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Paint and its impact on the environment

Precautions to be taken to reduce the health risks associated with the use of certain paint pigments containing potentially harmful heavy metals.

How to reduce the release of pigments into waste water

How to reduce the release of pigments into the waste water when cleaning your brushes in order to reduce the negative impacts on the environment.

Picture of pigments
Paint pigments

As artists, we have the opportunity, by adapting our habits, to reduce the environmental impact of our passion. After all, the majority of human activities have a certain level of pollution, so it is not a question of preventing ourselves from enjoying our activities, but of reducing their negative impacts.

The idea is not to demonstrate the various problems associated, for example, with plastics in the environment or the microplastics found in water. Many publications address this issue. The goal is to provide practical solutions to reduce the impact on the environment and to position ourselves in solution mode. Whether or not negative effects have been demonstrated on human health (think of the ingestion of microplastics in water, for which scientists do not yet have sufficient information to conclusively report on the impacts), it is important to behave with caution.

The use of oil or acrylic paint not only has an impact on the environment, but also on your own internal plumbing. However, by changing certain habits, we can greatly reduce these impacts. Some will have the reflex to raise the question of oil paint as more polluting, due to the use of thinner such as mineral spirits (mineral spirit or white spirit). But in fact, acrylic paint is probably more environmentally impactful and pernicious. Obviously, the goal here is not to point to a medium that is more polluting than another…


Let's start with the thing that is common to both types of paint: pigments. Some colors come from pigments made up of metals that are relatively dangerous to human health. Some pigments have seen marked reduction in usage. One only has to think of flake white (White flake), the old lead-based white which is now replaced by titanium white.

Moreover, some painters may have died of lead poisoning a few centuries ago, including the artist-painter Raphael who died at the age of 37 (1483-1520) or Caravaggio (1571-1610). Some have assumed from the latter that he used to put a little saliva on his brush. Not quite the best practice if that is the case, but it would be hard to blame him for this habit given the lack of knowledge at that time on this matter.

In practice, lead-based white (flaked white) is still available from some manufacturers. However, it is not recommended given the high risk to health and the environment. Titanium white usually replaces it on artists' palettes.

On the other hand, the majority of paint manufacturers still use cadmium for yellow and red as well as cobalt for blue. The impact on human health is harmless under normal conditions, but it’s a good idea to avoid having food near the place where you work, in order to avoid inadvertently absorbing traces of paint. And keep in mind that it is important to wash your hands after a painting session before touching food.

Happily, paint manufacturers have greatly improved the manufacture of their paints and use, for example, an insoluble form of cadmium which makes it less harmful for the user.

What are more problematic are the releases into the environment. The first action we can take as artists is to wipe off as much excess paint as possible from our brush with a dishcloth or paper towel before cleaning the brush with soap and water.


Let's be realistic, we are going to release traces of pigments into the environment. The important thing is to reduce discharges into the water as much as possible. The “least worst” solution is for the pigments to end up in dried form in a rag ending up in a dump instead of ending up in water. In principle, a well-designed dump makes it possible to limit the spread of potentially toxic products outside the dump.


Thus, the impacts can be enormously reduced if we, as artists, adopt a few simple habits.

Further reading:

Colors for Artists - CEPE Report on Health - Safety - Environment Aspects (

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