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Painting and Drawing

Airbrush, Spray Cans, and Spray Guns
Dry Drawing Media
Liquid Drawing Media
Non Water-Based Paints
Water-Based Paints

Most materials in painting and drawing have been in use for centuries and the health hazards are well documented. Working safely can involve changes in art materials and how you handle and dispose of them.

Airbrush, Spray Cans, and Spray Guns

Artists use many products in spray form including fixatives, retouching sprays, paint sprays, varnishes, and adhesive sprays.


  • Spray mists are particularly hazardous because they are easily inhaled. If the paint being sprayed contains solvents then you may inhale liquid droplets of the solvent. In addition the pigments are easily inhaled creating a much more danger than brush applications.
  • Aerosol paints have hazards besides pigments and solvents. The propellants, usually isobutanes and propane, are extremely flammable. Other aerosol products: retouching sprays, spray varnishes, etc. also contain solvents, propellants and particulates.
  • Airbrushing produces a fine mist, a serious inhalation hazard; especially with solvents.
  • Spray guns usually involve spraying larger quantities of paint than either spray cans or airbrush. Spraying solvent-based paints is a serious fire hazard.


  • See section for precautions with pigments.
  • Try to brush items rather than spraying if possible.
  • Use water-based airbrushing paints and inks rather than solvent-based paints.
  • Use spray cans or an airbrush in a spray booth if possible.
  • If ventilation is not adequate, then respiratory protection is necessary while air brushing or spraying. Contact EHS for selection and fit-testing.
  • Never paint by blowing air from your mouth through a tube, you may inhale toxins.

Dry Drawing Media

This includes dust-creating media such as charcoal and pastels which are often fixed with aerosol spray fixatives or non-dust media such as crayons and oil pastels.


  • Pencils are made with graphite and are not considered a hazard. Colored pencils have pigments added to the graphite, in amounts small so that there is no significant risk.
  • Charcoal is usually made from willow or vine sticks where wood cellulose has been heated without moisture to create the black color. Although charcoal is a nuisance dust, inhalation of large amounts of charcoal can create lung problems through clogging effects. A major source of inhalation is from blowing excess charcoal dust off a drawing.
  • Colored chalks are also considered nuisance dusts. Those with asthma sometimes have problems with chalk dust, but this is not a toxic reaction.
  • Pastel sticks and pencils consist of pigments bound into solid form by a resin. Inhalation of pastel dust is the major hazard. Pastels can contain toxic pigments such as chrome yellow (lead chromate) which can cause lung cancer, and cadmium pigments (which can cause kidney and lung damage and are suspect human carcinogens). Blowing excess pastel dust off the drawing is a source of inhalation of pigments.
  • Crayons and oil pastels do not present an inhalation hazard and are much safer than pastels. Some oil pastels can contain toxic pigments; only a hazard by ingestion.
  • Spray fixatives used to fix drawings contain toxic solvents. There is high exposure by inhalation to these solvents and the plastic particulates that comprise the fixative itself.
  • Never try to spray fixative by blowing air from your mouth through a tube.


  • Use the least dusty types of pastels, chalks, etc.
  • Spray fixatives should be used with a spray booth, a respirator equipped with organic vapor cartridges or outside.
  • Tap excess dust off paper. Don’t blow off pastel or charcoal dust with your mouth.
  • Wet-mop and wet-wipe all surfaces clean of dusts.
  • If inhalation of dusts is a problem an n-95 dustmask may be appropriate.

Liquid Drawing Media

This includes both water- and solvent-based inks and markers.


  • Drawing inks are usually water-based, but there are some solvent-based drawing inks. These usually contain toxic solvents like xylene.
  • Some inks and permanent markers contain solvents. Xylene, which is highly toxic, is the most common ingredient; newer brands often contain the less toxic propyl alcohol.


  • Use water-based markers and drawing inks if possible.
  • Alcohol-based markers are less toxic than aromatic solvent-based markers.
  • Solvent-based drawing inks and permanent markers should be used with ventilation.
  • Never paint on the body with markers or drawing inks.

Non Water-Based Paints

Oil paints, encaustic and egg tempera use linseed oil, wax and egg respectively as vehicles, although solvents are often used as a thinner and for cleanup. Turpentine and mineral spirits are used in oil painting mediums, for thinning and for cleaning brushes.


