While 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.NaturalEarthPaint.com. 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 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: www.fanningart.com and art supplies at: www.NaturalEarthPaint.com
Check out this Eco Oil Painting Video Tutorial by Leah Mebane