grateful to have found a way to be creative and work in a healthful manner. THIS IS HUGE and I’d like to tell you why.
A little back story: I began traditional oil painting lessons when I was 12, then by high school I started noticing dry, puffy eyes, headaches and respiratory problems which became a daily occurrence in art school as a painting major. I became sensitive to turpentine, mineral spirits, mediums, linseed oil paints and printing inks. After college, I had to give up painting due to illness from these materials. This was a huge blow to my psyche.
But, since I am a painter at heart… A few years later I began working with fluid acrylics and a glazing medium with a long open time allowing me to create wonderful blended tones. For the next 15 years I produced work in such a way that most people thought they were looking at oil paintings. Since I could not use oils, I did what I could with acrylics to best resemble how I truly like to work…as an oil painter. Sounds good, right?
Alas, my chemical sensitivities grew even more extensive to the point where I developed full blown MCS. Research led me to discover that the acrylic paints I used for all those years, contained ammonia and formaldehyde out-gassing in my environment. In 2012, I had to give up painting, again. Needless to say, I was devastated.
I continued to be creative in other ways, but my heart cried out “I am a painter – in oil (nudge nudge)”. But how, I asked myself? Doing more research over the summer of 2015 led me to discover the solvent-free painting method used by many of the old masters. My heart was overjoyed. Could I actually paint again!
I started researching paint manufacturers and found a company making solvent-free walnut oil paint and a walnut alkyd medium. After one painting I couldn’t believe it, but I was still getting sick. What? Why? It turns out that paints or mediums which are alkali refined (chemical compound, typically a caustic or corrosive substance) and/or made with alkyds (synthetic polyester resins), are not safe for my body. Even with further research, I have not been able to determine what the chemicals are or why my body reacts negatively, but it does. For many people who choose to work solvent free, these types of paints and mediums are a less toxic solution, but not for someone with my degree of MCS. Okay, add them to my growing list of unsafe art materials. 🙁
I’ll tell you what, I was at my wits end. Was I doomed to spend the rest of my life not being able to do what I came to this planet to do…paint? What I needed was to find art materials completely free of chemicals at all stages of processing. So, being as persistent as I am, I went back to research… to find good old-fashioned, non-toxic oil paint like that used by artists of the past.
Then (drumroll huzzah!) in the summer of 2015, I found Robert Maynord, at the Art Treehouse, making his own cold-pressed walnut oil paint and water washed oils. I purchased a few colors to test and produced two paintings. Guess what, No Sensitivity! Happily, I purchased the rest of the Art Treehouse line of colors, as well as Ampersand Gessobord panels which are formaldehyde free and eco-friendly, and can now paint with no problems. I am absolutely overjoyed!
Since I am now working completely solvent-free with slower drying walnut oil paints I have had to make some adjustments to my familiar painting process. I work with straight tube paint and don’t add any mediums or solvents as I work – even the less toxic oil of Spike Lavender and Canada Balsam are too strong for my body. First, I develop a detailed drawing then trace it on a panel using a burnt umber oil transfer technique. Then I thinly paint a detailed brunaille underpainting. Once dry, I apply many mechanically thin layers of color with a small amount of umber added to help them dry a little faster. At the end of each session I place the painting in front of a heater or inside a closed box with a 25 watt lightbulb which also helps speed the drying time – free of solvent and sensitivity!
My body is more sensitive than most and less than some, but I can use these paints. If you desire healthier art materials due to having chemical sensitivity, asthma, allergies, protecting kids or animals in your house, or just want to be kinder to the environment, may I suggest using the Art Treehouse paints (I am not affiliated – just a happy customer). I am so grateful to Robert, from the bottom of my heart. I feel I have hope, passion and joy again!
Happy painting. Kathryn