If cleanliness is next to godliness, then pastelists definitely spend a lot of their time in hell. While it’s true that our wet-media brothers and sisters can be messy when they paint, it’s the pastelist that has to contend with fine pigment dust that has a way of contaminating everything within proximity.
Beyond the messy work environment, pastel has the potential to be a health concern if it’s not handled with a degree of caution. Most manufacturers minimize potential health hazards by utilizing non-toxic pigments that have less carcinogenic properties. While this is exceptionally helpful, there are still potential health problems with airborne pastel pigment. Having worked in the medium for well over 40 years, I have a few tips that may prove helpful in preserving your health and a cleaner studio environment.
Dealing With Dust in the Studio
- First, never blow air onto a pastel painting. When you need to remove loose pastel fragments, or dust, take the painting outside and gently spank the back. This allows any loose particulates to fall away without drifting into your air space. If you are unable to go outside, hold the painting in a large box or container that is positioned below your air space to spank it.
- When a portion of a pastel painting needs to be removed, avoid brushing it with a stiff brush. This will make the pigment very airborne. Instead, gently drag a straight edge utility razor blade down the section, allowing pigment to fall into a trough. Or, on some painting surfaces, you can wet an area with water or mineral spirits and gently blot to lift pigment away.
- Create a trough below your painting surface to collect pastel dust as it falls from the painting. No matter the tooth of the surface, quality of pastel stick, or artist’s application, a degree of pastel dust will fall from a painting. At the end of a painting session, carefully rake the dust into a jar for disposal or possible other creative use. Note: Many pastelists reform this collected dust into neutral pastel sticks, a topic we’ll revisit in the future.
- Keep a slightly moistened towel near your easel. A wet cloth retains pastel dust, helping to keep it from becoming airborne. It is excellent for wiping down a painting area and our hands while painting. Disposable baby-wipes are another popular choice. Try to avoid brands that have excessive oils and creams as these may stain a painting surface if brought into contact.
- Use hand protection. Latex gloves are popular with many pastel artists. If you find that you can’t tolerate gloves (like myself), use barrier creams such as “Gloves in a Bottle”. These provide a degree of protection and make hand washing much easier.
Not all of us are worried about where we rank on the cleanliness scale, but I encourage all pastelists to implement these art safety tips for the sake of their health.
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