Drawing Safety In The Arts

Drawing can present hazards related to the materials used and the methods of use. The hazards related to both dry media and liquid media are presented below.

Dry drawing media

Work with dry drawing media may involve dust-creating media, such as charcoal or pastels, which are often fixed with aerosol spray fixatives. Dry drawing media also includes crayons and oil pastels, which do not create appreciable dust. 


  • Pencils/colored pencils: Pencils are made with graphite, not lead, and are not considered hazardous. Colored pencils contain pigments, but the amounts of pigments are small enough that there is no significant risk of exposure. 
  • Charcoal is usually made from willow or vines, where the wood cellulose is heated without moisture to create the black color.
    • Charcoal is commonly considered a nuisance dust, but inhalation of large amounts of it can create chronic lung problems through mechanical irritation and clogging.
    • Blowing excess dust off of a drawing is one major source of charcoal inhalation.
  • Colored chalks are considered nuisance dust. Persons with asthma may experience problems using dusty chalks, but this is a nonspecific dust reaction rather than a toxic reaction.
  • Pastel sticks and pencils contain pigments bound into solid form by a resin. The pigments in pastels make inhalation of pastel dusts a serious inhalation hazard.
    • Pastels may contain toxic pigments such as chrome yellow or cadmium pigments. (See table on pigments in the painting section for specific information about pigment hazards.)
    • Blowing excess dust off of a drawing is one major source of pastel inhalation.
  • Crayons and oil pastels are much safer to work with, as they do not present a significant inhalation hazard. 
    • Some oil pastels can contain toxic pigments, but this is only a hazard by accidental ingestion.
  • Both permanent and workable spray fixatives contain toxic solvents, and are sometimes composed of plastic particulates. Exposure to these solvents or particulates by inhalation is likely because the products are sprayed in the air, often onto a desk or easel.
    • Never try to spray fixative by blowing air from your mouth through a tube.  This can lead to accidental ingestion of the fixative.


  • Use the least dusty types of pastels, chalks, etc. Asthmatics in particular might want to switch to oil pastels or similar non-dusty media.
  • Spray fixatives should be used with a spray booth (see image below) that exhausts to the outside.
    • An exhaust fan may also be needed to remove organic vapors and particulates.
    • If only used occasionally, you can use them outdoors, potentially with a respirator for protection against inhalation of solvent vapors and particulates (contact EH&S at respirators@umass.edu for assistance with assessment of the process, selection and fit-testing of appropriate respiratory protection). 
  • Don't blow off excess pastel or charcoal dust. Instead, tap off the dust build up so it falls to the floor or table.
  • Wet-mop and wet-wipe all surfaces to pick up dust.
  • If inhalation of dust is a problem, a respirator may be appropriate. Contact EH&S (respirators@umass.edu) for evaluation of your process and assistance with selection and fit-testing of appropriate respiratory protection. 

Liquid Drawing Media

Liquid drawing media involves both water-based and solvent-based pen, ink, and felt tip markers.  Dry erase or white board markers can be included, although they are more used in teaching or commercial art.


  • Drawing inks are usually water-based, but there are some solvent-based drawing inks that contain toxins like xylene.
  • Permanent felt tip markers often contain solvents such as xylene (a highly toxic aromatic hydrocarbon), which is the most common ingredient. Newer brands often contain the less toxic propyl alcohol (although it is an eye, nose and throat irritant).  The main hazard of permanent markers is from inhaling solvent vapors when using many at the same time at close range.
  • Certain solvents in markers and inks can be absorbed through the skin. Getting small marks on one’s hand would be a small exposure concern; but drawing on oneself may lead to absorption of the solvents into the bloodstream.


  • Use water-based markers and drawing inks whenever possible.
  • Alcohol-based markers are less toxic than aromatic solvent-based markers.
  • Solvent-based drawing inks and permanent markers should be used with good dilution ventilation (e.g. open windows or higher air change rates for mechanically ventilated spaces). If ventilation is inadequate, then respiratory protection must be used while airbrushing or spraying. Contact EH&S (respirators@umass.edu) for assistance with selection and fit-testing of appropriate respiratory protection and an evaluation of your process. 
  • Never paint on the body with markers or drawing inks.  Only use cosmetic colors for body painting.