Implementing a few simple procedures can turn your studio into a safe place.
Since all acrylic paints and their mediums (and many oil mediums) release dangerous chemicals into the air as they dry, ventilation is key. The solution can be as straightforward as opening a window, but if you regularly create large works and use a lot of paint, installing a ventilation system (or renting a studio with a system in place) is a good idea.
Oil painters shouldn’t work around open containers of turpentine, mineral spirits, or citrus-based cleaners. Solvents evaporate with exposure to the air, and are known to cause a host of physical and neurological problems when inhaled repeatedly over time. Instead, open your solvents only when you need to clean your brushes, and buy more brushes so that the solvents can stay closed for most of the painting day.
Solvent-covered rags also release dangerous particles into the air as they dry. By removing them from the studio at the end of the day, you’ll avoid walking into bad air the next morning. The rags can be hung outside for reuse or stored in a tightly-lidded, metal container until you can dispose of them properly. If they have oil on them, make sure that you wet the rags with water. Oily rags generate heat as they dry and can spontaneously combust if they’re crushed together in storage.
Another simple safety measure is to wear gloves when you paint. Nitrile-coated gloves keep paint, solvents, and mediums from being absorbed into your skin, and they have the added benefit of keeping your hands free of dried paint, which can be very hard to wash off. You can buy comfortable gloves with a breathable back and coated palms and fingers from any garden or workwear store.
A universal studio rule is to keep food and drink out of the studio. That sounds like it should be easy to adhere to, but most painters do at least have a coffee cup in the studio. The key is to know what’s on your hands before you touch it, and to always hold the cup by the handle instead of the rim. Mindfulness will help you to avoid consuming chemicals with your coffee. Washing your hands often is another simple and effective preventative measure.
You should also avoid spray-painting or sanding your paintings indoors. Inhaled pigments are particularly dangerous and impossible to remove once they’re in your lungs, so it’s best not to make them airborne unless you have a spray booth and an appropriate safety mask.
And lastly, an often-overlooked solution to a toxic studio is to find safer alternatives to problematic materials.
Instead of using oil mediums and solvents with warning labels about the dangers of inhalation, try using only linseed or walnut oil to dilute your paints, and common vegetable oil to clean your brushes. Oil paints don’t give off gas as they dry, so these changes would effectively eliminate painting as a source of indoor pollution.
Both oil and acrylic painters can also find alternatives to dangerous pigments, such as paints that look and behave like the real thing, but use safer pigments and cost a fraction of the price. Most manufacturers sell alternatives to lead, cadmium, manganese, cerulean, and more. Check the tubes and find a pigment that has the color you love, without the warning labels.