Friday, November 18, 2016

Studio Accidents

Last week, I got to my studio nice and early. Traffic had been good, the line was short at Starbucks. I made a quick stop at Flowerama and bought a bouquet that was half-price. I happily proceeded to set up a still life. The art deco vase I'd picked up at a yard sale last summer was a perfect foil for beautiful golden asters I'd picked up that morning. After adding a couple of tomatillos and a subtly patterned cloth, I found the perfect angle for the spot light and turned to set up my palette for the day. All was right with the world. 

The next moment was the beginning of the end of a productive day for me. I had inadvertently created a Rube Goldberg machine of epic proportions. Those of you who know me are thinking "You're a klutz, so what's different?"  This was a memorable spill even for me! The clip light decided it didn't want to be attached to the easel. On it's way to the floor, it grazed the foam core panel I was using as a back drop, knocking it over onto the asters. The small foot of the vase was not up to the task of staying upright so over it went, asters flying hither and yon. Water everywhere. The aforementioned foam core went sideways over onto the taboret, and somehow sent my Venti red-eye with cream into a spectacular spiral, the white lid flying off about halfway through the trajectory. Coffee all over me, the wall, and the carpet but luckily (narrowly) missing the ipad. I'll spare you the details of the clean up.

Segue to the point of this post: Studio safety. Accidents happen in the studio and you need to be prepared. Luckily, all I needed were a broom, paper towels, soap and water. But what would've happened if the materials particular to painting had been involved?

Most dangerous are the solvents we use. Combined with paper towels or rags used for cleanup during and after painting, things like turp and linseed oil become potentially deadly! There IS such a thing as spontaneous combustion and it happens more often than you think. Solution: drape a used rag you want to use again over a rail or dowel to dry completely. It must be spread out, not bunched up. I keep a 5-gallon bucket with water in the bottom next to my easel. I throw my used paper towels in there.  The water prevents combustion. When the bucket is eventually full, I take it to our hazardous waste disposal site. You can also use an empty house-paint can, available at the hardware store. Just make sure to seal it every night. If you have a place that's larger where students and/or other artists will need to dispose of their rags, get a red hazardous waste can that tightly seals through a hazmat disposal service. Make sure you keep your solvents sealed and preferably in a metal closet or enclosure of some sort. Our local fire department does periodic inspections and they are ok with the metal cabinet I got at the home store. They also appreciate being able to know where hazardous materials are actually kept in a structure.

Spilled Solvents:

There are so many chemical compounds these days, you might want to consult the manufacturer's websites WHEN YOU GET THE PRODUCT, so you can be prepared for the eventuality of a spill. On hard surface floors, linseed oil soap and water or Murphy's Oil Soap should do the job if you can get to it quickly. My old studio had very old hardwood floors. I'm not sure what kind of finish was on it, but I spilled some studio medium (turp, linseed oil and damar varnish mixture) and didn't notice it til the next morning. It had eaten away the varnish in some areas of the spill. The best solution is to get a piece of cheap linoleum keep your solvents in that area of the studio. Use brush washers and containers with weighted bottoms to help prevent spills.

Spilled paint
  • For oils, dispose of any rags/towels in the same way you would your painting towels. If the paint gets on your clothes, I strongly suggest immediate wiping with a baby wipe (one of God's gifts to artists). If that doesn't work use Linseed Oil Soap (also amazing for keeping your brushes in great condition as well as cleaning them). It won't harm most fabrics. Apply, rub in and rinse well. You can also go "old school" and get Fels Naptha soap at the hardware store.
  • Casein paint cleans up with ammonia. If its Permasol Blue, forget it - not gonna come out and will stain everything else in the area. It has magical expansion powers. Cut out the offending spot and hide the hole with a throw rug.
  • Crushed pastel: An immediate vacuuming is the best answer but if it gets into carpet nap, sometimes placing a strip of duct tape on the pastel (without rubbing) will pick up most of the pastel dust. Linseed soap and water on a cloth and DAB (not rub) can be very effective. I read a blog today that suggested pressing PlayDoh to pick up glitter and I think it may work well for pastels! 
  • Acrylics, Watercolors or Gouache: Hopefully not one of the staining pigments. Baby wipes or linseed oil soap and water should do the trick. 
Don't forget your studio space should have good ventilation. I only use odorless turp, but varnishes and mediums can have an odor. Caseins have a unique smell and it does bother some people, but personally I don't find it unpleasant. I know some artists who wear rebreathing masks and easel vacuums when they work in pastel to avoid inhaling the dust.

Barrier creams like Liquid Gloves help you avoid absorbing any potentially hazardous pigments through your skin and one application lasts through a couple of hand-washes. Rubber gloves are another option. I prefer tight fitting ones for the most natural feel.

Insurance for your studio is always a good idea. If disaster befalls, at least you can get reimbursed and replace what is lost. If your studio is in your home, insurance will most likely require you to do a rider on the policy. If you're in a commercial space, your landlord may require liability insurance but probably not require one for the contents. Check with your agent.

It's easy to forget these when you're anxious to get to actually painting, but studio safety is crucial wherever you are and is worth the investment of time.


  1. Terry, What a fantastic read on working w/hazardous materials. It's chock full of safety tips I never heard of ie.
    disposal of paper towels loaded w/turp & oils in a bucket of water which I will implement. I purchased a standard metal garbage can for disposal purposes in my studio area. I also can relate to your studio demise since I have been a victim of knocking over a jar of turp on my taboret when my canvas nicked the the brush handle as I removed it from my easel. Another painting was against a table leg drying and received a good dose of the turp. That was a first and I hope last incident of that sort of nature.

  2. A lot of tips are just things I've figured out, sometimes from sheer necessity! Like the water-in-the-bucket tip! I was giving a workshop in a church basement and the group liaison thought it was ok to throw the turpy towels in the garbage. While I worked at Richeson's, I learned about the FACT of spontaneous combustion (somebody in the easel dept didnt close the hazmat barrel and the factory cameras recorded the whole sequence from smoking barrel to $30K in damage! (It was limited to that much thanks to a zoned water system-couldve been MUCH worse if they were a company that cuts safety corners, but they are real pros!).


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