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My Acrylic Angst: Getting Sick from Acrylic Paints (with a pit stop for cat pee along the way)

My Acrylic Angst: Getting Sick from Acrylic Paints (with a pit stop for cat pee along the way)

paint 1


I haven’t painted in an ice age — a week, at least, if not more. Slowly, the gloom creeps over me. What’s an artist to do?

Last week, if you recall, I reported (sadly) that I seem to be having a reaction to the fumes of the acrylic paints I so love.

What kind of reaction, you might ask? Well, the typical cocktail of chemical sensitivity symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle weakness & shakiness
  • Brain fog
  • Confusion

I also discovered, much to my horror, that the smile lines around my mouth were deepening into miniature canyons, while the lines around my eyes remained unchanged. Interesting.

Now, I’d been painting for six months or so before all of this happened. But, if you’ve read any of my old painting posts, like Teeny Tiny Golden Retriever or Sneaky Kitty Gets the Treats, you’ll know that I was painting things on a very small scale.

My reaction only became evident when I started painting on large canvases — 16×20 rather than the teeny tiny 3×3 or 4×4 canvases I’d painted before.

Bigger surface area = bigger area of wet, off-gassing acrylic paint, apparently.

I was also using a rather large amount of gel medium and glazing medium, each of which contributes its own olfactory doom.



paint 2



The Cat Pee Cometh

Speaking of olfactory, I was shocked to discover that my paintings began to smell a lot like cat pee.

In fact, one day when I opened my studio door, the cat pee scent was so strong that I did the Cat Mom Sniff Test, pressing my nose to all surfaces until I could detect the source of the foul odor.

I was busy casting aspersions toward my own cats, primarily my ever-curious studio companion (“Shnoodle! How dare you!”) when I stumbled on the true source of the stench: My painting.

Apparently, the bright orange kitty I was painting had had a wee accident.

Or had he?

Recognizing that in the reality I currently inhabit, cat paintings are not known to empty their bladders, I think not.

But, in a way, he had.

The reason the painted kitty smelled like cat pee was, I believe, because it was off-gassing one of the primary scent-producing ingredients of cat pee: ammonia.

Ammonia is strong in the odor of cat urine, an overiding, foul-smelling compound that perfumes that delightful feline liquid.

It turns out that ammonia is also a key ingredient in all acrylics. It acts as a preservative, inhibiting mold and other nasties from colonizing one’s paint tubes.

(One would assume, by that logic, that cat pee would prevent mold growth, but one would not be encouraged to experiment with this hypothesis.)

Once I had detected the scent through my Cat Mom Sniff Test, I goggled, marveled, and shrugged it off, determined to keep painting.

I did not want to blame anything on my paint. I loved my paint too much to stop.


paint 4



The Paint Goes On

As the days went by, I painted more and more, obsessed with the slinging of color. I became rabid for paint, not just for the act of painting my cartoon animals, but for the glossy, gooey mess that I flung from the end of my brush, for the miracle of color, for the breath-held wonder of shading and light.

But every day, when I’d leave my studio, I’d leave nauseous, shaking with exhaustion, and absolutely unclear as to why.

Did I have the flu? Maybe.
Was I pregnant? Hardly.
Was I low thyroid again? Quite possibly.

I ate considerably quantities of seaweed to supplement my thyroid meds, felt a little better, and painted on.

But the exhaustion just kept growing. Every afternoon after I’d painted, I would have to go lie down on the couch for a couple of hours. I couldn’t make dinner. I could barely even eat dinner, because my stomach felt sick.

But after my attempts to eat, my sweetie, our dogs, and I invariably would head to our empty Oregon beaches, where I breathed in the fresh ocean air — and a miracle would always occur.

I would feel better.

Until the next day, when I’d sling paint around once more.

My symptoms progressed. I became so fatigued that I could not keep my eyes open at public functions. Seeing as I work alone without other humans, do not attend many public functions, and was busy keeping my eyes closed when I was there, I rarely saw my own species.

