The dangers of oil painting: Health and Safety acts

 The dangers involved with extreme sports are obvious; some fools are determined to have a go at the luge, the Bobsleigh or climbing the Matterhorn without a harness but most of us choose safer recreations. But now it seems even painting may present danger. ‘Turps is lethal,’ said a friend recently. She really believes that and is not alone.  Solvents are now banned from colleges of art, further education and schools. Many schools have also banned jam jars just to be extra safe.

I’ve recently experienced a live video oil painting class. We were sent a lot of instructions with a page about safety. The teacher said that in his college they have, ‘Strict systems when using oil paint mediums and employ a permanent studio technician to manage them. Without this structure at home, it is advisable to assess your own risks and environment for using these mediums.’

I assessed my kitchen as safe enough to proceed, despite one of my cats walking past with acrylic primer on her back and whiskers. We were advised to, ‘Cover any tables or work surfaces to protect them from paint solvents,’ and the teacher, an amiable bearded chap, implored us not to put any snacks near our palette, in case we ate paint by mistake, and not to have any cups of tea, as it is all too easy to swig the solvent substitute by mistake. Many a meths drinker may have started that way.

Oil painting, for six hundred years the pre-eminent media, is no longer acceptable. Getting paint is an increasing problem. Cadmium is facing a European wide ban. It’s no longer possible to buy the Kemnitzer White used so spectacularly by Freud, unless you provide proof that you are bona fide picture restorer. Although the amount used by artists surely doesn’t compare to the quantity still being used by industry, 23,000 metric tons in 2020. Acrylic paint is also under threat as a polluting plastic. In schools and colleges this disgust for many old natural materials has correlated with a distain for traditional craftsmanship, such as drawing and painting. The ‘Craftsperson’ and any notion of ‘individual genius,’ particularly because most of those were men, has been discarded in favour of the collective ideal.

A recent BBC Radio 4 series, Taxi Drivers, Freud’s term for his studio technicians, sought to put studio assistants on a par with those once termed ‘artists,’ and explained why it is not necessary for any artist to do anything themselves. Art has to be a collaborative project to be authentic and inclusive.  In 2021, the £25,000 Turner Prize was awarded to the Array Collective, a group of Belfast artists who create collaborative actions in response to issues affecting Ulster. Their work includes performances, protests, exhibitions and folk imagery, public artworks in support of abortion and the ‘queer community.’ They were up against the ‘Black Obsidian Sound System a collective for QTIBPOC (Queer, Trans and Intersex Black and People of Colour), challenging the ‘dominant norms of sound-system culture through club nights.’

Other rivals included Cooking Sections, a London duo examining world foods systems through installation, performance and video, asking how diet can respond to climate change. In 2020 they produced a sound, light and sculpture installation at Tate Britain reflecting on salmon farming, and a performance on the Isle of Skye where an underwater oyster table was turn into an inclusive community dining space at low tide. Strangely the oyster community was not consulted.

Somewhat ironically for the Marxism intrinsic to British education, these ideas have mixed well with advanced capitalism. As schools gave up on teaching art skills, parents, ambitious youngsters and interested adults started using private tutors and expensive classes. The best art schools including the Prince’s Drawing School are now private. In the 1980s anyone on benefits could attend evening classes in London for 50p. Mrs Thatcher put an end to that and we see this commercial change in wider leisure outlets. As a child in the 1960s my home town, like most others boasted a grand municipal swimming pool.

My other past-time has always been swimming.  Early on Sundays we would put on our water-wings and paddle patiently up and down, braving the deep-end, awed by the boys and men attempting the top diving boards. By the time I was an adult almost all those pools had gone. Those built in the 60s and 70s had decayed badly, most were replaced by private clubs such as Virgin Active, where you pay a large fee to swim in four feet of water with no deep end and definitely no diving. When I asked a young life-guard about this he looked astonished. ‘No one ever dives,’ he said, obviously thinking that they never had. ‘You couldn’t allow that it wouldn’t be safe, not with kids around.’ I said that we’d had diving boards when I was young and he looked at me with disbelief. Extreme capitalism and extreme caution, like a viral pandemic are all pervasive in our lives now, some cannot remember a life before them, and it seems they may now be with us forever.  

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6 Comments on The dangers of oil painting: Health and Safety acts

  1. Having spent around 40 years in shotblasting and industrial painting, I have probably imbibed more paint and solvent than the combined total of British artists since the first cave drawings. Strangely, I have survived and , despite smoking as well, am fit and healthy, grounds for a wide-ranging and in depth study…

  2. There’s far more danger in picking up the brush to paint than what one is painting with! The danger lies in, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?!’. Bugger the materials. The scariest thing is subject, not content. I can’t see me ever being able to say, ‘This is what I’m going to paint now’. Such clarity – aargh! that never happens. ‘I’m going to paint with the stuff on my brush and we’ll see.’ Give me fizzing sodium to paint with and if I know what I’m doing I’ll go for it! Give me a concrete idea and I’ll use plutonium!

    No, the danger is in subject. What monster can I conjure today? Am I a spent force? Is there anything left? That’s Art, not worrying about materials but the bloody subject!

    Saying that, I’m safe in my acrylics. I can paint in acrylics. Oil? Too stinky, too slow and the viridian gets on your trousers. I like acrylic best. It’s never actually dirty!

  3. “Turps is lethal”? When I was an industrial painter, at the end of the day’s work we washed and scrubbed oil-based paint from our hands and faces with a rag soaked in turps or white spirit. For two-pack paints we used MEK or a similar solvent. Six or seven days a week for years. No harm came to anyone.

  4. Another excellent article.

    The reason we don’t have a satirist nowadays to compare with Michael Wharton (alias Peter Simple) is that the real world has become vastly more ridiculous than any sane satirist could have imagined.

    Jane Kelly isn’t a satirist but a chronicler, and we need chroniclers too.

  5. I of course can remember times when we children would thrash around as free as fish in the great Zambesi. Later when many children had lost their arms to the machetes of their neighbours all this innocent fun came to an end. I’d love to relive those happy times but I’m inconvenienced at present by forces beyond my control-although I’m hoping my latest appeal will succeed