Time to address my toxic art practice?
Living sustainably has been a project for me for the last few years. I have approached making changes systematically; pledging not to fly, giving up plastic packaging, becoming mostly vegan, stopping buying new clothes or new unnecessary things. It’s not been an easy job as Instragram zero-waste eco warriors make it look. I’ve fallen victim to various greenwashing campaigns several times. Some lifestyle changes have enormously improved my mental health. I don’t buy new clothes (I did have to buy a new swimsuit this summer I admit) anymore which means even stepping into a clothes shop has a really surreal tinge to it. Ten years ago I all the money I spent working in retail I would spend on the highstreet in my lunchbreak or after work. I can’t begin to say how lighter I feel. But again, when my friends and sisters tell me how much they learn from traveling around the world I can’t compare this to my shopping addiction. Their travels always seem wholesome. But flying is often the poster boy for evil carbon footprint. So what have I got to compare it to? Well, there is one area of my life left unscrutinised… *drumroll please* …. MY ART PRACTICE. (Although admittedly not the same as flying, having children etc). There is a general acceptance that art has the divine and superior right to last through the centuries by either the materials the artist used or the chemicals used in the conservation process. But it is unfair for me to boast about how my passport pages remain so angelically bare when I have been using heavy metal oils paints (cadmium, cobalt), acrylic paints (microplastics) and PVA glue for years. I love making art, and teaching it, but how much toxic waste in landfill and the waterstream am I responsible for?
Nervous about the toxic secrets inside my art cupboard I decide to dive in at the deep end and take control! *spoiler*- Unsuccessful!
Inkmaking- (to be continued)
I’ve been reading Jason Logan’s ‘Make Ink: A forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking’. He also sells his inks, but alas all the way in New York and I obviously can’t justify the carbon emissions from delivery. I have purchased most of the apparatus needed second hand which has taken time due to having to hunt for them in charity shops or wait for them to come up on Ebay. I’ve started to grind up brick and rock so far. The brick broke down relatively easily. But the various stones I collected by the River Bollin took a lot of time and effort to break down into dust. As a result, I had shooting pains up my arm for two days and couldn’t hold anything. I really have been spoilt with convenient, easy squeeze paint tubes haven’t I! I’m now waiting for the gum of arabic so that I can boil up the ink. I’ll update this soon. I’m used to using acrylic inks which are permanent and won’t fade.
I made my own glue and paste (method link). As a glue on paper this seems good. It’s the same recipe (video by Andrea Green) as homemade wallpaper paste; sugar, flour, vinegar. I also mixed in some of the powdered brick to produce a paste which I really liked. About a month on though, it looks more brittle and I’m unsure if it will last.
There is definitely a security in toxic paints knowing it has been specifically designed to last. This is a great method for children but not so good if you need to ensure a buyer that the art will still be around several decades later. On a side note, I looked at the pot of eco-glue I made and left in the fridge last night and it’s warm, healthy colour has now turned into a slippery grey sludge with small islands of mould. I recommend making this glue but being aware that it will discolour and become brittle eventually.
Some really good advice on www.ultimatepapermache.com about ‘keep mold from growing on your papermache’
Reflection: Making paint and ink means you can control the process and packaging. You also can sleep easy knowing that the art will rot back into the earth. Guilt free art! However, this is very time consuming to do everything yourself and for not much quantity.
Reducing impact rather than eliminating it
Acrylic paints- convenient and easy for artistic use! Also, an artist can be confident it will last hundreds of years (positive side of plastic????) It is often celebrated as more environmentally friendly than oils. However where does all that murky microplastic waste water go after I pour it down the sink?
DIY Sludginater- I found four different ways to reduce the acrylic sludge entering the water system. Sadly, all result in an acrylic sludge that ends up in landfill.
One. DIY- Although I think this is a really good way to demonstrate to students how much solid plastic matter is in acrylic wastewater I don’t think it is actually effective. The waste water treatment system is a lot more effective than doing it this DIY way. The waste water after this method is still coloured so the tiniest of microplastics are still going down the plughole and perhaps it is these that are missed by the wastewater treatment. If your aim is to stop the acrylic clogging your pipes though, this is a easy one to do.
Two. FAVOURITE! ‘Working with the force of evaporation’
Pour the acrylic wastewater into a wide tray and leave outside. Of course you need to have faith that not only will it be sunny but also not rain (I’m from the North West of England, it rains a lot!). Also, I imagine birds and next door’s pets would clamber inside. So perhaps best to use some sort of mesh over the top? After evaporating, remaining acrylic sludge will peel off and put in the bin. Still sending to landfill.
Three- evaporating and use of fan. Similar to the above but she uses an electric fan/heater to speed up evaporation. Another evaporation method- although she says you should leave the bucket next to a fan to help with evaporation. Not keen on this use of electricity.
Four. Finally with regards to removing water based paint solids from water, Golden paints have a blogpost detailing how to effectively get the waste water back to clear. When I first saw this process I thought that Aluminum Sulfate sounds a bit problematic- I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to chemicals. Itt is actually the chemical used in water treatment. Because there are hazardous chemicals involved you need to keep away from children and wear gloves etc. Again, you will end up with acrylic sludge you need to dispose of. Seems like a very lengthy process.
Can I paint with eco household paint instead of traditional mediums?
There are loads of brands who boast excellent eco awareness and are without the acrylic or oils. They come in tins and are a lot cheaper. And I had thought this may be a solution. Lakeland paints, Earthbornpaints to name a few. I was ready to order some samples to experiment with when I read this blog about household paint on Jacksons Art website. I don’t necessarily mind if my art doesn’t last into the centuries however it seems that household paints can’t be painted onto flexible surfaces like canvas or paper. Jackson’s have a couple of really informative posts about household paint. Below Julie has responded to my question.
I’d love to be able to make my own paints and inks but it seems like a huge undertaking so unlike other areas of my life where I could change quite quickly, changing my art practice will be a slower undertaking. My aim for now is to sop using wet materials that I have to wash down the sink. For example, stop the use of acrylic paint and wet oils and instead trial dry mediums like pastels and oil sticks.
As always, I’d be grateful for any comments that will help me make my practice more sustainable!