Ok, no, I’m not going to get all decked out like this to paint! I’m just not!. We all have to make judgements on what we are willing to expose ourselves to and what that exposure or lack of exposure does for our lifestyle. For, me I’ve been willing to risk a high amount of exposure for the joy and lifestyle I gain. At the same time I take the precautions that I do seriously. I don’t get crazy with them nor do I ignore the risk.
The primary thing to avoid with pastels is getting the stuff airborne and breathing it in. Working vertically (rather than on a tabletop which promotes blowing off the dust particle), allows us to let most of the loose pastel dust fall downward off the surface of our piece. If we provide something for this dust to fall into we can minimize the amount in the air. I created a short video on how to make a trap for the dust to fall into. There are a number of easy ways to accomplish this that are explained in the video.
It’s a good idea to work in a setting where you can actually get some air in and out of the space. This doesn’t mean you want things blowing around the pastel dust, on the contrary, but some air flow in the studio is a good thing.
Air Purification Systems
There are many out there on the market from very modest in price to quite expensive. I don’t have one of these in my studio currently but I have in the past. I have many students that swear by them and are happy with the air quality and that they keep the space cleaner.
Wearing a mask might be an option for you especially if you are working really large and really kicking up a significant amount of dust on a regular basis. There are many pretty comfortable options out there.
Keep it Separate
It’s a good idea to have a separate space to work in, so that you are minimizing the tracking around of the pastel dust. I’m lucky to have a very dedicated work area, but I haven’t always had this. For several years my studio and living space was adjacent with my kitchen situated right near my easel. So, mindfullness is key here. If you can keep it separate that is ideal. If you can’t you’ll have to work at keeping things dust free. A little planning, like the trap, a small rug or drop cloth under your workspace and proper clean up will help. You just don’t want to track the stuff all over the place.
Since some of the pigments are considered more risky than others, you might want to consider using latex or vinyl gloves or gloves in a bottle which is a barrier cream. There are lots of brands out there, I’m showing you just one. Washing your hands frequently is also a really good and necessary thing! You are going to get dirty! I keep a wet rag by my easel rather than using disposable wipes in an effort to make a small gesture towards being environmentally friendly, although believe me, I know it’s just a nod. I do try!
I have work cloths and I change into them when I’m painting in pastel. This isn’t just so I keep my cloths nice although that is certainly part of it, it’s so I keep the dust separate from my other cloths. The work cloths get washed together. You might want to use and apron or even something like a lab coat or overalls which you can pick up at a second hand store.
Eating and Drinking
Try not to eat and drink when the dust is flying. Don’t set your coffee cup next to your easel, paint for a while, then take a sip! I know it’s common sense, but we can get a little lazy with this. I know I do. Do as I say, not as I do!
Mop and wipe all your studio/house surfaces down rather than dusting and vacuuming! The point is to keep the particles from getting airborne.
Pay Attention to Your Body
If you start coughing, having a hard time breathing, get an odd rash, evaluate and pay attention! Most of what we are using is safe or very benign at worst. But everyone has to make careful choices. You want to feel comfortable painting and not carry around a lot of worry about it. Pastels are definitely not for everyone. I’ve found them to be well worth the effort and possible risk. Everything we do has some inherent risk.
Here is some info that I found that seems reliable and accurate as far as I can tell. Maybe this will be useful as well:
This includes dust-creating media such as charcoal and pastels which are often fixed with aerosol spray fixatives, and media such as crayons and oil pastels which do not create dust.
- Pencils are made with graphite, rather than lead and are not considered a hazard. Colored pencils have pigments added to the graphite, but the amounts are small so that there is no significant risk of exposure. Over 10 years ago, a significant hazard in pencils was from lead chromate paint on the exterior of yellow pencils. However this has since been eliminated as a risk.
- Charcoal is usually made from willow or vine sticks, where wood cellulose has been heated without moisture to create the black color. Compressed charcoal sticks use various resins in a binder to create the color. Although charcoal is just considered a nuisance dust, inhalation of large amounts of charcoal dust can create chronic lung problems through a mechanical irritation and clogging effect. A major source of charcoal inhalation is from the habit of blowing excess charcoal dust off the drawing.
- Colored chalks are also considered nuisance dusts. Some chalks are dustier than others. Individuals who have asthma sometimes have problems with dusty chalks, but this is a nonspecific dust reaction, not a toxic reaction.
- Pastel sticks and pencils consist of pigments bound into solid form by a resin. Inhalation of pastel dusts is the major hazard. Some pastels are dustier than others. Pastels can contain toxic pigments such as chrome yellow (lead chromate) which can cause lung cancer, and cadmium pigments (which can cause kidney and lung damage and are suspect human carcinogens). Blowing excess pastel dust off the drawing is one major source of inhalation of pastel pigments. Pastel artists have often complained of blowing their nose different colors for days after using pastels, a clear indication of inhalation.
- Crayons and oil pastels do not present an inhalation hazard, and thus are much safer than pastels. Some oil pastels can contain toxic pigments, but this is only a hazard by accidental ingestion.
- Both permanent and workable spray fixatives used to fix drawings contain toxic solvents. There is high exposure by inhalation to these solvents because the products are sprayed in the air, often right on a desk or easel. In addition you can be inhaling the plastic particulates that comprise the fixative itself.
- Never try to spray fixative by blowing air from your mouth through a tube. This can lead to accidental ingestion of the fixative.
- Use the least dusty types of pastels, chalks, etc. Asthmatics in particular might want to switch to oil pastels or similar non-dusty media.
- Spray fixatives should be used with a spray booth that exhausts to the outside. If use of spray fixatives is occasional, you can use them outdoors with a NIOSH-approved respirator equipped with organic vapor cartridges and dust and mists filter for protection against inhalation of solvent vapors and particulates. An exhaust fan is also needed to remove organic vapors and particulates.
- Don’t blow off excess pastel or charcoal dust with your mouth. Instead tap off the built up dust so it falls to the floor (or paper on floor).
- Wet-mop and wet-wipe all surfaces clean of dusts.
- If inhalation of dusts is a problem, a respirator may be appropriate. Contact EHS for selection and fit-testing.
With Warmest Regards,