Painter’s Toxicity: Part 1 – by David Molesky
I’ve been meaning to write about the toxicity and dangers encountered by painters, especially those who have an everyday practice. In this first section, I will share the narrative of my identification of the problem.
When I was young and still in my first few years of painting, I was told by my high school teacher and a few of my college teachers that there are two paths for someone who is dedicated to painting: they can live fast and die young or they can go for the long road. I chose the long road because who really wants to live a short life anyway.
After working with Odd Nerdrum from 2006-2008, where I had a separate studio from my sleeping quarters, I moved into a tiny commercial space on Market Street in San Francisco. Here I lived a truly bohemian life, working and sleeping in a 240 square foot space amongst my paintings for four years. Besides the time I spent working with Nerdrum and about a year in Seattle, I always painted in the same space where I slept and I continue this practice today.
When I began painting in oils in 1993, I was completely unaware of any toxic effects that the mediums could have on my health. I thought the way that you thin oil paint was with turpentine. With more experience, I learned that you could make mediums with linseed oil. In college, teachers introduced Gamblin mediums and Liquin. When I apprenticed with a couple “New Old Masters,” they advised me to use linseed oil with turpentine to make my own mediums.
It wasn’t until I was slumming it in a warehouse in San Francisco that I truly got to thinking about how my environment could affect my health. Or that I could possibly improve upon the standard approach to oil painting taught to me by others. I had a studio visit with a high school painting friend, who now has a successful career showing in prominent galleries and art fairs. Upon seeing my buttery paint strokes, he suggested that I might enjoy using walnut oil. So, I purchased some at an art store. They only had tiny bottles of it, as it clearly was not a big seller.
My two small bottles of walnut oil soon ran out after a month or so and during that time my space and I had a break from solvents. I still had quite a large stash of linseed oil based materials around and the solvents I use with them. I thought to myself, “Well, that was a nice experiment. I’ll just go back to using linseed oil and odorless mineral spirits again.” Having acclimated to painting without solvents for the first time in 17 years, it became clear how they affected me when I used them versus when I did not.
One thing I noticed was a mild inflammation in my lungs, which in turn resulted in a mild inflammation in my brain and noticeably increased difficulty in my ability to focus. But it quickly became apparent that the solvents were also affecting my skin. In the hand where I usually hold my painting rag, the skin between my fingernail and my knuckle began peeling off. I started wearing gloves and worked with a contractor to install a powerful ventilation fan capable of emptying the air of the entire volume of my studio every three minutes. I even followed the design guidelines suggested by Mark David Gottsegen’s “The Painter’s Handbook,” which to my knowledge is the only mainstream book of its kind that has anything to say about the dangers of working materials.
Even with all of these precautions, I still didn’t feel as well as I did when solvents were absent from my space. I thought about the two artists that I read about in college whose chosen materials lead to early death: Eva Hesse, whose use of resin caused a deadly brain tumor, and Jay DeFeo, whose use of lead paint gave her lung cancer. These artists in some ways were the martyrs who made it common knowledge that these extreme materials could be lethal. A decade after graduating, I realized that the very teachers who spoke about the toxicity of these more exotic art materials were severely risking their lives with the most basic studio materials. In a horror-stricken moment, I counted the six painters that I identified as my teachers. All but one suffered serious health issues that very well could be attributed to the use of materials. Three had suffered strokes and one died of brain cancer. They were all in their 60’s. The only oil painter who did not suffer these fates exclusively painted outdoors en plein air.
The mentor who I was most closely working with at that time was having bouts of pneumonia with increasing frequency. I thought back to the first time I visited his studio and how I was blown away by the strong smell of the English distilled turpentine and Liquin and accompanying rags laying about on the table. I commented on this and he said that it was fine because he had 20-foot high ceilings, which allowed the vapors to be dispersed. Although my gut felt doubtful of this, the authoritative perspective of someone who was clearly a master of their craft overrode my suspicion. At that moment in time, I realized that solvents were ruining the health of the older full-time painters I knew and I set to work to find a solution so that I could prevent myself and friends from becoming another statistic.
Part 2 coming soon…