This is not a psychologically healthy way to live. (Just saying.)

This all went on for several weeks, the cycle of paint followed by sickness. And so great is my love of paint that for all that time I did not connect the paint to feeling ill.


A Stunning Revelation

One night, though, I came in from my studio, and a little LED light blinked on above my head.

“What if,” I said to myself, feeling so woozy that I collapsed into a kitchen chair, “what if all this is caused by my paint?”



paint 3



I already knew that I can’t be around household latex paints. It’s difficult for me to enter a building that’s just been painted. I’d rather sit outside in the rain than breathe household paint fumes and suffer the unholy consequences — headache, foggy brain, fatigue, irritability, and overall “life just sucks” unhappiness.

Given that I am a very happy person, often bubbling with so much happiness that I can scrape off the residue and donate it to the unhappy masses, this “life just sucks” attitude is utterly unnatural. Not to mention the nausea, confusion, and fatigue.

But could my artist’s paints cause this reaction, too?

My first thought: No flipping way.
My second thought: Um, maybe.
My third thought: Well, sh*t.


The Grand Experiment

That night, I vowed to stop painting for a few days, just to see what would happen. I was pretty convinced that I’d still feel sick. But I had to test it, just to be sure.

For the next several days, I stayed out of my studio. I stayed away from all paint, markers, and art supplies, aside from mechanical pencil.

To give the test a balanced go, I simulated the physical actions of painting (such as standing for hours and using my arms) by doing active work, like cleaning. When I used the computer, I used it while standing.

By the end of Day One, I was completely, utterly, and incontrovertibly Back To Normal.

Hallelujah. I’d been healed.

Even the lines around my mouth softened. They went from canyon to creekbed. Interesting.

The only thing that didn’t heal was the deep sadness and anger I felt.

Because I knew, at this point, that I would have to give up my amazing font of color and joy — my dearly beloved paint.

I spent several hours on Day One researching the chemical composition of acrylic paint — not just the pigments, which I was aware could be toxic, but the supposedly-nontoxic binding ingredients.

Much of it remains a mystery to me, but two words stood out in my research: ammonia and formaldehyde.

Ammonia we’ve already covered: Hello, cat pee.

Formaldehyde is new to this discussion: Hello, embalming fluid. Hello, carcinogen.

No matter what is in the paint, though, it all boils down to this: I cannot continue to harm myself by using acrylic paints, except in very small quantities with excellent ventilation.

In the future, there may be some silent ventilation solution (ever hear of a silent fan that can move a whole roomful of air per second? If so, message me), or perhaps a way to filter the air without having to wear a World War II gas mask.

For now, though, I am bowing out of the acrylic ring.

Thank goodness, though, that my inner circus has upwards of three rings, and not just one.


Entering the Ring of the Oils

I am heading toward a new circus ring, one filled with the shining light of oil paints, minus toxic solvents like turpentine.

My blogging friend Susan Lobb Porter turned me on to the idea a few months ago, when I ogled a few of the paintings she’d posted and she encouraged me to give solvent-free oils a go.

So, a go I shall give them.

I am choosing only paints that have non-poisonous pigments (buh-bye, cadmiums) and will only use walnut oil as my thinning and cleaning medium.

Luckily, before the sickness came upon me, I had already started to flirt in the ring of the oils, as I mentioned in this post here.

In fact, I’ve already completed a teeny-tiny kitty painting using solvent-free oils, and I loved the rich, buttery texture of my M. Graham solvent-free paints. (I’ll post that painting soon.)


But there’s a catch.

I label it…

The Sadness: Due to oil paint’s extremely long drying/oxidizing time, I won’t be able to use many of the fun mixed-media techniques I’ve recently learned. These techniques rely on layers of paint that dry extremely quickly, sometimes sped up with a heat gun or hair dryer. I am currently flummoxed in this department.


