Call for Safe and Green Art Materials

San Francisco’s Department of the Environment and The Art Inspector are seeking manufacturers and retailers of painting products for the safe artists program. The program is looking for less toxic alternative art making products that are safer for both the artist and the environment to recommend to artists living or working in the city of San Francisco and for an expanded online audience.

Definition of Safe Products: For the purposes of this program we are looking for least toxic products that have a chemical composition that are not hazardous to human health or the environment and/or have been evaluated by industry standards, experts or that have a third party eco certification.

Specifically we are looking for paint, thinners, varnishes, solvents, pigments and any other products used for painting.

What the program can offer manufacturers and retailers:

Exposure to artists, art departments and schools in San Francisco and beyond. Product demos at workshops.

About SF Environment:

The San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment) creates visionary policies and innovative programs that promote social equity, protect human health, and lead the way toward a sustainable future. We put our mission into action by mobilizing communities and providing the resources needed to safeguard our homes, our city, and ultimately our planet.

All City departments are required to buy from an approved list of environmentally preferable, or “green,” products. To make this process easier, SF Environment created the SF Approved List to share the best green purchasing information with City staff and everyone else interested in alternatives to toxic products.

About the Art Inspector:

Incepted in 2009, Art Inspector started as a Social Practice project by Danielle Siembieda and is now a consulting firm focusing on lowering the carbon footprint of Art. It does so by providing services including education (Healthy Art Program), third party inspection (Green Certification) and policy reform (Healthy Art Reform).

The Art Inspector is a third party certification agent that examines the environmental impact of art process and practice. Art Inspector works with interested agents such as curators, artists, collectors, and others in order to pre-qualify artists who pass a standard of environmental stewardship.

Danielle Siembieda
San Francisco, CA


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Can you create archival quality art with green materials?

Earth Oil PaintWhile studying painting at one of the top art schools in America, I trusted my amazing professors like they were preaching the gospel. I looked up to their expertise so completely that I assumed they would of course tell me if any of these supplies they were recommending might be extremely toxic. For the supplies that I already knew were toxic (like turpentine and cadmium paints), I assumed they were a necessary evil to produce a high quality piece of art – or else someone would have told me an alternative.

After leaving art school and becoming more concerned about my personal health and the health of our planet, I began changing my life by surrounding myself with healthy, non-toxic alternatives to many things. My family lived off the grid in small, hand-built, earthen cabins with very little solar electricity and a wood stove for heat. We grew much of our own food, used composting toilets, and eliminated all toxins from our home. And yet I STILL used toxic art supplies in my studio because I did not want to sacrifice the “professional quality” of my art which was my life and my livelihood.

Non-toxic, Earth Oil Painting by Leah Mebane

Non-toxic, Earth Oil Painting by Leah Mebane

I soon began researching “green” art supplies but did not fully dive in until I was truly forced. I found out that I was pregnant at the same time that I was awarded a large solo show that required me to paint twenty-five large-scale oil paintings during the nine months of my pregnancy. I went to my studio and packed four large boxes of toxic paint supplies, shaking my head at the price I had paid for all that. There were solvents, tubes of paint containing heavy metals, numerous synthetic, petroleum-based paints, and acrylic gesso.

Natural Earth Pigments

Natural Earth Pigments

Then I dove into research on natural, non-toxic art supplies. I studied the Renaissance Masters’ techniques, indigenous cultures’ paints, and several out of print books on collecting earth pigments and handmade art materials. I even discovered a local woodworker who collected earthen pigments to dye his finished products. The consensus of all of this research was that none of the toxins usually involved with painting are necessary, and most were not even used by artists until about 100 years ago.

The prehistoric cavemen (and women) were the first “Eco Artists” using natural earth pigments and minerals mixed with a natural binder. These simple paints were painted on stone walls 40,000 years ago and are still vibrant today! Ancient people from all over the world, including Egyptians, Native Americans, ancient Buddhists, Medieval monks, and Renaissance masters used earthen pigments and natural binders to make their paints.

