University Safety and Assurances

Art Safety: Oil Painting

Chemical Hazards


Commonly-used paints, like oil, acrylic, watercolor and gouache, may contain heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium, and lead, which can be hazardous to your health and the environment. Also, oil paints contain solvents and require cleanup with solvents, such as turpentine, mineral spirits, or other paint thinners. Oil paints, resins, and solvents each pose fire safety hazards.Many of these are corrosive to the skin and cause irritation of the respiratory tract and mucous membranes. They also produce allergic reactions. Precautions when using these materials are imperative in order to reduce problems.

Unless the pigments listed below are used, the biggest hazard in oil painting generally comes from the use of turpentine or other toxic solvents.

Toxic inorganic pigments include:

  • Naples Yellow (Antimony)
  • Cobalt Violet (Arsenic)
  • All Cadmium Pigments (Cadmium)
  • Chromium Oxide Green, Veridian, Chrome Yellow, Zinc Yellow, Strontium Yellow (Chromium)
  • Cobalt Blue, Cobalt Green, cobalt Yellow, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Violet (Cobalt)
  • Flake White, Naples, Yellow, Chrome Yellow (Lead)
  • Manganese Blue, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, mars Brown, Manganese Violet (Manganese)
  • Vermillion, Cadmium Vermillion Red (Mercury)

Organic Solvents:

Organic solvents are a class of carbon-based liquids, commonly a component of oil-based paints, printing inks, wood finishes and varnishes. Organic solvents such as laquer thinner are used in printmaking to remove ink from the plates.

Organic solvents vary widely in their properties and toxicity. They are often volatile, meaning that they evaporate quickly, giving off vapors that may be harmful if inhaled. Some volatile solvents, like ethyl ether, can have an anesthetic effect on the nervous system. Other solvents may cause long-term liver damage or may otherwise impact the internal organs or nervous system over a long period of time. Many organic solvents are also highly flammable. Their vapors can ignite easily, even at some distance from where the solvent is being used.

Wear gloves and goggles to protect your skin and eyes when handling solvent-based products. Consult the MSDS for the solvent you're using to make sure the type of glove you choose will protect against the particular solvent being used. If the MSDS warns against an inhalation hazard, you must work with local exhaust ventilation.