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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Do This, Not That!

While two or three instances of what I am about to describe does not constitute a trend, I find this method of destroying unwanted paintings disturbing on many levels.

When dinosaurs roamed the earth during my early childhood, people regularly raked their leave out to the street and then set fire to them in order to get rid of them. This is a good example of rapid oxidation at work. At some point this practice of leaf burning was banned for many sound environmental concerns.

I have noted a few instances where artists who wish to purge their inventory of bad, unsuccessful paintings take to BURNING them outside. This is a terrible way to dispose of paintings for many reasons.

First, and foremost, the pigments on paintings contains materials that should never be subjected to open fires. Understand that art materials use pigments that are not commonly used in commercial paints and releasing these heavy metal containing pigments like lead, cadmium, etc., are terrible pollutants in the environment, especially if you grow anything that you might eat in the area where you have burned paintings. That environment includes surrounding neighborhood where you reside as well.

Proof of cadmium infiltration in our environment and more importantly in our food chain was brought home in a news posting about an independent group of people who examine food safety. They found unsafe levels of cadmium in spinach sold in supermarkets. Many plants do not discriminate as to what they uptake while growing. Cadmium in the soil where the spinach was growing is imbibed by the plants and thus entered the consumer food environment. This is one of many examples where treatment plant derived fertilizer that contains a small percentage of harmful materials is used to add nutrients to soil where food will be grown. The plant takes up the pollutants. The plant is consumed. The solid waste is captured by the water treatment plant and processed into fertilizer. So, once again begins the cycle.

Heavy metals can be burned and hazardous household wastes is burned all the time by people who know what they are doing and use high temperature incinerators to do this task. What little exhaust smoke is generated is captured and water-washed so that nothing but a bit of water vapor comes out of the exhaust stacks of an incinerator. The heat energy can be used to generate electrical power.

Second, a disconnect regarding safe practices appears to be evident when artists burn paintings. With artists expressing concern about proper ventilation, wearing gloves, disposing of paper towel waste properly, etc., the idea of exposing themselves to toxic smoke from burning paintings is incongruous with efforts to paint safely.

So, what’s an artist to do? Three choices are available. First, clean and de-grease the surface with alcohol, followed by a rubdown with some odorless spirits. (Do this outside please.) Then paint over the picture. If varnish was applied, use appropriate solvent to remove the varnish layer. Although, I suspect that most of these discarded paintings never reached the varnish stage.

Second, if you are really, really concerned that the painting you are about to dispose of might be “stolen” by an art loving sanitation collection worker or landfill operator who has an eagle’s eyesight and the time to stop to jump out of the bulldozer used to bury trash and run to the pile of trash to scoop up some free paintings, you can always take some white or colored house paint and deface the paintings you wish to dispose of before you take them out to the trash.

Another solution, especially if you use lead grounds and lead as your mixing white, is to take your paintings to the section of your county’s landfill where they collect hazardous household waste. Explain that lead paint was used along with cadmium, chromium and other metal-based pigments and they will likely take them. They will send them along with all the other paint and solvents they collect to their incinerator facility for pollution-free disposal. Look for the section of your local landfill that uses the term “hazardous household waste.”

The third solution is to dispose of your paintings in household trash, especially if you do not use heavy metals as part of your palette or prime your supports with lead grounds. Most county landfills accept fully dry paint for inclusion into household trash. This includes dry acrylic paints on paintings or in large quantities. Again, as long as the paint is solidly dry.

There are legislative bodies worldwide that are threatening to ban the manufacture and sale of all lead bearing paints, even specialty products for professional applications.It certainly bolsters their case for banning lead paints if social media messages showing artists burning paintings are posted.We as a community should not be promoting the burning of artwork that releases heavy metals into our environment.

The Syntax of Color

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