Non-toxic, Earth Oil Painting by the author, Leah Mebane

Non-toxic, Earth Oil Painting by the author, Leah Mebane

Another surprising discovery I made was that there is a large range of earth pigment colors available, including blues, greens, and violets. Some people question whether earth paints are as archival, permanent, and durable as synthetic paints; but actually they far surpass synthetic paints in every category. Besides being the most archival and permanent of all pigments (lasting thousands of years), they are not affected by sunlight, temperature, or humidity, and are completely lightfast. Unlike tube paints, there are no added chemical fillers or toxic preservatives which dull the quality. Most current paint manufacturers add large amounts of fillers such as calcium carbonate and aluminum hydrate. This leads to yet another benefit of earthen pigments:  the quality and intensity are much better because of the refraction of light through the pigment particles without the disturbance of fillers.  Earth pigment particles are larger and more irregular in size than those of synthetic pigments, and thus more light can pass through the particles, creating a higher vibrancy and radiance. And for those artists who already have a large supply of regular oil paints that they don’t want to throw away, Earth Oil Paints mix perfectly with all other regular tube paints.

Earth Oil Paint Kit

Earth Oil Paint Kit

In 2010 I felt the call to spread the word about my “discoveries” and I developed an Earth Oil Paint Kit that includes six professional quality earth pigment colors, refined walnut oil, and an Earth Paints booklet. The booklet includes instructions on how to eliminate the use of all solvents and toxins from the oil painting process.  All info, tutorial videos and resources are available at This website also lists many other art supply recipes that you can create using the earth pigments in your kit, including egg tempera, casein paint, milk paint, glair paint, earth pastels, natural wood stains, and more. We’ve also created a water-soluble, milk-based earth paint for children that is completely safe and earth-friendly. I now have a healthy, vibrant 3-year-old named Django, and I feel relieved every time I see him at his easel painting with safe, non-toxic paints. And for myself, I am grateful to have gained a richer and more meaningful artistry while sustaining my own health and well-being.

Leah Mebane Leah Mebane lives in Southern Oregon with her husband, Drew and son, Django. She exhibits her Natural Earth Oil Paintings nationally and makes eco-friendly art supplies  with her husband in their home based workshop. View her art at: and art supplies at:

 Check out this Eco Oil Painting Video Tutorial by Leah Mebane

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By-Product Becomes Product: An Alternative to MDF Board

By-Product Exhibition Photo

By-Product Becomes Product Exhibition at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Scott Chernis.

Artists are working in the decade of Fab or fabrication. With the help of Computer-Aided Design we are producing wood furniture, art and decor at a rapid rate. In order for cost and supply to keep up with the demand artists often use cheap and accessible materials such plywood, particleboard and Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF). Examples of such constructed products would be IKEA furniture or cut out designer decor. What these products don’t tell you are the makeup of MDF board is toxic. A resin made with a Formaldehyde base seals up the wood product to make large even sheets. Although these sheets seem ideal for artists who are looking for a cheap base and product that is malleable, it can also emit toxic gases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Formaldehyde, can cause asthma and in some cases even cancer in both humans and animals. This leads to the question, if Formaldehyde is so bad for you then why don’t we stop using MDF? What is the alternative?

A product is being developed out of the Forest Products Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin collaborating with artist Christine Lee and US Department of Agriculture’s John F. Hunt. The product in process is a MDF alternative using no resins and a combination of biodegradable and recycled materials such as used cardboard, cow manure and sawdust. In order to test this product Lee partnered with San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts and five California artists including Russell Baldon (sculpture, furniture), Julia Goodman (paper, sculpture), Barbara Holmes (sculpture, furniture), Scott Oliver (sculpture, public art), and Imin Yeh (printmaker), to put the work to the test.

The result of the artists working with this new board is in an exhibition By-Product Becomes Product that runs February 6 – March 30 in San Francisco, CA. Kevin Chen, Program Director of Visual Arts at Intersection for the Arts, mentions, “Artists are using the same material as the construction trade, but artists are able to use their magic to transform ordinarily material into something that is a wow drop dropping moment to create something really beautiful.”

