I have made changes in my own working practice in the hope that I can make some small difference to the often overwhelming threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic and chemical pollution. I hope also to help spread the word about some wonderful materials that don’t pollute, don’t contribute to climate change, and are a pleasure to work with.
In the 16th century, during the Italian Renaissance, canvas became a popular alternative to wood paneling and plaster as the support on which artists painted. At this time hemp was the world’s most abundant crop, and artists would have commonly used hemp canvas for their paintings as it was readily available, used for sailcloth in shipping and for many other purposes. Indeed ‘canvas’ comes from the latin word ‘Cannabis’, implying that cannabis (hemp) cloth was the fabric most often used by artists.
In the 20th century the hemp plant grown for fibres (for cloth, rope and paper) which is very low in THC, was unfortunately demonised along with the high THC variant grown for drug use by US newspaper owner Randolph Hearst (some say to protect his forestry-paper interests from the competition of hemp paper), and legislation to heavily tax all hemp crops in the US was a serious setback to the hemp industry there. The Soviet Union became the world's largest producer of hemp from the 1950’s to 1980’s, but there was a sharp decline in production after its collapse. Competition from cotton and synthetic fibres have kept hemp out of common use, but in recent years awareness of its environmental credentials and changes in legislation have brought about renewed interest.
The hemp plant has many ecological benefits:
Hemp absorbs more CO2 than any other crop, including trees, and using it for durable purposes ‘locks in’ that CO2
Hemp needs around half the land that cotton does to produce the same weight of textiles
Unlike cotton, hemp thrives without the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers
Hemp can remove toxins and radiation from the soil
Hemp requires around 80% less water than cotton to grow
Hemp grows in only four months and is great for use in organic crop rotation and no-till farming systems
Its deep roots bind the soil, preserving fertile land and preventing soil erosion. Hemp can grow well on degraded land and return carbon to that soil, sequestering CO2
Hemp has greater tensile strength than cotton and is more durable
Hemp is biodegradable, so when abraded or trimmed it won’t release plastic fibres
As well as all this, hemp provides nutritious seeds, can be turned into high quality paper with a better yield than trees, can be blended with other natural fibres to create soft fabric for clothing, and can be used in the construction industry in a variety of ways to permanently lock in C02.
I have been painting on 18.5oz hemp canvas from www.hempfabric.co.uk
. It is unbleached, and it’s natural light brown tone, along with its strength and texture, make for a satisfying surface for oil paints.
I stretch the canvas onto wooden stretcher bars made from FSC or PEFC certified pine. Using sustainably harvested timber for a durable purposes is a way to trap and lock-in CO2. However, If engineered hemp or bamboo bars become available I will be very excited to use them!
Primers, Paints and Varnishes
The most common primer used by artists is ‘acrylic gesso primer’. Upon reading up on plastic pollution in our oceans, I started to question whether I should be using paint with an acrylic (plastic) based binder, as some of that acrylic will be washed down the drain upon brush cleaning, and will make its way into our ocean ecosystems. In places where sewage waste is used to fertilise our fields we risk plastic from paints (along with tiny plastic fibres from our clothing) being concentrated onto crops, which we now know can absorb micro plastics.
Ready mixed acrylics also contain strong anti-fungal chemicals to preserve shelf life. For health and environmental reasons I now use Methyl Cellulose primer. Methyl cellulose is a plant-derived thickener, sometimes used in food, and can be bought as a powder and mixed with water to make a clear primer. I mix small batches when needed so no preservatives are required.
Many artists use turpentine or white spirit as thinners for their oil paints. This is normal, taught practice at Art Collages. The harmful fumes from these solvents can irritate skin and cause long term health problems, and the solvents continue to off-gas as the paintings slowly dry on the wall. I use small amounts of a soy based thinner from Natural Earth Paints
as a healthier alternative. It has a pleasant smell and is great to work with.
I also use walnut oil from Natural Earth Paints
, which is a lovely non-yellowing oil, and was very popular with the 'Old Masters’ such as Rembrandt. I mix it with pigments, also from Natural Earth Paints, which are archival and non-toxic and contain no carcinogenic metals (such as cadmium and chromium) or plastics. The process of mixing the pigments with oil is quick and fun, and results in very pure, strong colours with no fillers or preservatives.
Overall, changing from the standard cotton canvas and ready-mixed paints I used to work with has been a pleasure, and has refreshed my artistic practice. It also feels great to work without toxic fumes, the worry of absorbing harmful substances upon skin contact, and the knowledge that my materials aren’t harming my family or the environment.
When not painting artwork on canvases, I am quite often redecorating parts of our house. I used to use standard paints from the local DIY shop, but I have since learned that most of these standard ‘water based’ paints contain plastics as binders. This is a major pollution problem, as plastics from these paints end up being washed down the sink upon brush cleaning, are released during sanding, and eventually flake off into soil and waterways when used for exterior decoration. They are then entering ecosystems and our food systems and drinking water.
Some house paints are clearly labelled as Vinyl or Acrylic paints, but even some high end or fairly ‘eco’ sounding brands contain some plastics. It is worth investigating the ingredients before purchasing.
Many paints sold today also contain high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These VOCs are greenhouse gases and contribute significantly to climate change. They can also contribute to ‘sick house syndrome’ as high VOC oil-based paints dry slowly and continue to off-gas harmful fumes for a long time.
For house painting I now use Lakeland’s
non plastic, zero VOC paints. There are other options for exteriors such as traditional lime paints.
For transporting and posting artwork I use plastic bubblewrap. I have not found a suitable biodegradable alternative to this (some bubblewrap termed ‘biodegradable’ is still a plastic, but will simply fall to bits quicker in landfill). I re-use it as many times as possible, and scraps that can no longer be used can be recycled with plastic bags at supermarkets.
For outer packaging I use brown paper and brown paper tape.
If you have read this page and have any suggestions for me on how to improve what materials I use, news of new products, or any questions, then I would love to hear from you. Please use the ‘contact’ section to get in touch.