September 29, 2023

Acrylics are one of the most popular art mediums. This is not surprising. The colors are brilliant, the applications are varied, the handling is easy and suitable for beginners. In addition, the colors are quite cheap compared to other media, and even the cheaper acrylics are of acceptable quality.
I myself like to paint with acrylics because the colors suit my intuitive way of painting. They are suitable for almost any surface and dry quickly. They can also be thinned with water. You can apply them in thin glazes and layers, but you can also make thick, opaque, visible brushstrokes.
Acrylics allow for expression - and that is important to me.

When you're done, you can clean it all off with water. But that is the problem.

For some time I have been concerned about acrylic paints. The pigments are often bound with plastic particles, but in any case plastic is included. In addition, biocides and fungicides are added to make the paint durable. Once the paint is dry, the compound will not dissolve anything. But while the paint is still wet, it is water soluble. And that means toxins and microplastics end up in wastewater.

Environmental protection and sustainability are close to my heart. I work in a way that conserves resources, pays attention to materials and avoids waste.
But is sustainable painting with acrylic even possible?
I set out on a search. Can I make my art practice more sustainable? How can acrylic paints be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner? Are there alternatives to acrylic paints and if so, do they work for me? You can find my findings in this blog post.

The microplastic issue

Much research is needed to fully understand the long-term effects of microplastics on the environment and human health. What we do know is that microplastics are now entering rivers, lakes and oceans at an increasing rate. Birds, fish, and marine mammals ingest the microplastics, which harm them, and they enter the food chain. It has already been found in some foods (such as beer, honey and drinking water). The exact effects are not yet fully understood. But this much can be said with some certainty: it is not healthy.
Microplastics threaten health, ecosystems and biodiversity. As much as I love acrylic as an art medium, I can't ignore this.

Painting sustainably with acrylic - how can it still work?

For some time now, I have been painting more with watercolors and water-based inks again. However, I still cannot do without acrylics. Its effect is simply different and I need it for some of my artwork. My main measure - I keep acrylic paint and water strictly separate. This works for me because I only use acrylic paint with a palette knife. I clean the knife with an old cloth in which I let the paint dry.

I use the cloth over and over again. But even if I have to dispose of it, at least the microplastics are not a problem, because once dried, the combination of pigments and acrylic binder does not dissolve. The same goes for leftover paint on pallets. If you can't use it elsewhere, don't wash it off. Let it dry to a film that can be peeled off and thrown away. However, it is always a good idea to work ahead and produce as little waste as possible.

Since the compound is no longer soluble in the dried state, dry acrylic residues are generally not hazardous waste. They can be disposed of in the residual waste stream. However, they must be completely dry. Otherwise, so-called secondary microplastics will dissolve in the water.

And be careful, it always depends on the pigments. Zinc, cobalt, lead or other pigments - even naturally occurring ones - are toxic! So, if necessary, follow the specific disposal instructions on the packaging and/or, if in doubt, ask your local waste disposal company. The pigments in your paints are listed on the packaging.

As an abstract artist, it is easy for me to switch to painting knives. But what if your own artistic process requires brushes? It's also hard to avoid getting paint on your hands or clothes. So how do you keep microplastics out of the sewage system?

Dispose of painting water and brush cleaning, but environmentally friendly

Let's keep that in mind:

  • Do not pour used paint water down the sink.
  • Do not clean your brushes or wash your hands at the sink under running water.

By the way, your pipes will thank you. Acrylic residue can cause real damage and clogging. We just use a big bowl. We can wash our hands in it, clean the brushes, and then pour the painting water into it. But that just moves the problem. What do we do now?

There are 3 ways to dispose of the dirty water in an environmentally friendly way.

1. Drop off

Simply let the water stand until the sediment has settled to the bottom of the bowl. This method is recommended by Schmincke. I am not so convinced. Microplastics are small. So small that you might not even be able to see them with the naked eye. That's the whole point. So we don't even know for sure if everything has already settled down. But even if it has, it takes a very steady hand to pour out all the water without stirring up the sediment again.

2. Let evaporate

Let the water evaporate. Sounds simple, but it is. Pour the water as flat as possible onto a larger surface. This way, it evaporates faster - or let only the remains of the previously poured off water (method 1) evaporate. You can then dispose of the dry paint residues as usual.

Special tip

Fill a bucket halfway with kitty litter. Now you can pour your used water into the bucket and let it evaporate. You can also use clumping litter. The dry clumps can then be disposed of in the trash. However, since I haven't tested this method myself and I'm not a cat mom, I can't guarantee that the clumps will be immediately dry enough for disposal. Just try it if you prefer this method.

3. Filter

The last method is to filter the water. However, the filters must be very fine, because microplastics are no larger than 5mm. Filter mats, very fine fabrics or even coffee filters are suitable.

On its website, the company Golden presents a method of chemical treatment of water. I'm not sure that using aluminum sulfate is really that sustainable, but then I don't know anything about chemistry. Anyway, the idea is to somehow inflate the acrylic particles before filtering so they can be removed more safely.

I filter my painting water (not chemically), using several layers of fine mesh. However, I don't pour the filtered water down the sink, but reuse it as water for my watercolors. I fill a glass with fresh water and use it to paint. Then I clean the brush in a glass with the filtered water. So it does not bother me if the water is not completely clear, and if all the particles are not filtered out, they still do not go down the drain.

Is there an alternative to acrylic paints?