The Sadness, too, has a catch

which I shall label…

The Happiness: Due to that same long drying time, I can easily blend paint into paint, working the canvas for as long as I dang well please. This will result in more realistic (ha!) cartoon corgis, kitties, and golden retrievers.

Look out world. Soon you won’t be able to tell my big-eyed, goofy-faced cartoony animals from the real ones. (*snort*)


The Paints Themselves

For your convenience and to assauge your curiosity, I’m including a list of the brands and colors I was using. This is not to cast aspersions on these good manufacturers, who do produce gorgeous paints — it is only to share knowledge with the world that may prevent the chemically sensitive from getting sick like I did.

And remember, this has been my own experience. You may go through life as a painter all tickety-boo and have no problems whatsoever. If so, power to you. (Send me a few of your invulnerability points, will ya?)

Here are the paints and mediums I was using, in approximate order of highest quantity to lowest:

  • Golden Regular Gel Medium (gloss) (large quantities)
  • Golden Acrylic Glazing Medium (satin) (large quantities)
  • Atelier Interactive Acrylics: pthalo blue, cadmium yellow (now I know that cadmium = poison; big oops), quinacridone magenta
  • Liquitex Soft Body Acrylics: pthalo blue, cadmium yellow (cadmium: I know, I know)
  • Golden Fluid Acrylics: teal, titanium white, pthalo blue green shade, quinacridone magenta, bone black (all colors in small quantities)

(It’s good to note that Golden says their acrylics do not contain formaldehyde.)


The Venti Question

Here’s the low-down on my ventilation, for the curious and concerned: I hadn’t been aware that I needed a vent fan, so I didn’t have one. However, I always had a large exterior door wide open behind me, with two to three large windows open in the room, two of them right next to me. In my windy coastal climate, a breeze was always blowing through.


The Bottom Line(s)

So here’s my bottom line: If you’re sick and you paint, stop painting for awhile and see what happens.

Second bottom line (because two bottoms are better than one): High-ho, solvent-free oils, away!

Third, and possibly final, bottom line (we’re creating quite the hippobottomous here): I truly LOVE the 1.75 big paintings I created during my sickly acrylic odyssey.

The paintings were an utter joy to create. They were goofy, joyous messes. They were happiness in a tube. (Aside from the sick bit, of course.)


The Trenta (ahem, even bigger) Question

So was this sickness worth it? Were the paintings worth all this?

No, says my logical brain.

Oh yes, breathes my childlike brain in absolute wonder. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes.

Because creation, the wonderful, squishy mess of it all, the color and the awe and even the odd sickness, are worth it.

I won’t let myself get sick again, because, quite frankly, that sucks. And it seems rather dangerous, too. I was sick for too long in the recent past to not take this thing seriously.

But I won’t stop creating, either.

And that’s truly the bottom line.


Until next time, me maties.

Cover me in walnut oil and roll me on a canvas. I’ll bring a bottle of bubbly (water, that is), and we’ll tipple the H20. We can ravish the world with song. Because paint is in the offing, and joy is its goal, and we are its infinite tools.

The result? Who cares?

The paint? Oh luscious, oh scrumptious, oh lavish, oh joy.



Twenty-Five Thousand Words in my Introvert Bubble (No, You Do Not Have to Read Them All) — Oh, and a Chemical Swoon

Twenty-Five Thousand Words in my Introvert Bubble (No, You Do Not Have to Read Them All) — Oh, and a Chemical Swoon


Big family visits. Big community gatherings. A big memorial for a beloved community and tribal leader (who was our in-laws’ close and dear relative). An upcoming scattering-of-ashes for two friends who killed themselves last winter.

All of this, on top of the logging next door (which, thank you to all heavens, is over) and my laptop screen breaking (I’m composing this on an eight-inch purple Android tablet that, hours ago, underwent a complex, perplexing software upgrade, and now I feel like Barney Rubble attempting to operate a point-of-sale computer at a store that does not believe in employee training), this as well as my treacherous tango in the world of the chemically sensitive (in which this artist learns that OSHA should really be overseeing her workspace)  – all of this has caused me to spiral into my little introvert’s bubble, where only cats, dogs, and Card-Carrying Okay People are allowed to tread.

