How is the art industry faring in the era of sustainability?

For a jet-set industry that emits more CO2 than the entire population of Austria, it could be argued that sustainability has never been high on The Art World’s agenda — perhaps that’s about to change.

As is to be expected, hauling hoards of bubble-wrapped artwork across the globe racks up a considerable carbon footprint. Setting up the exhibitions themselves is rarely better; lest we forget the hoards of plastic cups in which each exhibition’s complimentary wine must be served. But while many of us are aware of how detrimental globe trotting can be for the environment, we’re often unaware of how the most popular of artists’ mediums — paint — can be detrimental to the climate too.

Paints were created through experimentation as artists worked like mediaeval alchemists. After centuries of trial and error, our present-day shelves are now stocked with what is considered to be the most refined in terms of pigment, viscosity, longevity and price. For those unfamiliar with the cost of paint, an ounce of Cadmium Red costs the same as an ounce of the best caviar or that of cold-packed human blood cells.

Paint is made up of a pigment, for colour, and a binder to hold the particles together. The history of raw pigments is no stranger to some unusual and potentially deadly methods. For example, Tyrian Purple, a Phoenician discovery, was extracted from the mucus of thousands of Murax Snails — Indigenous peoples produced red by collecting carmine via the harvesting and crushing of Cochineal beetles.

The discovery of exciting new pigments came with some adverse side effects. Lapiz lazuli, an Afghan stone, was once the most expensive pigment in the world. A great luxury, its Ultramarine blue colour was reserved for religious icons such as the Madonna, the Virgin Mary. However, the stone is laced with Pyrite which when oxidised releases harmful sulphur. When green was revived by the Impressionists, along came Scheele’s Green, a copper arsenite so toxic, it potentially blinded Monet and contributed to the death of Napoleon.

“With paint a necessity in a painter’s quest to create art, abandoning the medium altogether is not an option.”

Nowadays pigments are safer. EU regulations have banned lead-based paint. Colours such as Cadmiums are available in hues, an imitation, to avoid toxic heavy metals. Scheele’s Green, so popular it became a fashionable wallpaper for children’s bedrooms, was quickly recalled and destroyed. However, while Lemon Yellow and Emerald Green might suggest eco-purity, today’s palettes still contain a plethora of chemicals.

When exposed to air, paint releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their gaseous form. These are unstable chemicals that act as greenhouse gases, causing irreparable damage to both the environment and human health. Synthetic pigments, such as Cobalt Blue, are made from petrochemicals and derived from crude oil.

Oil paint is not water-soluble and requires harmful solvents to thin it. Most users will play with varnishes, primers, thinners or thickeners with little ventilation or protection using their studios like a haphazard chemistry lab.

Disposal is particularly difficult with the resulting solution considered hazardous waste. Although water-soluble, acrylic paint isn’t water-based. It is plastic-based and relies on a solvent to make it water-soluble. In fact, according to one article, washing paint down the sink contributes to 58% of the ocean’s microplastics.

With paint a necessity in a painter’s quest to create art, abandoning the medium altogether is not an option. However, alongside the vegans, the recyclers and the fast-fashion-rejectors, we painters can do our bit.

Cavemen dried and ground up clay soils before binding them with animal fats for the earliest known paints. The Italians roasted them during the Renaissance creating ochres, umbers and siennas. These pigments traditionally come from earth, hence their brown colours and these age-old techniques can be used as a greener alternative. Foraging natural pigments gives a deeper understanding of palette and organic matter. Many pigments are readily available. Soot was the carbon base for Lamp Black. Its sister, Ash, gives a silvery tint. Extract blue from boiling red cabbage or utilise spices for vibrant oranges and yellows.

Linseed oil is a great option for a binder. Also known as flaxseed oil in the food industry, it is plant-based, edible and comes from a renewable resource. For something fast-drying, egg tempera is proven to withstand time. Examples of this method date back to the fourth century AD. Mix yolk with pigment and the lecithin acts as an emulsifier, binding pigment and water together. Different oxidation times can lead to different viscosities. Jan Van Eyck used to leave his handmade paint in the sun to get his ideal consistency. Encaustic painting was popular in Byzantine monasteries and requires liquid wax, commonly beeswax, to bind the pigment. Casein painting swaps wax for milk and is growing in popularity as a green alternative.

Low VOC paint options are also available. Consider less toxic solvents and use in well-ventilated spaces. Although still not carbon neutral, dispose of your paint by letting it harden and putting it in the household bin, rather than down the sink where it can damage aquatic life. Use chlorine-free or recycled paper or consider eco-friendly packaging.

As climate activists hurl food at famous artworks, we must consider the relationship between the art industry and our environment. Being mindful of the harmful effects of materials is essential to being part of the solution.