Traveling With Art Supplies

Q. As I understand it, you can’t take oil paints and mediums on a plane—either carried on or checked as luggage—because they’re categorized as “flammable and corrosive” unless certain unknown packaging regulations are followed. Furthermore, they can’t be shipped by UPS or FedEx because most of their packages are sent by air. Is there an exception for small quantities of artists’ paint? What can an artist legally do? I’m used to getting paint thinner when traveling, but it’s much too expensive to purchase new paint at each destination!

A. For the artist traveling by air, carrying your art materials requires more forethought than it did a few years ago. I’ve found that it takes a little more time, but I continue to carry on board the same materials I always have, except for knives and sharp instruments. There are three very simple guidelines: Plan ahead, comply with regulations and be cooperative.

The issue seems complicated because information on the subject is hard to come by. The Federal Aviation Administration Web site offered no help, nor did most airline sites. But with a little help from www.gamblincolors.com, I did manage to find some specific advice.

The artist traveling by air faces more security regulations than ever, although, recently, security personnel have become a bit more reasonable. Keep in mind that the regulations are for your protection, and always be courteous and cooperative when dealing with airport security. If you become agitated, they’ll become uneasy—and that’s the last thing you want.

For all art supplies, no matter what your medium, make it clear to authorities that these are artists’ materials. Be prepared by following a few guidelines:

  • If a security officer asks about your oil paints, explain that they’re artists’ paints made from vegetable oil and they contain no solvent. Artist-grade oil colors are not hazardous. Don’t refer to them simply as “oil paints”; commercial oil paints are on the list of banned materials due to their solvent content, and you don’t want to cause any confusion.
  • Don’t carry any sharp tools or cutting instruments. A utility knife used for scraping out watercolor highlights or cutting a sheet from a watercolor block will be confiscated immediately. Pack any questionable, sharp items in your checked baggage rather than carrying them on board.
  • Art materials should be in their original containers with the original labels intact. Even clear water in an unmarked bottle will be confiscated unless you’re willing to take a drink to prove it’s safe (something I wasn’t prepared to do when I had my diluted gum arabic taken away before a recent flight). Put nonflammable materials in your checked baggage when possible.
  • Virtually all oil paint solvents, painting mediums, pastel fixatives, varnish solutions and petroleum distillates are flammable and therefore banned from airlines, even in your checked baggage. If the material has the cautionary words flammable or combustible on the label, don’t pack it or carry it on board. Instead, plan on getting what you need at your destination. Most art supply stores offer small quantities of art materials. And if you’re worried that fresh materials won’t be available where you’re going, you can ship such items well in advance via UPS, Federal Express or the U.S. Postal Service as long as you specify “ground transportation.”
  • For any art materials that might be questioned—including nonoil media such as acrylics and pastels—have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) ready to show. All manufacturers are required to create these for most of their materials; ask your local art supply store to provide them or call the manufacturer. The MSDS includes a section on “fire and explosion data,” and what you’re looking for is the flash point temperature. Ideally, any materials loaded onto a plane should have a flash point well above 140 F.
  • To head off hassles, pack as many of your non-banned art materials as possible into a checked suitcase. I’ve used a small footlocker or a large suitcase for this purpose with good success.

Cathy Johnson is an artist and writer living in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. She’s written several art books, including The Sierra Club Guide to Painting Nature (Sierra Club/Random House).

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