Sometimes oil painting gets a bad reputation for being harmful. But there are a lot of variables involved, and if you use common sense practices and develop good studio habits, you can paint safely with oil paints, mediums, and solvents for years and years to come.
Understand what your oil paint is made of.
Oil paint is made from a pigment and a binder such as linseed oil. The toxic chemicals would be found in the pigments. Most highly toxic chemicals that were present in the days of Davinci have been removed from oil paints, but that does not mean that your paint tubes pose no risk.
Look for the ACMI seal.
All artist products that have this seal have undergone extensive toxic evaluation and testing, and if it has this seal it means that it is not any more harmful than say your household cleaners.
Know that the solvents and mediums, such thinners, turpentines, oil mediums and varnishes, that you are using pose the greatest risk due to fumes and fire hazards.
A lot of oil mediums, solvents, and varnishes almost always say combustible on the can or bottle. Use in a well-ventilated area away from appliances, and keep away from flames of candles or gas appliances. Never wad up rags and paper towels that are soaked in paint thinners and dispose in the trash as they can build up their own heat and ignite. If you have a soaked rag or towel, simply lay it out flat and outside to dry before disposing.
Use Proper Ventilation in Your Work Space.
When you are painting, staining and varnishing canvases make sure you have plenty of ventilation. It’s the mediums and solvents that release fumes into the air. This can cause light headedness and fainting. Use artist quality odorless paint thinners from artist supply companies! Never buy your odorless thinners at a hardware store. Just because it says odorless does not mean it will not make you dizzy. I have made this mistake and it was a little scary. I was painting in my small backyard building and it was cold outside, so I did not have windows open or a fan. I painted for 3 hours with “odorless” thinner from Walmart and suddenly realized I was dizzy and feeling really faint. I quickly went outside to get some fresh air and it took a little while before I felt normal. These days I use my thinner and mediums in a tiny container such as a condiment cup or a baby food jar, and I mostly use my thinner at the end when cleaning up brushes.
Don’t Eat or Drink while Oil painting.
You would not want to eat your Lysol cleaner, and the same is true for your oil paints. This is the hardest thing to do. I always like to have my coffee or a glass of water with me while I’m painting, and when I’m up late painting, I’ve been guilty of opening little chocolates and popping them in my mouth while having paint and solvent residue on my hands. It’s also quite possible you might accidentally dip your brush into your drink if it is sitting near your brush rinsing container.
Keep paint and solvents off your skin.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body. Wash your hands often and wear gloves if you are in the habit of getting paint and solvents on your skin. I know gloves can be bothersome, so if you don’t like to wear them, develop the habits of not getting the paint and solvents on your hands, and if you do, get up and go wash your hands periodically during your painting session. You also should NEVER wash oil paints off your hands with solvents. Always use soap and water, or an artist safe hand and brush cleaner. You also should always avoid putting your hands on or close to your mucus membranes, your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Keep children away from your painting space.
Just like you would warn a child of the dangers of electrical outlets, and appliances, make sure your children know that there are dangers in your oil painting space. Keep paints and solvents, and your palette out of reach when you are not around. You just never know when a child might get curious.
Keep others safety in mind.
Often your studio is in your house and chemicals can spread to other areas of the house. Use common sense. Also, never put your thinners and mediums in unlabeled containers and make sure your family knows what the risks are.