  • See section about pigment hazards.
  • All solvents can cause defatting of the skin and dermatitis from repeated exposure. Turpentine can also cause allergies and be absorbed through the skin.
  • Acute inhalation of mineral spirits, turpentine and other solvents can cause dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, intoxication, coma, and respiratory irritation.
  • Chronic inhalation of solvents can result in decreased coordination, behavioral changes and brain damage. Chronic inhalation of turpentine causes kidney damage, respiratory irritation and allergies. Odorless mineral spirits and turpenoids are less hazardous.
  • Ingestion of turpentine or mineral spirits can be fatal. In mineral spirits this is usually due to chemical pneumonia caused by breathing in the mineral spirits after vomiting.
  • Natural resins (copal, damar, rosin, Japanese Lacquer) may cause skin irritation or allergies. Rosin dust can cause asthma.
  • Encaustic involves suspending pigments in molten wax. If the wax is overheated flammable wax vapors and fumes are produced, which are strong respiratory irritants.
  • Epoxy paints consist of a resin component containing the pigment and a hardening component. The epoxy resin may contain diglycidyl ethers which are irritants, suspected carcinogens, and damges bone marrow. Epoxy causes skin and respiratory irritation.


  • When possible, replace turpentine or mineral spirits with less toxic odorless mineral spirits. Mineral spirits is also less flammable than turpentine.
  • “Citrus” and “pine” solvents are safer, but are still irritants to the skin and eyes.
  • Artists should position their easels near a window with a fan exhausting at work level toi pull the vapors away from your face.
  • Techniques such as turpentine washes will require a lot of ventilation because they result in large amounts of vapors in a short period of time.
  • Wear neoprene gloves while cleaning brushes with mineral spirits or turpentine.
  • Used solvent is reclaimed by allowing paint to settle and pouring off the clear solvent.
  • Paint can be removed from your hands with baby oil, then soap and water.
  • Wax should be heated to the minimum temp. needed for proper flow of paint. Do not heat with open flame or hot plate.
  • During pregnancy and nursing use water-based paints to avoid exposure to solvents.


Paints are essentially powder pigments mixed with an oil or binder. Dry pigments are especially hazardous because they are easily inhaled and ingested.

Pigments vs. Hues

Most paints do not contain metals and are considered non-toxic. If a paint is called a HUE (e.g. chromium yellow hue) there is no toxic metal. Names containing PIGMENT are more hazardous and should be handled according to MSDS recommendations.


  • Poisoning can occur if toxic pigments are inhaled or ingested.
  • Examples of a toxic inorganic pigments are: cadmium, chrome and zinc yellow, lamp and carbon black, white lead, cobalt, cadmium, and manganese. Anemia, gastrointestinal problems, peripheral nerve damage, kidney and reproductive damage, skin irritation, ulceration, and many cancers can result from irresponsible handling of these materials.
  • The long-term hazards of modern synthetic organic pigments has not been well studied.

Routes of Ingestion

  • eating, drinking or smoking while working
  • inadvertent hand to mouth contact (chewing nails)
  • pointing the paint brush with the lips
  • spraying, heating, or sanding without ventilation


  • Obtain MSDS and follow recommendations on all paints. The name on the tube may not truly represent the chemical pigments present.
  • Use the least toxic pigments possible. NO LEAD OR CARCINOGENS!
  • Avoid using or mixing dry pigments and wet down then wipe up any spills.
  • Avoid using food containers to store paints and pigments.

Water-Based Paints

Water-bases use water as the solvent: watercolor, acrylic, gouache, tempera and casein.


  • In addition to the pigment, water-based paints contain their own chemical hazards.
  • Acrylic paints contain a small amount of ammonia and formaldehyde. Some sensitive people may experience irritation or allergies to these chemicals.
  • Casein paint uses ammonium hydroxide; irritant to skin, eye, digestive, and respiratory.
  • All water-based paint contains preservatives that can be allergens to some people.


  • If you add your own preservative to paint, avoid using sodium fluoride, phenol or mercury compounds. Small amount of pine oil works for short periods of time.
  • If you experience eye, nose or throat irritation while using acrylics, opening a window or work near exhaust fans.
  • If you mix casein paints or use ammonia, wear gloves, goggles and a protective apron.