Painting Safety In The Arts


One of the first documented connections between painting pigments and adverse health effects among artists was in 1713, by Italian physician Bernardinus Ramazzini. It took centuries for less harmful pigments to become widely available, and today there are still numerous health and physical hazards to be aware of when painting and drawing. 


Hazardous materials used in painting include:

  • Pigments
  • Thinners
  • Linseed Oil
  • Adhesives
  • Oil-based paints and Turpentine

These materials can pose health or physical hazards. The materials can be absorbed through skin contact and enter the bloodstream. Materials such as thinners, oils, and turpentine also tend to evaporate quickly, which can contaminate the air and pose an inhalation hazard. Finally, many of these materials are also flammable, which can pose a physical hazard if appropriate precautions in handling and storage are not taken.


Pigments are used in oil paints, acrylics, watercolor, poster paints, casein paints, encaustic painting, and tempera. Many of these pigments contain heavy metals, which pose a major health hazard. They are combined with a vehicle or binder to make usable paints, but before they are mixed, dry pigments can be harmful because their dust can be easily inhaled and ingested.


Unlike pigments, hues either do not contain heavy metals or contain only extremely low levels of heavy metals (as the concentrations are too small to warrant concern). If a paint is labeled as a “hue” (such as “chromium yellow hue”), then it is non-toxic.


  • Pigments may contain heavy metals, which are toxic and pose serious health hazards with certain levels of exposure. The primary exposure pathways associated with painting are:
    • ingestion due to eating, drinking, or smoking while working (or if hands are not washed after working);
    • ingestion due to inadvertent hand-to-mouth contact while working, or pointing the paintbrush with your mouth; and
    • inhalation of pigments when paint is sprayed, heated, or sanded without the proper engineering controls. 

Common toxic metals found in pigments, and their possible health effects, are summarized in the table below. (This is not a comprehensive list of all toxic pigments).

Pigment Component Possible Health Effects
True Naples Yellow Antimony

Respiratory and gastrointestinal (GI) tract irritation

Cobalt Violet, Emerald Green Arsenic

Skin/eye/GI irritation, central nervous system (CNS) disorders, cancer

Cadmium Pigments Cadmium

Lung, kidney, or CNS disease; high blood pressure, anemia

Chromium green, strontium yellow, viridian, chrome yellow, zinc yellow


Skin/respiratory irritation, allergies, lung cancer

Flake white, mixed white, Naples yellow, chrome yellow Lead

CNS damage, GI problems, anemia, kidney damage, reproductive system damage

Burnt amber, manganese blue, manganese violet, mars brown Manganese

Respiratory irritation, CNS problems



Central nervous system disease

General Painting Precautions

  • Always review the SDSs for all paint chemicals and pigments used in a process so that you are fully aware of the hazards and how to mitigate those hazards. Keep in mind that the name of the color is not always representative of the pigments present in the tube. Manufacturers may reformulate the ingredients of a color but retain the name.
  • Choose the least toxic pigments possible, and avoid using lead-containing or carcinogenic pigments.
  • Avoid mixing dry pigments. If dry pigments must be mixed, mix them in an area with local exhaust ventilation, such as a fume hood, snorkel, or slot hood. Wet mop and wipe all surfaces during and after the use of dry pigments.
  • Do not use food-related dishes, containers, or utensils to mix or store paints and pigments.

Water-Based Paints

Acrylic, gouache, casein, water color, and tempera are examples of water-based paints. Water is used for thinning as well as for clean-up.


  • Pigments used in water-based paints can be hazardous. Please refer to the discussion above for specific information about health hazards associated with pigments.
  • Acrylic paints contain small amounts of ammonia, which some people may be sensitive to. People may experience eye, nose, and throat irritation.
  • Acrylics and some gouaches contain trace  amounts of formaldehyde as a preservative. People who are already sensitized to formaldehyde (from previous exposures to higher concentrations) may experience allergic reactions to the formaldehyde in these materials. 
  • Casein paints use casein protein as a binder. Forms of casein that are soluble in water are available, but some casein paints are dissolved in ammonium hydroxide, which moderately irritates the skin on contact, and is strongly irritating when contacting the eyes, is ingested, or is inhaled.
  • Preservatives are often used in water-based paints to prevent mold or bacterial growth, both commercially and when made by an individual artist. Although only present in small amounts, certain preservatives (e.g. formaldehyde) may cause allergic reactions in some people. 


  • Please refer to the discussion above for precautions when mixing dry pigments.
  • If you make your own paints and use a preservative, avoid adding sodium fluoride, phenol, or mercury-containing compounds. For tempera, a small amount of pine oil will preserve the paint for short periods.
  • If casein paints must be mixed with ammonium hydroxide, then do this under local exhaust (fume hood, snorkel, or slot hood) to provide adequate ventilation. 
  • The use of corrosive materials such as ammonium hydroxide should only occur in locations where there is immediate access (i.e., within 50 ft.) to eyewashes and drench showers.
  • Wear chemical splash goggles, gloves, and a protective apron when handling corrosive materials like ammonium hydroxide.
  • If you experience eye, nose, or throat irritation while working with acrylics, open a window to increase ventilation. If that does not alleviate the irritation, try a window exhaust fan. Contact EH&S ( for an evaluation of your process and assistance with selection and fit-testing of appropriate respiratory protection. 

