The Ethics of Art Materials

by Chess

Blood in the water copy

It is impossible to live your life and not cause at least some death and destruction. This is true even if you are the most careful, loving environmentalist and animal rights champion on the planet. For instance, if you shower and use soap each day you are killing millions of bacteria. If you eat food then animals and/or plants have died to make your meal. If you’ve walked around or driven a car then you’ve inadvertently killed a plethora of insects. That is a fact. It’s not right or wrong, it is just the way it is. Most of us care about these things on a sliding scale. Killing certain things is okay, but killing others is not. Almost nobody cares about killing bacteria. Many people are okay with simply squishing a spider in their house rather than putting it outside. But as the life forms get larger and exhibit more and more human-like characteristics you will get a much more varied response as to whether or not someone thinks it is “okay” to kill something. It isn’t hard to come up a rationalization when it comes to killing animals if it is seen as a necessity. But can you make a valid argument when something dies to make your art supplies?


Many artists don’t think about their materials as possibly having negative environmental or ethical consequences. However, from the pigments and binders used to make paint to the brushes used in painting, there are issues to tackle. I will preface this discussion by first stating a fact. Every time you buy something you are telling a company that what they are doing is okay, you like it, and you want more of it. Businesses, especially big businesses are not in the business of philosophically debating morality, fair use, or what is right. They are in the business of making money. So much so that the vast majority don’t even care if their product makes you sick or kills you (think tobacco, industries dumping raw waste into rivers etc.) Yes, there are smaller businesses that make ethical choices on their own, but the vast majority of big businesses and corporations (especially when there are investors seeking returns) only care about the bottom-line. The only time they care about what people think is when those people aren’t spending money on their products.


This makes being a North American consumer difficult. It is impossible to know everything about the manufacturing methods of each and every product we buy. There really is no way to participate in our modern society and not be complicit in at least some less-than-savoury business practices, but it is something you should think about. I am not trying to be judgemental in this article. I pick and choose what I think is acceptable according to my needs just like everyone else. I am just trying to raise some issues that artists might not have considered before.




Artists who use Kolinsky hair brushes in the United States are now being forced to think about the ethical implications of their brush choice. The importation of Kolinsky hair brushes has been temporarily stopped by the US due to improper documentation on the capture of the animals in China. The manufacture and sale of these brushes still continues in the rest of the world, but in the US you can only buy those brushes that sellers have left in stock. Once those are gone, that’s it, at least until China can prove that the Kolinsky is no longer endangered.


Kolinsky brushes are made from the hair of a weasel native to northern Asia and Russia. As far as price and reputation go they are the tip-of-the-top when it comes to brushes for both oil painting and watercolour. Their colour carrying capacity and natural spring have made them very popular. I have a couple and have to say they work very well. When I bought them I ignorantly assumed that they must just farm the animals and shave their fur off each year like sheep, thereby harvesting a renewable resource. This is not the case however. Kolinskies do not do well in captivity and so the wild animals are trapped and killed for their fur. According to the brush makers I have contacted, the animals are not killed specifically for making brushes. Instead, they are used in the fur industry and the tails are actually throw-away bits the brush makers use. So I suppose if you are okay with fur-for-fashion then there isn’t a problem. However, if you believe that killing an animal unnecessarily (as in you don’t need to wear fur or use kolinsky brushes since there are other options) is wrong then you’ll want to stay away from these. The same goes for other sable brushes, mongoose, squirrel etc.


So what about hog-bristle brushes? Well, I suppose if you are a vegetarian these might also be out for you. However, if the pigs are being used for food, then perhaps you might be fine with it, and actually be happy that more of the animal is being used instead of wasted. The most expensive bristle brushes have “Chungking” bristles that come from China. I haven’t been to a Chinese pig farm to see the conditions that the hogs live in so I can’t comment from experience, but I’m guessing it isn’t a life of luxury. I am unsure if there are any North American or European farms that aren’t CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) providing hairs, but if there is that is probably the best bet.


So if the use of natural hairs rubs you the wrong way then the logical choice it would seem is to choose a synthetic brush. There are more and more varieties of these on the market all the time and some of them are extremely good. Of course someone is going to point out that synthetic brushes, like all plastics, are made from oil. This is true and so if you are truly anti-oil to the point where you don’t drive a car, take a bus, use Tupperware etc. then I guess these are out for you and you’ll just have to make your own brushes out of your own hair. However, I think that the amount of oil used to produce these brushes is rather insignificant. As well, the hairs are not being burned and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, though they will eventually end up in the landfill.


Pigments and Paints


Almost all of the colorants and pigments used in art materials are not actually made specifically for artists. There are a few very small companies making specialty pigments for artists (Michael Harding’s Stack Lead White comes to mind) but the vast majority is produced for automotive paint, house/building paint, and the plastics industry. Pigment manufacturers are constantly trying to develop new pigments that have desirable characteristics for specific applications and are cheap to produce. If it wasn’t for these industries and the money they spend on research the range of colours available to artists today would be limited to those available in the Renaissance. Even if every artist in the world decided not to paint anymore, pigments would still be churned out in mind boggling quantities.


That said, not all pigments are created equal and you might want to decide whether or not some of them are right for you. Some are mined and some are synthesized in a lab. Some are toxic and others you could eat right out of the tube. The process to make some is more dangerous and polluting than others. A great place to start educating yourself on where specific pigments come from is Web Exhibit’s Pigments through the Ages .


The European Chemical Agency is currently debating whether or not Cadmium containing pigments should be banned from production. According to a Swedish restriction report ( cadmium is being released into the environment and they suspect it is because artists are rinsing brushes in their sinks. Although this practice is almost certainly undertaken by some artists my first thought is that artists as a whole are probably only a very small part of the problem. Nickel-Cadmium batteries, industrial manufacturing and the automotive industry must be a much greater problem. None-the-less you should always take care when washing your brushes to minimize any toxic paint from entering the water system.


When cleaning brushes make sure you use sealable (to avoid evaporation) tubs or jars of solvent (water, turpentine, mineral spirits, oil etc). After rinsing your brushes in the solvent and getting out as much paint as possible let the solvent stand for a day or so and you’ll find the paint sludge will settle out on the bottom. You can then pour off the clean solvent from the top to re-use it and you’ll be left with just the sludge in your container. Then contact your area’s waste management centre to find out where it should be brought for proper disposal. Even if a paint is non-toxic that isn’t really a good enough reason to flush it down the sink. Please dispose of your paints properly.


The Miscellaneous Odds and Ends


My intent with this post is not to give an exhaustive list of environmental and ethical concerns, but rather to draw attention to a couple in order to increase awareness. My hope is the next time you pick up a wooden panel, paper, sculpting supplies or any other you’ll give a thought to where it comes from and make a decision that is appropriate for the environment, other people and other life forms.