(Check your wallets. If you do not have a card, you probably aren’t in my bubble. But then again, your card may be invisible, and you may already be in my bubble, invisibly.)




These kitties are in my bubble.
(They are also in my sketchbook.)



Oddly, though, amid the crazy, my creativity has burst out like fireworks (which, incidentally, we discovered that we could see from our own backyard this year when I refused to step foot off my property on the Fourth of July).

On the morning of the memorial — which was the most moving memorial I have ever attended, made even more so because I could not go to any of the memorials of the three loved ones we lost last year — on that morning, I woke up, took my thyroid pill, cuddled with my kitty, and then rolled out of bed and counted jasmine tea balls into my Fiestaware mug.

Boil. Cool. Steep. Aaah.

Then I sat down with this self-same purple tablet (pre-update, and thus pre-Barney Rubble) and started to tap out a story.

It went like this:

Tap. Tap. Um, where’s that letter? (Break for slurping tea.) There it is. Tap.

It took me approximately eighty-seven hours, but I managed to type out one page.

The next morning, post-thyroid, post-kitty, post-jasmine balls, post-boil-cool-steep-aaah, I (quite brilliantly) attached a very old-school keyboard (I love you, Old School) to the aforementioned tablet, and added words to my story so fast that the tiny purple tablet is still going, “Huh?”

Day passed after day, tea passed after tea, and I kept going.

In the past two weeks, as I sipped my morning jasmine, I’ve typed and/or tapped out over twenty-five thousand words. That’s about seventy-five manuscript pages.

Of the tiny short story that I thought I’d so innocently started.

I will keep you posted on this. For now, my goal is singular: Keep on having fun with it.

I know that the moment my fun drizzles away, so does the impetus to write.

So, if you see me at the grocery store, scowling at the organic melons while chanting, sotto voce, “Fun, dammit, fun,” then you will know that I am working very, very hard and should not be disturbed, because I am already disturbed enough.

(Please, if you see me this way, thrust a cat into my arms and smuggle me some chocolate. I will need them both quite badly.)

So! No spoilers on the story until it’s done, because spoilers take all the fun out of it for me, yes, even if I’m the one doing the spoiling.

One clue, though: It’s all about cats.

As all things should be.

(Kitties!) :-D







My creativity has also rocketed off a few fireworks in the direction of paint. In the last few weeks, when I was not busy wrestling with an ineffective Android word processor as I typed out the secrets of the cats in the house at the top of the hill (oops: spoiler!), I have been sucked into the gravitational pull of my studio.

No more 3×3 canvases. I’ve gone way, way up in the world. It’s 16×20 for me!




Sketch for a painting-in-progress…
rather, a painting on indefinite hold.



Unfortunately, those large canvases have caused my painting saga to take a sad, sad turn. I have possibly cha-cha’ed my last in the land of acrylics. That is, if I don’t want to get sick again.

The world of the chemically-sensitive ain’t easy. I’ve had a good six months of acrylic glee, but now that time may be done, if my body has anything to say about it.

And it has had many things to say about it, all in the form of massive fatigue, terrible nausea, and a fog so thick in the brain that I have nearly had to install foghorns.

Today has been a day of grief as I realized that I cannot paint with the wild abandon that I really desire.

But this I know: I will paint, I will play with colors that are hardly appropriate, and I will cartoonicate across vast tracts of the Internet.

I don’t know how yet, but I will.

I will do it in style. I will do it with flair. And I will do it in a way that keeps me healthy, that helps me stay vibrant, that allows my brain to function according to its original factory settings.

Because who wants a sick artist? We’re no good that way. When we’re wiped out, we can hardly haul around brushes. We can hardly spin stories of cats. And we can hardly push the touchscreen on the point-of-sale computer while our manager (“Hi, I’m Fred Flinstone! Can I help you today?”) gazes on in terror, certain that something Triassic will burst from the computer’s quivering frame.