Non-Water-Based Paints

The hazards associated with non-water-based paints primarily involve the materials used as vehicles, thinners, and for cleanup. Many commercial paints used by artists contain solvents. Linseed oil, wax, and egg are used as vehicles for oil paints, encaustic tempera, and egg tempera, respectively, and solvents are often used as thinners and for cleanup. Turpentine and mineral spirits are commonly used to thin oil paints, as well as for cleaning brushes. Solvents are also used as vehicles for alkyd paints.


  • Please refer to the pigment discussion above for information about pigment hazards.
  • Most organic solvents (such as turpentine or mineral spirits) are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve in fats. This property allows them to be absorbed by the body through skin contact. In addition, solvents can cause irritation and dermatitis from prolonged or repeated exposure. 
  • Acute inhalation of mineral spirits, turpentine vapors, and other solvents can cause dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination, coma, or respiratory irritation. 
  • Chronic inhalation of solvents could result in decreased coordination, behavioral changes, or brain damage. For instance, turpentine can cause kidney damage, respiratory irritation, or allergies. Alternatives such as odorless mineral spirits and turpenoid, from which the aromatic hydrocarbons have been removed, are less hazardous.
  • Ingestion of turpentine or mineral spirits can be fatal, although with mineral spirits this is usually due to chemical pneumonia from aspiration of the mineral spirits after vomiting.
  • Even resins that are considered natural (egg, copal, damar, rosin, Japanese Lacquer) can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. Moreover, rosin dust can cause asthma and other respiratory issues. 
  • For encaustic painting, one suspends pigments in molten wax. Overheated wax may emit flammable vapors and decomposition fumes. Both these vapors and fumes are strong respiratory irritants.
  • Epoxy paints consist of a hardener component and an epoxy resin component (which contains the pigment). The resin may contain diglycidyl ethers, which are irritants, may damage bone marrow, and are suspected carcinogens. Moreover, the hardeners may cause skin and respiratory allergies and irritation.


  • Always review the SDSs for all chemicals used in a process so that you are fully aware of the hazards and how to mitigate those hazards.
  • When possible use less toxic, odorless mineral spirits in place of turpentine or regular mineral spirits. 
  • Remember that “natural” solvents, such as those labeled as “citrus” or “pine” can still be hazardous. Use the same level of precaution as you would use for other solvents, as these can irritate the skin and eyes.
  • If possible, set up your easel about three feet from a window with a fan exhausting at approximately work-level to pull solvent vapors away from your breathing zone. Position yourself so that the fan is perpendicular to and between you and your easel.
  • If techniques like turpentine washes are performed, they will require a lot of ventilation as large amounts of solvents evaporate in a short period of time. Consider substituting acrylic paint for underpainting. 
  • Ventilation is required while the solvent is evaporating from the canvas, but is not necessary while the oil paint film is drying (oxidizing).
  • If ventilation is inadequate, then respiratory protection must be used while painting. Contact EH&S ( for assistance with selection and fit-testing of appropriate respiratory protection and an evaluation of your process. 
  • Wear neoprene gloves when cleaning brushes with mineral spirits or turpentine.
  • Used solvent can be reclaimed by allowing the paint to settle and then pouring off the clear solvent.
  • Paint can be removed from your hands using baby oil, followed by washing with soap and water.
  • Only heat wax to the minimum temperature needed for proper paint flow. Do not heat with an open flame or exposed heating element.

Airbrushes, Spray Cans, and Spray Guns

Artists use a number of spray products, such as fixatives, adhesives, paints, varnishes, and retouching sprays. These products are usually applied with airbrushes, aerosol cans, or spray guns. 


  • Spraying can be more hazardous than brush painting, because mists can be inhaled easily. There is an added danger if the spray contains solvents or pigments.
  • Aerosol products contain propellants (usually isobutanes and propane) which are extremely flammable. Retouching sprays, spray varnishes, etc. may also contain solvents and particulates, which can be hazardous if inhaled
  • Airbrushing poses unique hazards because of the proximity of the artist to their work. Because artists work closely to the airbrush mist, they are at heightened risk of inhaling the aerosols.
  • Spray guns are less common for art painting, but the much larger quantities of paint used pose additional hazards. Moreover, spraying solvent-based paints with a spray gun can be a serious fire hazard. 


  • Refer to the hazard section above for precautions when working with pigments.
  • Try to use brush painting rather than spraying when possible.
  • Use water-based airbrush paints/inks rather than solvent-based paints.
  • Use spray cans and airbrush paints in a spray booth (see image below) or well-ventilated area (such as outdoors, away from any air intakes).
  • If ventilation is inadequate, then respiratory protection must be used while airbrushing or spraying. Contact EH&S ( for assistance with selection and fit-testing of appropriate respiratory protection and an evaluation of your process. 
  • Never try to spray paint by blowing air from your mouth through a tube. This can lead to accidental ingestion of the paint.