The painting above is the last painting I made with my old acrylics in February. It's recycled. The painting underneath was gold, so to limit use of paint and fumes, I put two quick coats of color, then scratched out the trees and lines, letting the gold and white show through. This still gave me a nasty list of symptoms. Even if visible symptoms don't show up for everyone, it's easy to be affected without knowing especially if the supplies aren't used safely. That's why I'm sharing my top five list of safer alternatives.
1. Natural Pigments. When looking for safer supplies, people often recommend natural pigments as the first choice. Natural pigments are an advantage because you have complete control over what goes into your paint. You will find greater variety in colors and will have the satisfaction of a signature palette. Why is this important? This allows you greater creativity and expression. Also, various chemicals and fillers can be bypassed. Your binder can even be a food grade material like milk or egg. These paints are also good for decorating your house. Here are a few companies that sell natural pigments: Kremer, Earth Pigments, Kama, Natural Pigments and Sinopia.
One word of caution about natural pigments: they are dusty to work with. Artist supply gurus, Dennis Austin Reid and Darlene Teahen from the Art Shack used to make their own pastels. They told me that no matter how careful you are, how slowly you pour, even when wearing safety goggles, and a mask, you will inhale some of the dust unless you work with a glove box. Tiny particles, even non-toxic ones, are hazardous to the lungs. Several universities also recommend working with a glove box if mixing your own pigments. For more info see here and here.
2.Dispersions. Dispersions are pigments already in a liquid, so you can bypass all the concerns of inhalation hazards, but keep the benefits of vibrancy and purity. They are very concentrated, and work with all water based media. An added bonus is that they are not only of great quality, but a better economy. Check out Kama Pigments.
3.Earth Safe Acrylics The website talks about the benefits of low to no Volatile Organic Compounds in their acrylics plus all the nasty stuff that they don't put in their paints. Their recipes are said to be safe even for high risk such as the chemically sensitive, post chemo patients, and for children plus they don't contribute to global warming like regular paints. They have professional artist products and decor product to paint your walls.
A note to those who don't paint, but who love to decorate: one of the reasons for poor air quality in the home is the paint on the walls. It can off-gas, causing various health problems, for quite some time. These don't.
4.Rublev Artist Oils. These oils are hand ground in small batches and contain pigment and linseed oil only. Think of them as artisinal, or gourmet paints. The benefit here is that you know precisely what is in the paint, there are no additives so you skip all the chemicals and fillers, plus you can use some of the same formulations of the old masters. Oil paints have a bad reputation for fumes. The smell from oils is the rancidity of the oil and that means it's drying. Concern over oil rancidity is only applicable for your salad. While it's possible to be sensitive to anything it's likely not the linseed oil that is causing a reaction, but perhaps the solvents that cause physical problems. There are alternatives to the strong solvents. Another advantage of oils is that they are not made from petrochemicals.
5.Nature's Flavours These are natural as opposed to synthetic food grade dyes made from ingredients such as turmeric, beets, elderberries etc. Several artists I've spoken too have projects that are years old without any fading. I put a sample of the turmeric paint in the window to see if it would bleach out and found that it was very light fast, in fact better than many watercolors. These are versatile. Try using them with egg, or milk as a base. Here's a recipe for homemade watercolors.
One more safety tip, no matter which kind of paint you choose (except natural flavorings), get the Material Safety Data Sheets. Some colors, the pigments themselves, are poisonous. It is understood that the artists are aware of the risk and how to use them safely, but this is often not the case. Here is an article that lists of some colors that affect human health. She even lists safer alternatives that work just as well and has special info for pregnant artists and safety concerns.
The switch to safer supplies can take some time. There can be a learning curve if you're changing mediums (grrr! no I'm not tearing my hair out yet), but the exciting thing is that many of the products may out perform what you're already using. Mixed media lovers and supply junkies have a whole new range of goodies to experiment with and all of us can feel better about taking better care of our health, the health of those who breathe our studio air, and a better environment for everybody.