Bring an artist in from the start. It is not often that an artist enters an engineering lab at the beginning of the process of development. This is equally as true when an artist begins to develop and concept often times they do not have the resources to put together a team of engineers and scientists. Perhaps this is the new collaborative model. Hunts experience working with Lee brings up the importance of collaboration on both sides:

Lee has brought a different yet equally valid artists perspective of how does the material work. How do the boards interact with other materials, its finishes, aesthetic features, … an artistic touch to the questions of developing and using a new material and exploring its abilities and limits? Lees’ input has also opened up other avenues of disseminating green technology. From my side, I would be presenting results of the boards at technical conferences with other like researchers or in peer reviewed technical journals. Whereas Lee has opened up different venues for presenting a new material that I was not aware of. Her connections have opened up new discussions to ‘get the word’ out that there is a new ‘board in town’ that may have some unique properties and opportunities. These new venues provide exposure to new contacts that I would not necessarily interact with based on my circles of work.


Double Hapiness

Double Happiness, 2013 by Imin Yeh at By-Product Becomes Product. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Ultimately the product needs to be tested. The artists working with Lee and Hunt were required to take notes, give feedback and were allowed to use the product in their personal preference of media. Printmaker, Imin Yeh, describes working with the board, “This board actually has this dotted texture which I did not expect. In relief printmaking the texture of the board plays a huge role in the print, so this caught me by surprise. It was difficult to negotiate the fact that there was no smooth surface. The board carved well, but during the printing it did not hold up to the pressure of the press, I lost a lot of clean lines. Also the wood absorbs much more ink than regular wood board, so it took much more material then expected. So the result was a very bumpy surface that was uneven in printing. That was frustrating.”

With the feedback from the participating artists, The Forest Products Laboratory with Hunt and Lee will continue to refine the board product. This alternative board is not available for the consumer market at this time. It is a commendable effort and should be an example for other green material manufacturers to consider bringing an artist into the early stages of development.

Note: This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on March 21, 2013.



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Why I Started The Art Inspector

Creative industries have changed standards and best practices to adopt sustainable and environmental techniques in design and production. Architecture has adopted LEED Performance design into standard practice, and Industrial Design begins with thinking about the end of life of a product and how to leave the least amount of impact on the environment. Both of these industries fought for decades, since the 1970s, against changing habits, systems and academic content. Resistors during the transformation proclaimed they would all go out of business; it was impossible to get all stakeholders on board; and they didn’t want to be creatively strangled.

This shared history of transforming creative industry leads us to a problem we are facing within the Art world. Can artists change the way they create work to make a healthier planet? Personally, I believe so, however, with the inclusion of all key players from the art world, including: art institutions, art media, academia, retailer/manufacturers, collectors and artists. Art seeds culture and influences public behavior. If artists can change their standard of practice then the rest of the world will follow.

Eco Materials at the Studio of A Quilter

Photo by Wendy Crockett

How is this transformation possible? Incorporating a triangle approach to such transformation is The Art Inspector, a social practice artwork I founded during my candidacy for a Masters in Fine Arts at San Jose State University, uses a Healthy Art Program (education), Legislative Reform (advocacy) and Third Party Inspections (studio assessments). This project started a few years ago when I noticed fellow studio mates as well as the art school itself seemingly unconsciously teaching and using harmful applications and techniques, disposing of waste, and ineffectively ventilating rooms. I noticed piles of plastic thrown into dumpsters, studio lights left on for what seemed 24 hours at a time, and complete negligence when using harsh chemicals. In my studio, a rusty cabinet labeled “Store Harsh Chemicals Here” written upon faded masking tape hosted a dusty plastic binder labeled MSDS Sheets. Taking a closer look, I realized no one had taught me what Material Safety Data Sheets meant and how they might apply to what I do. I asked around to other artists what they might know about these sheets and what they thought about what they were using and how they were disposing of extra material. Many artists noted that they knew someone, or had experienced themselves, long term health problems from misuse of chemicals in the creation of artwork. Most artists intuitively believed that there was a better way to develop their work and acknowledge the harm of some of the materials, but did not know what to do about it or did not see change as a high priority.

