Green Your Media

Even if you don’t have the resources to make capital improvements to your existing studio or to build a new one, you can still lessen your impact on the environment by using more sustainable or less hazardous materials in your work.

Erin Holscher Almazan wipes an acrylic-resist, etched copper plate. The acrylic-based ground (as opposed to a petroleum-based asphaltum ground) used for this method doesn’t require hazardous solvents.
(Photograph courtesy of the artist

Use Nontoxic Materials
No hazardous solvents play a part in Erin Holscher Almazan’s University of Dayton printmaking studio in Ohio, and Almazan feels her interest and background in nontoxic printing techniques made her a desirable candidate for her university position. When she began teaching there in 2004, she immediately converted the school’s printmaking program to half traditional and half nontoxic techniques. In just three years, she eliminated all traditional techniques from the studio. “The school has been completely supportive of the changes I’ve made over the years,” says Almazan.
Sparking the thoroughness and urgency of Almazan’s mission were several students who had heightened sensitivity to the strong solvents used in printmaking. “Some of my students had to cover their arms and hands to avoid rashes, and others had asthma attacks.” Almazan herself had experienced bad headaches that had initially prompted her exploration of non-toxic printmaking in graduate school. 

Now, rather than using zinc plates, which require nitric acid to etch the surface, Almazan and her students use copper plates, which are etched by the less volatile ferric chloride. Instead of coating plates with asphaltum—a tarlike, petroleum-based ground, the artists use acrylic grounds. The processes still require oil-based inks, but in place of mineral spirits, Almazan and her students clean up with canola oil and degrease the plates’ surfaces with soy sauce. “Soy sauce is an incredible degreaser,” says Almazan. “My graduate school professor Keith Howard, a leading expert in non-toxic printmaking, always said that the traditional printmaking studio smells like toxic fumes, but the less-toxic studio smells like a salad bar.”

Emma Powell’s own use of discarded materials inspired her research on artists who use recycled materials in their work.
(Photograph courtesy of the artist)

Use Recycled Materials

Using recycled materials is another way to cut environmental waste. British designer and artist Emma Powell, who teaches bookmaking and graphic design at De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom, has spent the past few years conducting research on artists who use recycled materials (which she calls rejectamenta) in their own work. To complete her doctorate from Kingston University, London, Powell is analyzing nearly 100 surveys from artists who make collage, assemblage or other works that use waste materials.

Powell’s own use of recycled media motivated her research. “I was really inspired by the diversity and quality of the work that was generated,” says Powell. “My own visual work continues to develop alongside the written Ph.D. research—the whole process has been very iterative.”

While most artists Powell surveyed indicated that they recycle materials for aesthetic reasons and to introduce the element of surprise into their work, the process also carries the dual effect of cutting down on landfill waste. “Personally, the reasons I use recycled materials in my own work are a mixture of aesthetic and ethical considerations,” says Powell.

Powell thinks the number of artists working in this manner will continue to grow. “As resources become more scarce, the need for reuse will increase,” she says. “There is a groundswell of eco-artists on the fringes, but inevitably this approach will become more mainstream.” (For more on Powell’s research, visit

Use Earth-Friendly Products
You, too, can adopt practices in your studio that are safe and sustainable. Art supply companies are catching on to the demand for environmentally safe products. Here are just a few of the many earth-friendly options:

  • Strathmore offers the Windpower series papers, manufactured with 100% renewable energy sources. (
  • Legion Paper sells several papers that are tree-free and chlorine-free, produced with solar, wind, or water power. (
  • Bee Paper makes two lines of eco-friendly papers, one from 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper, the other from 25 percent hemp and 75 percent recycled paper. (
  • Holbein manufactures DUO Aqua Oil and Winsor & Newton makes Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colours, both of which thin and clean up with water. ( and
  • Turpenoid Natural provides a non-toxic, non-flammable alternative to turpentine or mineral spirits. (
  • SOYsolvII is just one of several natural soy solvents available on the market. (

To find out what artists and developers are doing to create eco-friendly studio spaces, see the article Eco-Friendly Studios Get the Green Light in the January/February 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

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