How green are my paints! A commentary by Doreen Brumme

How environmentally friendly are the paints and painting implements that professional and amateur artists buy in stores, both offline and online? For me, the search for eco-friendly art supplies begins when I enter the term "Künstlerbedarf" ("art supplies") into Google, the Internet search engine. After a mere 0.63 seconds, it comes up with about 7,430,000 hits in German. My search for "Künstlerbedarf umweltfreundlich" ("environmentally friendly art supplies"), on the other hand, results in only 568,000 hits. "Künstlerbedarf ökologisch" ("ecological art supplies") gets only 178,000 hits on Google. The search term "Künstlerbedarf Ökozertifikat" ("eco-certificate art supplies" comes up with 92,300 results and "Künstlerbedarf Umweltsiegel" ("art supplies eco-label") 13,200.

Compared with the almost 7.5 million results for "art supplies", the latter is just a fraction of that figure. Does this also reflect the situation in the sector? Is "green" in the sense of "environmentally friendly" not (yet) an important issue for artists and manufacturers when it comes to their paints and painting tools?


In search of the greenest paint

There are so many ways that artists can use to apply some colour onto canvas, paper and whatever else they might think of. If I limit myself at this point to painting alone, that is to say to the art form of painting in which a picture is created from areas of paint that are applied with a brush (and not, as in drawing, from lines that come from pens), the most important paints are acrylic paints, oil paints and watercolours (for watercolour or "aquarelle" paintings and gouache). 

Neither the German consumer protection agencies of Stiftung Warentest nor Ökotest have yet published any report on acrylic paints. That is why, in my search for an independent assessment of the eco-friendliness of acrylic paints, I turn to the German consumer advice centre, the Verbraucherzentrale (VZ), on whose website I find the following answer to the question of whether there are any particularly low-pollutant paints and pigments for artists. The answer is that pigments are insoluble solid particles that are finely dispersed in paints, thus giving them their colourful opacity. Artist paints can contain pigments with toxic elements or heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.

The consumer advice centre advises consumers to always read the safety data sheet when buying paint, which the manufacturers (unfortunately not all of them) publish online. It can be found under the search terms "acrylic paint (oil paint) safety data sheet". Section 2 points out any possible hazards, and section 3.2 lists hazardous ingredients with an indication of the hazard in question if they are contained in the paint mixture.


For the artist, these paints pose no health risk, states the consumer advice centre, provided that the pigments are bound in a paste (so that they cannot be inhaled), are not swallowed and do not come into contact with the skin. Any danger to the environment arises when the brushes are washed and the toxic pigments enter the environment via the sewage sludge. 

When painting with oils, it is primarily the solvents that post a problem: turpentine oil for thinning the paint and special brush cleaners are often used, both of which contain highly volatile substances. They volatilise even at room temperature and can be inhaled by the artist and, in the long run, can cause damage to the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat and impair lung health.
This leads me to the interim conclusion that artists’ demand for "green" paints doesn’t seem to be that great yet. I can’t otherwise explain the discrepancy between the vast range of conventional paints on the one hand and the mere handful of eco-friendly paints on the other.

Now, a reader with knowledge of art and experience of crafting might interject that demand on the part of artists might be lacking partly because the more eco-friendly alternatives such as plant-based paints often cannot compete with the colour intensity of conventional paints. One the one hand, they are paler from the start, and on the other, they fade faster because organic paints are often not light resistant. But artists of past eras often mixed their own paints from natural ingredients and even though they spent a lot of time "making paints", they used their effects to create masterpieces that still give us colourful pleasure today. These days, many of their paint formulas are still known and published on the internet. Literally going "back to the roots" – i.e. making organic paints – is an interesting approach. Instructions on how to do this abound online, e.g. at WWF

When buying paint, also keep animal welfare in mind!

For many of us, the idea of "environmentally friendly" goes hand in hand with animal welfare. This also plays a role when selecting paints for artworks. Typically, watercolour paints, for example, are mixed with "animal ingredients" such as ox or cow bile in order to, among other things, delay their drying, which in turn is artistically important for wet-on-wet painting. If you are looking for alternatives, you should look for products that are made using vegetable glycerine instead.

There are also other animal components in paints. For example, the pigment called "bone black" is made from bones and "carmine" from dead female lice. There are already a number of manufacturers who offer vegan paints. This means you should keep your eyes open when buying paint! This also applies to painting implements, because everyone is free to choose either natural or synthetic hair paintbrushes.


The problem with natural hair paintbrushes

The German Animal Welfare Association names wild animals such as polecats, weasels, badgers, bears, wild boars and squirrels as animal suppliers of paintbrushes. Domestic animals such as horses, cattle and pigs are also listed. According to the report, one problem is that natural hair paintbrushes are mainly imported from Asia to Europe, and the conditions used to deprive the animals of their hair usually remain unclear. The animal rights activists state on their website that consumers can generally assume that animal welfare standards in Asia are not comparable to those in Europe. This also applies to the keeping and slaughtering of domesticated animals outside the EU. Caution is always advisable here. But even in the case of natural hair paintbrushes made in Europe, where animal hair would be considered to be a by-product of slaughter, consumers are still asked to have a compassionate and animal-friendly mind, because nowadays, even in Europe, factory farming still means a lack of animal harm rather than actual animal welfare. This is why the German Animal Welfare Association advises using synthetic brushes, which are in no way inferior in quality to natural hair paintbrushes and are usually even cheaper.

My conclusion: Anyone who pays attention to eco-friendliness in everyday life should make no exception for their artistic hobby or profession. An unswerving eco-friendly attitude rather than inconsistency when buying art supplies is the way to a sustainable world where "green" art is appreciated and valued as part of a society that supports the idea of the circular economy.


About the author.

The freelance journalist on organic issues and #motherof4 Doreen Brumme blogs on about how to enjoy a green lifestyle at work, in school and at home.


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