Reducing the Environmental Impact of Art: Acrylic Paint

This Plastic Free July I’ve been assessing my personal impact on the environment, including my art practice. We all know that there are dangers associated with oil paints, but what about acrylics?

CAUTION: Poison

For a start, if any art pigments are made using cadmium, cobalt, manganese, oxide or anything else poisonous, it’s best not to wash these art materials down the drain or send them to landfill. Art materials usually note if a toxin is used to make it in the name (e.g., Cobalt Blue). If the pigment says it’s a Hue though (e.g., Cadmium Yellow Hue), it’s not actually made with the toxin – it just looks similar.
This website provides a handy guide to the toxicity of paint pigments: http://captainpackrat.com/furry/toxicity.htm

Safely Cleaning Brushes

Acrylic paint’s water-solubility is great for ease of cleaning, but think twice about putting your rinse-water down the sink and not just because it could clog your drains! Even when you use toxin-free acrylic paints, remember that acrylic paints ARE plastic. Technically it’s “pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion.” (Wikipedia).
I’ve read information about how to separate the paint from the water using “flocculation”, which requires a lot of effort and probably too much given the small quantities of paint I use for my art, but I would definitely recommend doing this if you’re painting a house. Here is a video from Golden Paints which shows you how if you’re interested.
Hardened acrylic paint will fix and contain any of the nasty toxic chemicals which may have been used in the pigment. So it’s thought to be relatively safe to put in landfill as the poisons won’t leach into the soil. So when I clean acrylic paint off my brushes and hands, I dispose of it on rags and let the paint harden before putting them in the bin.
My method is to get as much paint off your brushes (and hands) with a rag first, then use very small amounts of water to get the rest off (like spraying the tip with a squirt bottle, or quickly dipping the brush in a small container of water WITHOUT AGITATING it so the paint doesn’t start coming off). Then you leave the rag outside to dry completely before putting it in the bin. I usually reuse the rag until it doesn’t work as a cleaning tool anymore.

Safely Cleaning Palettes

The same method is good for paint palettes. You can even just let the leftover paint harden and peel most of it off.

Safely Cleaning Hands 

Sometimes it still can be difficult to get all of the acrylic paint off your hands. First of all, it will be much easier if you use a barrier cream like Sorbolene BEFORE PAINTING. If you need some extra abrasion to remove stubborn paint, try more Sorbolene with coffee grounds (just a small amount). Then wipe your hands on a rag. It should be safe to wash your hands afterwards.

I use Sorbolene only for cleaning my hands of pastel – not only because of potential toxic pigments, but it seems to do a far better job than water.

It’s still Plastic

I know using acrylic paint is just essentially just more plastic going to landfill, and I do struggle with that. But it’s far better for the environment and my health than oil paint and we can go a long way to minimising its impact.
If you have any other handy hints for working with art materials in an environmentally friendly way, please let me know!

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