Published 31 August 2022
Over the years there have been many conversations about the toxicity of some art materials, leading to a number of products being banned, or at least regulated.
Lead poisoning (found in certain paints) was not unusual in the past, as were respiratory issues prior to the encouraged use of ventilators, and what is often called ‘tradie’s cancer’ – cancer of the bladder thanks to exposure to toxic solvents and glues.
More recently, there has been a growing interest in environmentally friendly studio practices, which has expanded from education – aka not tipping the turps down the drain – to a conscious choice of using less environmentally erosive materials.
Taking it a step further, some artist have a desire to move to animal-free art materials. Just as meatless burgers and plant-based substitutes have become commonplace, activists against animal cruelty have broadened the consumer market on all things, including art materials.
However, it is a more difficult transition. There’s not a lot of reliable information out there, and more so, there is a lot of confusion around whether existing products are animal-free or not.
While there is a lot of information available about animal testing where clothing and cosmetics are concerned, the art supplies market doesn’t have the weight to warrant such reporting.
‘Artists don’t usually think of their work as a final resting place for animal parts,’ writes Dylan Kerr (Artnet, 2017). ‘But from sepia (forcibly obtained from squid) and India ink (more crushed bugs) and to oil pastels (fat + beeswax) and charcoal (specifically Bone Black, which lives up to its name), critters’ bodies abound in all manner of art supplies.’
To clarify, veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products in diet or manufactured goods, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals and related animal suffering.
‘The only way to find out if your art supplies are vegan is to contact a brand or manufacturer and ask them. You’ll find that you’ll often receive unclear and complicated answers, or even no answer at all,’ writes Jopie for the blog Shop Like You Give a Damn.
Sometimes brands are not even aware of the animal ingredients in their products.
– Jopie, Shop Like You Give a Damn
Jopie, like Kerr, welcomed the rise in vegan art material supplies.
‘It’s up to all of us who believe that animals shouldn’t suffer so we can express ourselves, to use our consumer power to support vegan products, and to effect change,’ Jopie said.
While a few art brands have lists of vegan products available on their website, or on request, largely it’s up to the individual to do the legwork.
In an earlier interview, Australian artist Caroline Rothwell told ArtsHub that, for a number of years, she has made conscious choices in purchasing her art materials. ‘I made a decision not to buy a lot of materials from art stores. I use unbleached canvas and water based product … There is a sealer I buy and it costs more than the cheaper not-environmentally friendly version, but I just commit to that. The cost is driven by the market, but also by more awareness,’ Rothwell said.
Whether vegan or environmentally conscious, demand for certain art materials will bring prices down with time.
Rothwell added that one of the reasons she started to make more environmentally-friendly inflatable, temporary public projects was because she could, ‘just plug in, inflate and deflate and pack away – it has a small footprint and I like its impermanence’.
She believes in thinking through solutions to how and what we make without compromising one’s artistic practice or your ethical position.
Traditionally, art supplies have used ingredients from the hair of sables, pigs, and squirrels to make brushes; the boiled skins, bones, tendons, and hooves of pigs and cows to make gelatin-based gessoes; and ground shell and animal by-products to create pigments for paint.
Then there is rabbit skin glue and bone glue, both made from animal by-products from the factory farming industry. A common alternative is the plant-based binder Gum Arabic.
Gelatin is another common binder, often used in the production process of making paper (especially watercolour paper) which also includes animal by-products.
Asking if an art paper is vegan-friendly, the natural thought would be yes. An animal is not directly used in paper’s production, but trace elements, such as gelatin, would be extremely minimal. So it comes down to the individual and degrees of one’s embrace of veganism. The question to ask is, ‘Does this paper include Gelatin?’
Beeswax and animal fat are often used in crayons, oil pastels and pencils. Alternatives are available using vegetable derived fats and waxes.
Animal hair is the standard for artist-quality paint brushes. They can come from boar, goat or horse hair (a by-product of factory farming), with finer brushes typically using sable or mink hair (fur farming). Check for the words sable or kolinsky, indicating animal hair has been used. Synthetic brushes use polyester bristles and are widely available today.
Glycerine – another base ingredient of some art materials – is extracted from either animal or vegetable fats, such as soybean, coconut or palm oils, so you have choices there also. But again, you need to do the legwork to find the right brand for you.
With regard to pigments, a lot has changed in this area. Traditionally, Indian yellow was originally made from cow urine, sepia from squid ink, and Tyrian purple was derived from snails.
Generally, all paints and inks that are called ivory black or bone black are made from the ashes of burnt animal bones – a waste product of factory farming. The most commonly used alternative is a pigment called lamp black or carbon black, historically made from lamp soot and which has bluish, sometimes slightly brownish undertones. Another alternative is Mars Black, which is made from iron oxide.
Carmine, or cochineal, is a bright red dye obtained from finely ground cochineal scale insects. The most common alternatives are cadmium, azo (less toxic) and the synthetically produced alizarin pigments.
Another to look out for is oxgall, a binding agent in watercolor paint derived from cows, and still widely used by many brands.
Shellac can give a wonderful finish, but it is a resinous secretion of the lacquer insect. Although it is an animal-derived ingredient (and therefore non-vegan), the insects are not killed, though a huge number are required to produce this material, which is harvested by scraping the secretion off the trees they inhabit
Shellac is commonly used in primers, varnishes, coatings and fixatives for drawings and paintings, and is used as a binder in India ink.
When Jopie chose to embrace veganism five years, they did a lot of research, starting by contacting the known brands and building a resource to share through the veganism blog Shop Like You Give a Damn.
‘A lot of companies I’ve contacted aren’t sure whether their products are vegan. But as more and more customers have called or e-mailed with questions, these companies have started to look into their supply chains to check, was something tested on animals, was something refined with animal ingredients, etc.’ Jopie writes.
That resource was updated in 2020, and while it’s hard to guarantee any product is 100% vegan friendly with changing formulas and supply channels, Jopie believes it is a great place to start.
When it comes to brands, Jopie noted that, ‘traditional doesn’t necessarily mean better. As you’ll see in this list, vegan art supplies are available in both student and professional grades’.
Data complied by Shop Like Your Give a Damn.
Original Article > by Gina Fairley, ArtsHub
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