Friday, April 28, 2017


As I bag up the week's collection of plastic bags, I think about the recent Earth Day March to celebrate the work of scientists and the environmental movements. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with trying to find ways to use every last piece of paper, every piece of plastic, or any other object that otherwise will land in the trash. I try to do the best I can to recycle and reuse, but I know there is still a lot more that I could do.

I loved the signs displayed at the Earth Day March:

We Are With Her (a drawing of The Earth)

Got Polio? No? Thank Science

Science is in Our DNA

I'm Here for Pi

I think so many of us feel the same way that I do and want to make sure that we continue to lessen our environmental impact.

 I've never met an artist yet who doesn't pick up something and say, "I could use this somewhere someday." We often incorporate recycled materials in artwork, but we also have been contaminating our environment with toxic chemicals for a long time (aerosol sprays and permanent markers, for example). A new generation of artists have become more aware of the footprint they leave as artists and choose to reuse and repurpose as much as possible.

Connie McDowell makes art exchange cards that are about 2" tall.
What a great way to use up the smallest of scraps.

Until the 20th Century, many artists -- perhaps our first scientists -- made their own paints using natural materials, which were not always harmless (cadmium, arsenic, and lead were key ingredients). They also used toxic materials to clean up after use. Since my school days, new products such as terpenoid and soy-based inks have replaced old harmful products. At the Art and Soul Retreat that I attended recently, each classroom had dirty water buckets so that classes wouldn't overwhelm the pipes with acrylic residue.

I gave up oil paints a long time ago because of the solvents needed to clean the paint off my skin. An alternative, acrylic paint is toxic too. Though water-based, acrylics are made from acrylic polymer, which becomes a solid mass when dry. The residue from brushes or from the cleaning jars can create havoc with plumbing and our water supply. Cleaning with care takes extra effort, but keeping acrylics out of our water supply is important to me.

I often use the paint splattered paper towels left over
from another painting session in a new piece.

With the advent of Earth Day in 1970, many people, including artists, became much more aware of the need to be environmentally friendly. We depend on the research of scientists to developed better formulas for products that aren't as polluting as previous ones. Artists have returned to old ways such as eco-printing, which uses natural dyes from plants to create interesting designs. We need to tend to our Mother Earth. There is no Planet B!

The paper catches the dyes from the plants, which make ghost prints on the paper.

To get more ideas about reuse and recycling, check out the magazine, Uppercase. The latest issue #33 highlights the efforts of artists to be green.

Agora Gallery offers good advice about green practices for artists.

Another site with good information about art supplies:

Read Kate Moore's new book, The Radium Girls, about the young women who painted radium on watch dials in the early part of the 20th century.


  1. Darn it. I didn't know about the problem with acrylics. Another excellent blog subject!

    1. Yes, acrylics seem safe. They are if you clean up and also use them in a ventilated area because they are made with formaldehyde as a preservative.

  2. Very interesting post this week Gus. We just went to Giverny this week and saw a studio at the Hotel Baudy, which was a favorite among American artists of Monet’s time. They had many of the pigments and brushes and other tools strewn around the studio. I thought of the contaminants of the time and Greg and I talked about it. I did point out that many of the artists lived very long lives, into their 80’s, so it couldn’t have been that bad. But, you are right, we all need to be more aware and do more to save our planet.

    1. In response, Mary, I thought maybe the Impressionists' long lives could be because they were plein aire painters. But then Rembrandt lived to be 63 and was a studio painter. Some people think that the halos in Van Gogh's work are the result of his breathing in lead. But who knows. Mostly, if you are an artist/craftsperson, good ventilation is key as well as wearing barrier gloves when using solvents. being aware of your footprint can help you to be more creative by looking for alternatives to old products!


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