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Non-toxic printmaking

Green is the thing these days. Many artists are concerned with the toxicity of their materials. With good reason. In years past, many artists poisoned themselves with lead, cadmium, dust or solvents. The manipulation of plates and stones has the potential to expose printmakers to more than their fair share of nasty stuff.

As a result, many printmakers are switching to ‘green’ materials and processes. Sometimes the results, despite the claims of manufacturers, do not match up will to more traditional materials. And sometimes, unless we are careful, ‘green’ can lead us astray.

I was at the local home improvement mega-store the other day and was looking over a new line of ‘organic’ solvents (this is something of a misnomer, since from a chemical perspective, any hydrocarbon based solvent is ‘organic’, as in organic chemistry). This particular line include gum turpentine, pointing out it was derived from natural sources (a distillation product of wood). Unfortunately, turps is one of the more toxic solvents available to us, despite its ‘natural’ origins. I did try out a couple of other alternative solvents. The first was a water & mineral spirits emulsion. I tried a quart and used it for general ink cleanup. I was not terribly impressed. I didn’t think it worked as well as a good, high quality (low volatility) odorless mineral spirits. But it sure was a lot more expensive. I also tried an alternative solvent that was billed as an replacement for acetone in many applications. Again, it did not seem to work as well, and I turned out to be sensitive to it. I found it very irritating.

I will continue to use oil based inks and traditional solvents because of their performance. I do take precautions with them, however. I wear gloves when I am cleaning with solvents (many organic solvents can be absorbed through the skin). I am fortunate to work in a large space that is pretty well ventilated, so my air exposure is minimized. I plan to install additional localized ventilation as well.

One place where I have taken steps to control toxicity is in my etching process. When setting up the studio, I was worried both about the toxicity of the mordants, and the issues of hazardous waste disposal (exhausted acids or other etchants are full of metal and should not be disposed of down the drain) My approach here is to use a galvanic etching process as described by Cedric Green. In this case, I wouldn’t say it works better or worse than acids, it just works differently. I would not say that I feel like I have complete control of this process yet, but I am producing images. The biggest advantage is that it does not produce any waste. I am sold: time and experience should give me the control I want.

I still have some acids in the studio (nitric, phosphoric, citric, acetic) but they are used for lithography, a few drops at a time. Handled with care, they do not pose a significant health risk.

About the Author:

Dean Russell Thompson is an Artist and Printmaker working in Loveland, CO.