When first painting pregnant, Emma used a well-fitted gas mask to protect me and baby from harmful fumes. PHOTO: courtesy of Emma Barr

In art college, this subject was embedded in all the studios: textiles, metal works, wood works, ceramics painting, printmaking and jewellery. In each studio practice, there were unique safety needs and precautions. In our foundation year, we had to purchase the “Bible” of safety, The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol. This book is full of facts about the material contents and safe practice to use them. We also needed a book focused on the materials and techniques, so we could learn the composition of the supplies we were working with.

The main things I consider, as a painter, are ventilation, natural light and cleanup. Ventilation is challenging in the Yukon because in the winter you lose so much heat by opening windows. Usually you can install an overhead ventilation system to turn on as you need it. If this is not an option, you can use the overhead fan in most homes and keep your setup closer to the window, opening it up during and after a painting session just to get that toxic air out.

Another precaution is to keep things covered up. I keep my paint tubes in a box with a lid, and my solvents in glass jars with lids. I buy the least-toxic materials and keep my skin covered when in contact with them. I use a barrier cream on my hands or use well-fitted gloves. During my first pregnancy, I used a well-fitted gas mask to protect me and baby from harmful fumes, but in the last few years I have used less-toxic thinners and mediums because the technology has changed. It seems to get most toxic when you need to clean brushes.

Citrus Natural Solvent is an excellent alternative to mineral spirits. It is safe and environmentally friendly and powerful enough to effectively do the same work. It is made of 98 per cent pure citrus peel oil and 2 per cent water—tough enough to remove paint and can be used for a host of other challenging jobs, for which odourless mineral spirits is often used. Murphy’s Oil is also amazing for the clean-up side of oils.

Powdered pigments, used in painting and ceramics, are really dangerous because they are usually pure in form and contain fine particles (as soon as the lid is opened you are ingesting them). Many have cancer-causing properties, and the fine particles get imbedded in your system almost immediately. In the ceramic studio, these were opened and measured using a small, covered glazing house, with gloved holes for your arms to fit through so you could mix the formulas. Once they were in liquid form, you could transfer it to the open room while wearing a mask.

Each studio faces a unique set of precautions and, if established early on, you will experience years of good safety practices. Memories I have from those informative years are of the jewellers, woodworkers and metal workers who were always wearing their custom-fit safety glasses. Studios that had similar safety needs were grouped together in the same buildings, so more industrial heavy-duty versus softer-duty like the writers and filmmakers.

To sum it all up, the longer-living, healthy artists have an established plan in mind for longevity. The ones suffering from lung cancer, emphysema and other related diseases are not living comfortably into their 70s to 90s. Sadly, my grandfather, a commercial signage artist and painter, didn’t get to live long enough to share in my art career … we feel his exposure to neon-sign materials and painting cars in his garage, as well as smoking ciggies and painting war planes with lead-based materials, may have led to his early passing. My dad, “Mr. Safety First,” is with me and always reminds me of how important it is to practice safe living—period—not just painting! It’s not just yourself that you need to consider, but those who frequent your work space, as well—treasured family members, pets and visiting students.


Safe and sound in your studio (resources)

Please use common sense, and research all you can to set your studio up right (and safely), then practice safety daily.

Safe work practice manual

Safety In Oils