No, we cannot.

So, as I head off to bed, patting my purple tablet goodnight, ready to cuddle a kitty once more (cuddles with my big orange cat being the bookends that begin and end my every day), let’s join together in a pledge. Here we go.

We pledge:

1) To stay in our introvert bubbles whenever we dang well please (and to leave them when it suits us).

2) To write goofball stories about kitties (or whatever species we please) and keep it all fun.

3) To paint in a way that will not cause men in big white suits to surround our studios in toxic hazard domes and attempt to pluck E.T. from our loving, desperate grips.

(Oops. I mixed my genres. Should have known that extra-terrestrials don’t go well with formaldehyde. Which is a key ingredient in acrylic paint; did you know? It’s extra, extra creepy.)

Okay, my loves. Back with more paintings soon. I have several I promised to share, but haven’t done so yet. When I arise from my paint-induced chemical swoon and begin to write coherently once more, I’ll post ‘em.

Love ya.



Teeny Tiny Golden Retriever: A thus-far hidden eensy-weensy painting (great for a tired week)

Teeny Tiny Golden Retriever: A thus-far hidden eensy-weensy painting (great for a tired week)

I have so much to share with you in my artsy, animalsy world: A long little doxie painting! A très-squee orange kitty painting! A weensy little butterfly collage!

Since my last post, I’ve had daring adventures in scanner technology (note: trust the auto settings), have created cartoon kitty family portraits (complete with cheese-eating grins), and have embarked on a perilous journey in the land of oil paints. (Ooh, pretty! Followed by: Aargh! Will this ever dry?) 


teeny tiny golden retriever

Teeny Tiny Golden Retriever
acrylic (definitely not oil) on canvas


I’ve become consumed by the thought of buying a special computer for art-making (squee!) and am obsessing over various types of art software, digitizers, and styli, all in the name of the great and marvelous Bossy Little Corgi story, which I hope to have illustrated by Christmas. (Yes, Christmas of the current year. Only six months away. Oh my.)

In other words: So much to share! 

But for now… oh, for sweet, present now… I’m a little bit tired from all my adventuring. So I’m going to just chill for a bit. All those adventures will trickle blog-ward soon.


Why the Tired?

Last weekend, my sweet husband and I went on a grand excursion to The Big City. (Big City, noun: Any city at all, because every city is bigger than our miniature town. This city, though, was truly big — they have buildings taller than three stories! High rises, even! OMG)

… Where we attended my sister’s graduation from graduate school (joy!), partied down with my big ol’ clan on Father’s Day (for family size reference, I have nine brothers; yeah, nine), chased one nephew, managed to crack a grin out of a much taller nephew, ate guacamole with one of my dearest friends, and hugged an extraordinary pug at my mom’s house.

It was absolutely wonderful.

And I’m so grateful to be home. (Anyone who has ever stepped outside of their house can probably relate.)


So what’s up with the Teeny Tiny Golden Retriever painting?

Well, tired though I may be, I couldn’t leave the blog paintingless and photoless this week! That would just be… scandalous.

As I noodled over what to post, I discovered this eensy-weensy painting in my kitchen. It was just sitting there, leaning on the chair rail above my breakfast table, watching over us with a golden, benevolent eye.


hidden in plain sight

hidden in plain sight


I stared at this tiny golden-teal painting. Mid-stare, I realized that it hadn’t yet seen the light of the Internet! I knew that this must be corrected, because every cartoon puppy worldwide should be online. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

So here we are, friends, for your furry enjoyment: Teeny Tiny Golden Retriever! Modeled for you by Tucker Harrison!


tucker and teeny tiny golden 7



tucker and teeny tiny golden 5



tucker and teeny tiny golden 2



tucker and teeny tiny golden 6



tucker and teeny tiny golden 1



Now modeled for you by Daisy Harrison! Two goldens, together!


