With all the chemicals used in solvents, varnishes, thinners and even canvases, painting can be a hazard to your health. You can end up with headaches, itchy eyes, skin disorders, infections, asthma, allergic reactions – even cancer! It’s critical that you make sure you paint in a clean and safe environment. As you know, the little things make a big difference. For those who aren’t aware or beginners who are ready to embark on their painting career, I hope you’ll find this information useful:
The materials: paints and thinners
I use natural earth pigments (which comes in powder form) and simply mix them with walnut oil – the same oil you use for cooking! That’s all you need. Please bear in mind that you want to paint 'fat over lean'. 'Fat over lean' is when you use very little oil on the first layer or two, then as you build up your layers you include more oil, otherwise using too much oil in the under layers will make your layers on top, sink through. It's best to use Spike Lavender oil for the first few layers as this helps thin the bottom layers of your paint out where the oil ends up evaporating, just leaving the paint on the substrate.
Spike lavender oil can be purchased here
Earth pigments are naturally occurring minerals, principally iron oxides, that have been used since prehistoric times as pigments. They're known for their lightfastness and being relatively inexpensive, safe/non-toxic and long-lasting. Cave paintings in Sienna were created with earth pigments and they still survive today.
Allow at least 24 hours drying time between applying coats of paint with walnut oil. Walnut oil is preferred over linseed oil because it does not yellow the colours over time. It’s also a good choice for those who find the smell of linseed oil too strong to work with. You can easily find walnut oil in your local supermarket. Alternatively, you can purchase fresh, pure, filtered walnut oil along with the natural earth pigments from the online store at www.earthpigments.com.
A step up from the standard walnut oil that you find in the supermarket is heat polymerised walnut oil. This oil works wonders particularly when you combine this with certain varnishes such as liquid ambar varnish.
For more information on heat polymerised walnut oil, please click here
To order heat polymerised walnut oil, please click here
Soap for washing your hands
I use ‘The Masters’ hand soap. It’s designed to remove stains, grease, ink, oil, acrylic and petroleum-based paint without toxic and messy thinners. It’s non-abrasive and leaves your hands feeling nice and soft. This environmentally safe soap conditions as it cleans and contains no lanolin. It’s available in 1.5 oz and 4.5 oz. You can also use it to clean any paint that you accidentally smudged onto your clothes with just water. Oh, and did I mention? It smells divine like Trebor Softmints!
For 'The Masters’ soap, click here
I use Turpenoid Natural. This is a very safe oil without any chemicals, substances or toxins.
For Turpenoid Natural click here
This stuff isn’t cheap. Alternatively, you can simply use washing up liquid or even better, boil some water in a tub and put some washing up powder in it. Once you've let your brushes soak in there for a few minutes, rinse the brushes in a separate tub with boiling water and fabric softener.
Pesticide-heavy cotton canvases have been made with all sorts of substances. As an alternative, I use linen canvases. They're free from any toxic nightmares and are also a stronger fabric to use.
Priming a canvas
I keep canvas-priming to a minimum as acrylic gessos contain quite a few nasties. I simply use the oil paint I have created from the earth pigments and walnut oil by applying a thin layer as an undercoat.
For a more detailed explanation of what harmful substances and chemicals are used in standard oil paints, please visit this link to an article that was published in the Artists & Illustrator’s magazine: here.
Your body and the environment: angle and posture
I suggest to draw/paint with the board/canvas set on a 20 to 30-degree angle. Either fix the canvas on an easel or have it propped on a table and set against a wall. If you’re drawing on a single sheet of paper, attach it to a hard board with two board clips then prop it against the wall or attach to an easel. The centre of your paper/canvas should be placed at your chest height. This will help you to avoid bending, crunching your shoulders and putting an unnecessary strain on your neck which will result in neck, shoulder and back problems later on in life. It will also help you paint with the perfect perspective. You may think this is obvious but you wouldn’t believe a number of artists I've witnessed painting on an 80 to 90-degree angle or having their work flat on a table, endlessly struggling to get their proportions right!
Holding the pencil or paintbrush
As a general rule, I start drawing/painting from the centre, then work my way outwards. Not only does it help me measure angles, shapes, distances and negative space in a smaller area, it also allows me to rest my fingertips on a non-painted area, therefore I won’t have any worry of smudging or affecting any paint.
For finely detailed areas, yes, hold the pencil/paintbrush in the way you would when you write with a pen. Rather than resting the whole side of your hand onto the canvas, balance your hand with just the tip of your last finger. This way, you’ll be able to cover more area with your strokes.
To gain a better control with larger strokes and to help avoid repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel and wrist strain, hold the pencil/paintbrush from halfway with your fingertips. This will free up your strokes more and will allow you to ease your grip.
Make sure you always paint in a well-ventilated area with windows opened. It’s not just to clear the air from the smell of walnut oil (which is very subtle and harmless) but also to avoid gathering dust which not only affects your breathing but also sticks to the wet paint.
More common sense than anything: enough light is required, not only to decide the correct colours and tones for your artworks but also to reduce eye strain. If you can’t get enough natural daylight in your room then energy-efficient daylight lamps are required.
For a neat, compact and relatively cheap one that spreads the light out evenly in a room: click here.