For a variety of reasons, many of us artists work inside our homes rather than a separate studio. If you’re working with art materials (especially oil paints and cleaning supplies) inside your home, here a few tips to consider for the sake of your family and pets.
How to create art safely
While you’re in the middle of a painting session, it’s likely that your eyes are on your materials. But what about the hours when you’re away? If your materials are in a room that can be locked up, great! But if your materials are in a shared space, take some time to make sure that they are properly secured when you’re not painting.
I like to use a system that prioritizes how safe the materials are to determine where they go. For example:
1. Dangerous materials get locked up or placed out of reach
Any solvents, sprays, or other dangerous materials go up high and out of reach of pets and kids (think varnishes, fixative, turpentine, and the like).
A childproof locked cupboard is also best for anything that can cause harm, including small items that children can choke on (like small erasers, framing hooks, broken pastels) or sharp materials—I have an Exacto-knife kit handed down from my grandmother, which I keep up high and secured. I like to keep my paints and pastels secured as well, as I don’t want anyone ingesting the pigments.
2. Non-dangerous items can go in drawers or cubbies
Materials that can be easily ruined (such as paper) can go in drawers—they’re not going to harm anyone, but I’d rather they were kept out of the way. I also keep a latched suitcase with larger papers and canvasses tucked inside.
3. Fun items will distract from the inaccessible ones
Since I have children that wander in and out of my work space, I leave a few items accessible which they can explore, so they don’t see my art materials as “forbidden fruit” to get into when mom isn’t looking. My son loves unloading my plastic jars of decorative sand. . . after that, he walks away from the art cupboard satisfied.
And speaking of my art cupboard, if you don’t already have access to a large, locking cupboard like one of these, I can’t recommend it enough for artists who paint inside the home—being able to close everything up at once and lock it away when I need to has been a life-changer for me!
While you’re making art: stay safe!
I tend to get cold easily, and I enjoy the smell of acrylic paint—so when I’m alone in my studio, I’m always tempted to just crack a window and not worry about the fumes. But that can be dangerous, so I try to do better. Here are the rules I follow:
1. Ventilate your work area and use the outdoors
If you’re working with oils or acrylics, proper ventilation doesn’t just mean opening the window. You should have multiple windows open if possible, and a strong fan to pull in clean air and push the paint fumes out an opposite window.
If you use fixatives (or any spray-on solvents), do so outside. Even good ventilation isn’t likely to protect your household from those fumes, which will hang around if you release them in an enclosed area.
In addition to fumes, it’s a good idea to monitor the dust you’re putting into the air. When working with soft pastels, tap your work gently over a large trash can to remove dust. Don’t blow dust into the air—you don’t want to inhale it, and it’ll just end up on surfaces that you (or your pets or family) will be exposed to later on. If I’ve gotten dust all over a surface, I’ll spray it with a bit of water and wipe it up with paper towels to limit the amount of dust in the air.
2. Keep all work containers away from food/drink containers
If you’re using water for diluting or rinsing, make sure it’s not tempting to any pets or children. Use narrow-mouth containers to rinse your brushes, and make sure the containers are clearly for painting and not for drinking. If you step away from the water, cover it so pets aren’t tempted to drink out of it (I had a cat who always seemed to get into my paint water the minute I took my eyes off it, so I started using jars with lids).
Cross-contamination is a definite concern, so be careful if you bring your drinking cups near your painting (I’d suggest using drinking cups with lids to avoid that awful moment where you dip your brush into your coffee). It’s also dangerous to use your regular dishes for painting—designate any cups, plates, trays, etc. you use as strictly for painting, and store them away from your dishes.
If you’ve got pets that like to investigate what you’re up to while you paint, this is a great time to keep a spray bottle of water handy and give them an occasional squirt to encourage them to move along. It’s a little unfriendly, but definitely kinder on your pet than trying to clean paint of its paws when it inevitably steps on your palette.
3. Partition the room for small visitors, or set ground rules
If your visitors are children, baby gates are a great way to establish boundaries. But you can also teach them a little studio etiquette and invite them to work in their own separate space of the room away from any dust and fumes.
Remove any pet dishes from your work space, so they aren’t ingesting any residue that goes airborne while you’re working, and have a plan in place for if you get called away from your materials for a few minutes. For example, stash your water and paints in a cupboard, so no one gets into them while you attend to whatever has pulled you briefly away from your painting.
When you’re cleaning up: be smart!
I’ve never been able to find a definitive answer on how safe it is to get pigments into the human body (via skin, lungs, or mouth), so I’ve just decided that it’s best to keep all bodily contact with my materials as limited as possible. Here are a few ideas for limiting your family’s exposure to art supplies:
1. Always clean the sink
If you’re using a kitchen sink to clean your brushes, keep the paint away from dishes and silverware, and scrub out the sink as soon as possible afterward. A little paint in the sink might seem like no big deal, but over time it could affect your heath (and the health of your family) if it’s being absorbed into your skin or getting on your dishes. Even the bathroom sink should be cleaned once you’re done washing out your brushes, so no one is unwittingly splashing paint water onto themselves later on.
2. Follow usage and disposal instructions
Make sure you follow all safety instructions on your materials, and avoid dumping things like turpentine or matte medium down your drains. If possible, take any disposables to your outside garbage bin, eliminating the chance that the fumes will linger in your home (and keeping curious hands or noses out of the trash).
3. Set aside a spot for drying artwork
You probably don’t want the work you’ve just done to be touched (and thus ruined) while it’s set aside, so designate a space to keep your pieces where they won’t attract hands (or paws). I have a white cat who loves to rub on my pastels, and as funny as it is to see a pink or blue cat, I don’t want him ingesting the pastel when he cleans himself—so I set them up in a place where he can’t get to them.
Making your home studio a safe, shared space will always be a challenge, but a little mindfulness goes a long way. And the truth is, there are many rewards to working on your artwork in your home. . . getting a safety system in place will help you up to reap the benefit of those rewards, and keep your family safe as you go!
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