Daisy and teeny tiny golden 1


Daisy and teeny tiny golden 2


(Daisy wasn’t super-thrilled at modeling tiny paintings today.)



Next Week:

Five little dachshund paintings, all in a row! Well, one painting, five tiny canvases. Stay tuned! :-D




The Boxing Bearcat: A teensy drawing that’s supposed to be really angry (but it’s not)

The Boxing Bearcat: A teensy drawing that’s supposed to be really angry (but it’s not)

Once upon a time, weeks ago, I was friends with hundreds of trees that no longer are. In my last post, I shared the story of the loss of the trees. Now, the shock has started to heal, both for me and for the land next door. Things are returning to a feeling of balance. ButContinue Reading

The Great and Sorrowful Loss of the Trees (The Dog Blog Clowns Return)

The Great and Sorrowful Loss of the Trees (The Dog Blog Clowns Return)

When life explodes around me, it’s time for a visit from the Dog Blog Clowns. Like rodeo clowns, the Dog Blog Clowns swoop in during tough times to remind us of all that is sweet and good and kind in life. Last time they clowned for us, it was for something rather silly. This time,Continue Reading

Sneaky Kitty Gets the Treats: a new teeny-tiny kitty painting!

Sneaky Kitty Gets the Treats: a new teeny-tiny kitty painting!

      Shhh. We must be very, very quiet. Because we are sneaky kitties. And sneaky kitties always get the treats.         It’s true. Sneaky kitties do get the treats. Just ask Shnoodle, consummate butter-knife licker. She’s sneaky, lapping up leftovers in stealth and silence. And she always gets her treats.Continue Reading

The Rotten Mussel Shell Experience: Daisy’s abiding love for all things stinky (and our abiding love for her)

The Rotten Mussel Shell Experience: Daisy’s abiding love for all things stinky (and our abiding love for her)

Last week’s post was all about skunk stink. This week, let’s talk about a new and novel form of rankness: The Rotten Mussel Shell Experience. We were recently initiated into this stink by our dear and beloved daughter, who is a dog, Daisy Harrison.     When we first met Daisy, she was terrified ofContinue Reading

Never Fear: The De-Skunkination Formula is Here! (Starring Bojo, the recently de-skunked dog)

Never Fear: The De-Skunkination Formula is Here! (Starring Bojo, the recently de-skunked dog)

  Newsflash: Dog Gets Skunked at 3 a.m.! Spreads Skunkitude Throughout House! Neighbors Flee in Panic! A neighborhood dog (and a member of my extended family), Mr. Bojo T., was found skunked at 3 a.m. earlier this week.     Bojo had been on a late-night potty run, simply doing his business, when the skunkContinue Reading

Kissing Froggies and Finishing Kitties: A teeny, tiny orange kitty painting comes to life — and actually gets finished!

Kissing Froggies and Finishing Kitties: A teeny, tiny orange kitty painting comes to life — and actually gets finished!

  Once upon a time, there was a teeny, tiny canvas, blank and forlorn. Then one day, it kissed a frog and became…     It’s 4×4. Teensy!   Here’s how it happened: My sweetheart* Russell had a birthday last week. (Happy birthday, sweetie!) After much ado about paint in the past few months, IContinue Reading

Knee-Deep in Paint and Sinking Fast: On hauling myself out of the swamp of self-criticism and finding my lightness again

Knee-Deep in Paint and Sinking Fast: On hauling myself out of the swamp of self-criticism and finding my lightness again

When I sit down with a pencil and a picture of a kitty and/or corgi in my mind, all is well. Pencil goes to page, like so. And then pencil makes a picture. Easy, right?     Well, it’s not exactly easy (especially for my dear, battered erasers), but it certainly has a note ofContinue Reading

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The Beginner's Guide to
Animal Wisdom

is a little ebook that will help you listen to your animal pals.
Want the book & occasional newsletter? Sign up below.

(Or visit this cute little page to hear me fizz about why this book is fabulous!)

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