Inspired by artworks using methods of Intervention Art which take on the roles and aesthetics of corporations and disrupt systems in unexpected ways, such as the Yes Men and Luther Thie, I decided to become an Art Inspector. Within construction and manufacturing, unaffiliated auditors determine if a building or product can be certified as sustainable. If deemed so, doors open for prospective buyers and subsidies. I wanted to take this method to the Art World.

Art Inspector at a Printmaking Studio

Photo by Wendy Crockett.

But how does a third party inspection work? There are at least two inspections to take place. The initial inspection starts with an intake form that asks questions to each artist about their studio environment, materials they are using, and the type of machines or equipment that use power. During this process a series of tests are conducted using similar equipment used for energy audits in residential homes. The Art Inspector tests power outlets, lighting and occupancy, ventilation and Volatile Organic Compounds. Once the inspection process is finished The Art Inspector will write up a report based on the data collected and make suggestions for alternatives and improvements to artists studios and the working process. If the artist makes the recommended modifications, The Art Inspector will return for a re-inspection and award a Healthy Art Certification if the artist passes.

Artists who fail inspection or those who are interested in diving deeper into changing their habits can join the Healthy Art Program. Various workshops ranging from green materials, sustainable wood products, energy efficiency, lighting and safety are available to artists at varying partner institutions. If the artists are supplied with resources and knowledge, they will be empowered to change. The final part of The Art Inspector is to advocate for change in policy and curriculum on both an institutional and government level. Working with academic and museum institutions to adopt new values and requirements for artworks to be created sustainably will create a shift in the resources for production of art. If a major contemporary art museum such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sets a standard for new works to be exhibited using a significant amount of low impact materials and works with third party agents such as The Art Inspector, then other practitioners will follow. With this same concept, Public Art Programs can adopt LEED standards into creation of artworks in the public realm.

Even today these concepts of change in the Art World are seen as radical and frightening to some. However, many artists are willing to do what they do best, experiment with new ideas. With the vision of The Art Inspector, we will open up the avenues to sustainable living, healthy living, and simultaneously, changing the way we make art.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post Arts section on February 27, 2013.

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New concept for the piece

This gallery contains 2 photos.

The piece was based on a book by Bruno Schulz titled Street of Crocodiles. The imaginary Street of Crocodiles in the Polish city of Drogobych is a street of memories and dreams. The collections of short stories focus on memories … Continue reading

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Life Cycles

I created 3 pieces for The Healthy Art Program: An Energy Smart Exhibition. The trio is inspired by different life cycles; cycles of nature, animals, creating, etc. The pieces depict a bird’s nest with eggs = birth, bird wings = life, and a bird skull = death. Each piece was made completely out of Eco friendly materials most of which were provided by the Art Inspector. The materials included FSC wood, handmade oil paint, GreenPix Photo Matte paper, Eco Bond and natural bees wax and dammar resin (tree sap).

During this process one area that inspired and interested me was the concept of Cradle-to-Grave. Cradle-to-Grave or life-cycle assessment is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s (in this case a finished piece of artwork) life from-cradle-to-grave (i.e., from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling). I wanted to explore how this applied to art making on a conceptual and real life basis. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much information or material about the cradle-to-Grave concept as it applies to creating artwork. From my own experience I know that there are a lot of waste and hazardous materials that are produced through art making depending on the medium. This is an area I would like to explore more. I feel it would be beneficial for artists to know where their materials come from, how they get to them and how they should be disposed of.

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Lori Krein: Healthy Art Program…Creating my BURST collage

Lori Krein's Collage for the Healthy Art Exhibit


The inspiration for creating my sun collage was multi-faceted. The sun gives us life, but it can also easily take life away. Too much pollution in our atmosphere, which might block out the sun, and we’re done. Too much sunshine, we burn up. Just the right amount, and we thrive.
It seemed to make sense.

Eco-friendly paints

The materials I was give by The Art Inspector, which included eco-friendly paints, papers, glue, and wood, were perplexing to me at first, but after working with them for awhile, an idea began to emerge.

eco-friendly papers

The papers, as given to me, were not useful…but, given my history of collage, which began 12 years ago when I spent one entire summer making paper in my backyard, I realized I could manipulate the paper by using it to make new paper, which I knew would be more textured, colorful, and aesthetically appealing. I combined the papers she gave me with scraps I had been collecting in my studio, and spent a weekend making paper. (Luckily, the sun was shining which helped in the drying process! So I used the sun, to make my sun!)

