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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Why Are Solvents So Confusing

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

This topic comes up many times in discussions with artists. Artists start to question the toxicity of a solvent and the cold hard reality of science, toxicology and chemistry leave most people dumbfounded. Not a surprising turn of events. Nobody focus on solvent toxicity in schools as a practical matter. In fact, few people are taught about the proper use of a checkbook or how to invest for retirement, let alone the complexities of household and industrial chemicals that we can be exposed to that might pose a danger. So it is no wonder, that when a discussion on solvents comes into the limelight, artist share both their urban myths and a few bits of semi-accurate knowledge about the nature and behavior of solvents. Future topics on this blog will explore this subject. For now, the way to safeguard health and avoid exposure is to practice good solvent safety. The path to responsible use of solvents come from two approaches. Avoidance of exposure via curbing the use of solvents and by conditioning the environment to evacuate solvent buildup if and when solvents are used. My gifted friend Scott Gellatly, (visit Scott's website) who works for Gamblin Artists Colors, has done his homework and both avoids the unnecessary use of solvents and has a firm grasp on the volume of space his studio contains that would need to be infiltrated with solvent to a level that would cause long-term harm. Unfortunately, calculating the evaporation rate at a given temperature/atmospheric pressure that will assist other artists to benefit from Scott calculations are daunting. Scott depends on GAMSOL, a very slow evaporating solvent to assure a level of safety. If a solvent evaporates slowly enough, and the space the artist uses is large enough (AND HAS ACTIVE VENTILATION) an artist will have some assurance that the solvent is not building to a level that will cause harm. So the take home message for this blog entry is: Don't leave solvent containers open in the studio to evaporate into the work space. Figure out a way to clean brushes without having to constantly dip them into an open solvent can and wipe them off. Both the brush hairs and the cloth or paper towel will have solvent evaporating from them and fowl your work space with fumes. Consider having lots of brushes available when working, one for each general color and then clean them outside after the painting session is over. Next: Create a plan to provide active ventilation that changes the air in your work space to mitigate a hopefully small amount of solvent that you do use in your painting technique. Consider, solvent-free mediums. (I will discuss some of them in the product review page.) Have a plan. Avoiding solvent exposure is not a passive endeavor. It takes planning and discipline to keep solvent levels at a minimum. The consequences of not heeding the chemistry of solvent exposure shifts to the biology of the human organism as it reacts with these chemicals. So instead of learning new painting skills, an unfortunate artist will learn more than they want to about cancer staging, chemotherapy and possible end of life strategies. Plan to make art for the long haul, not to see how quick it take for your body to react badly to solvent exposure.

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