It is not enough to make the painting water harmless. After all, acrylic paint is already harmful to the environment in its production. But what alternatives are there? In any case, making no art is not one!
In fact, there are two paint media that manage without plastic and have a similar consistency to acrylic paint when wet.

Gouache 

Gouache is a water-based paint that is similar to acrylics in many ways. It can be worked almost like acrylic - or mixed with water like watercolor, to which it is actually more closely related.
Unlike watercolor, the dried paint is opaque, and unlike acrylic, it can be reactivated and dissolved with water after drying. Gouache was used for book illumination in the Middle Ages, and illustrators and designers still enjoy working with the colors. When dry, they have a matte, chalky feel. They are made from pigments, chalk dust and gum arabic. Gouache is especially good for sketches and spontaneous designs.

Tempera

Detailansicht der Gemäldes Geburt der Venus von Botticelli.

Botticelli malte seine Geburt der Venus mit Tempera auf Leinwand. | Botticelli  Boticelli painted his Birth of Venus with tempera on canvas.

Tempera paints also have a velvety surface when dry, but unlike gouache, they cannot be dissolved. Tempera is the oldest known paint and has been the medium of choice for artists since ancient Egypt. It was not until the Renaissance that they were replaced by oil paints. Tempera paints are very resistant to aging and retain their intensity for centuries.

Even today, mummy portraits from the last pre-Christian and first post-Christian centuries have been preserved and their colors still shine.

Tempera paints adhere to a wide variety of surfaces. In addition to pigments, tempera paints consist of an oily and an aqueous binder (for example, linseed oil and water) and an emulsifier. Egg tempera and casein tempera are the most commonly used in art.

Working with tempera is not easy and requires technique and experience. The colors are difficult to mix and color transitions are difficult to achieve. In addition, the colors behave differently depending on which pigments or emulsifiers are used and whether they are mixed thickly or thinly (is the emulsion dominated by oil or water?).

As if these disadvantages were not enough, tempera paints also change color as they dry. They usually become lighter and paler. Since the paint does not have a long shelf life, it must be freshly mixed in small quantities for use.

As a result, it is almost impossible to buy ready-to-use tempera paint, unless it has been treated with preservatives. Which brings us back to sustainability and the environment.


Eco-friendly and sustainable acrylic paint

During my research, I naturally looked for eco-friendly acrylic paints and found what I was looking for. More and more art supply companies are thinking about the sustainability of their products. I found four that are also rethinking acrylic paints. Two of them produce in Germany.

Kreul Nature

The Kreul Nature paint formula consists of 84% sustainable raw materials of natural origin. Kreul also uses recycled and recyclable materials for the packaging. The paint is produced fairly and sustainably in Germany.

These are not artists' paints, but rather paints for do-it-yourself projects. This is also evident in the color palette. The 12 colors are quite nice, but unmixed primary colors are not included. This limits the possibilities when mixing colors. I also find the information about the formula difficult. Of course it is a secret, which is understandable and is the case with all 4 manufacturers. But 84% sustainable raw materials of natural origin, what do I do with that? What are the remaining 16% made of, and natural does not mean harmless! After all, lead is also of natural origin.

The paint is also sold in a set of 4 colors. As a small extra, for every second set sold, a tree is planted.

Marabu Green

Marabu Green is a vegetable oil based alkyd paint. The proportion of raw materials of natural origin is at least 92%. Marabu also believes that less is more in packaging materials and uses mainly recycled and recyclable materials. The paint is vegan and produced in Germany in a climate-neutral manner

Unfortunately, we do not know what the remaining 8% of the Marabu paint consists of. Marabu calls it suitable for art, hobby and upcycling projects. The color palette contains 24 colors (including primary colors) and thus offers a wider range.

Natural Earth Paint

Natural Earth Paint products contain only pure, natural earth and mineral pigments and organic ingredients. There is a complete absence of preservatives, heavy metals, toxic solvents, plastics and fillers. The paint was created by Oregon-based artist Leah Fanning. The artist, who was pregnant at the time, wanted to protect the health of her unborn child in her studio while also protecting the environment.

The result is two product lines. One line of non-toxic paints for children and one line of highly pigmented paints that meet the highest artist standards. You can choose between ready-mixed colors and pure color pigments that you mix yourself with a plant-based acrylic binder. The color palette is constantly expanding.

Placylic™

Placrylic™ is also a natural alternative to acrylic paint. The paint is 100% plastic-free, ocean-friendly and safe to use. It was developed in 2020 by British painter and chemist hana, specifically to meet the needs of artists with environmental and health concerns.

The colors consist of pure color pigments and a binder based on natural resins, which must be mixed by the artist. The palette currently includes 8 colors.

No more plastic: Next Steps in Green Painting

Through my working process, I have been able to make my art a little more sustainable. In the future, I will do without conventional acrylic paints whenever possible. However, I will not simply throw away the paints I have. That would not be my idea of sustainability. But I won't buy any more plastic-based paint.

Whether the quality and properties meet your own requirements is something you can only try out for yourself. I am convinced by the concepts of Natural Earth Paint and Placylic™ paints. Both are plastic-free and designed for artists' needs. Since the supply chain also plays a role, I will be testing the paint made in Europe as soon as I need new paint. I will report back then.

In the meantime, I will continue to look for ways to make my art more sustainable. What about you? Is sustainable painting important to you? Have you tried eco-friendly paints? And how do you dispose of your painting water? I would love to hear from you.

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About the Author Lea Finke

Lea Finke is an artist with all her soul. In her blog, she talks about inspiration, passion, and encounters with art.

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