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:
- Muscle weakness & shakiness
- Brain fog
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.
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.
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?”
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.