Paper scraps

Here’s a photo of the scraps I used to make some of the paper. I sorted my scraps into color families…white, yellow, orange, red, blue, green.




I tore the scraps into small pieces, soaked them in water, then put them in a blender along with sawdust, dried leaves, and dried flowers.  Next, I blended them up, and poured the pulp into a tub.

Pulp in the blender






Then I scooped out the pulp using a square deckle or embroidery hoop with screening in it. After blotting out the excess water, I put the deckle in the sun to dry.

Pulp in the deckle






Peeling the paper off the screen was the most fun part of the process!

Paper drying in the sun








I ended up with a pile of beautiful hand-made papers. I tore them into semi-circles, then glued them onto the wood panels.

Pile of hand made papers








Laying out the paper, ready to be glued onto wood panels








Almost finished!








After adding some string to make the sunburst, my piece was done!

Lori Krein's Collage for the Healthy Art Exhibit









The process really fun and gratifying, and I love my finished piece. Thanks for taking a look and reading about my process! -Lori



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More on the Down to Earth Quilt

Backing spread out on the patio

Making this quilt was different in that I used some batting provided by the Art Inspector which was made in the USA. This batting is very fragile, so I needed to have a flat surface to lay it out, hence putting the bottom layer out first.

Laying out the Batting

The batting is all in layers that come apart very easily so I need to be very careful as I work with it.

Spreading the Quilt Top over the Batting

I carefully place the quilt top over the backing and the batting.

Showing the thickness of the batting

As you can see, this batting is very thick.  If I had been more knowledgeable, I would have removed some of the batting, to make a thinner quilt, but, no, I didn’t want to do it over!!

Laying the three layers over the longarm machine.

I usually load the longarm machine by stretching the three layers one by one over the various bars and tighten the gears to give a nice taut surface to quilt on.  This particular batting made the process a bit different in that I spread the components onto the patio and then brought them in and carefully laid them over the bars and attached it all to the rollers.

Stretched onto Machine for Quilting

Now, I’m all ready to quilt the piece!

On the Studio Wall After Quilting

I have a couple more things to add to this piece. One is to put some glowing L-Wire around the flame shape, and the other is to add some Eco-friendly paint to the surface of the piece. Making this quilt has been a great experience and made me think more about what goes into my work and the meaning of it. I not only have used recycled fabric, but most of it has meaning in that significant people have given it to me. I even used parts of a quilt that I made during the 1970’s.

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Materials delivered

photo by Wendy Crockett

The Art Inspector brought several materials for the studio and took others with her that were less environmentally friendly. Among the items I need to go without are my chemicals for printing (including Van Dyke solution, fixer and other developing powders), and a few of my toxic adhesives. She gave me a whole line of Eco Friendly materials for printing black and white film, which I can’t wait to try out. She also brought several sheets of paper, some plywood and ecobond glue.  I can’t wait to use the materials!


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Materials check-in: What worked, what didn’t




Eco Pro: B&W Paper developer, stop bath, fixer and Hypo wash
I used these photo chemicals to print a series of images, one of which was included in the show. The chemicals seemed to up the contrast slightly more than the chemicals I was previously using, but they were easy to control by changing my filter. The blacks were rich. Overall I was extremely happy with the outcome and the fixer didn’t smell nearly as bad! I would definitely recommend these products!

Wax- Artemis Modeling Beeswax made with plant colors
I was previously using beeswax that I had bought through Dharma Trading Company in Berkeley. The wax is from the US.  All the information I could find indicated that it was very environmentally friendly.

The Artemis wax was not the best quality. It dried with an extra cloudy film and had sandy bits of pigment. I ended up not using it.

Green Prix Recycled Photo Paper- matte
The paper printed beautifully! I can’t wait to get more! The colors were saturated and even.

EcoBond adhesive clear sealant
So far so good! The sealant did dry clear as promised and seems to be holding well. I used it for the legs of the trunk and a few other small things that needed adhesive. It takes a little longer to dry than the instructions say.

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