Making beautiful works of art can be immensely rewarding for artists. It can also be deadly. From premodern times when medical science was still ill-equipped to judge common threats, to the present day, when artists often still put their art before their wellbeing, certain art supplies have been a source of peril for countless painters and sculptors—and have done serious harm to some of art history’s most famous names.
Fortunately, as our knowledge of these dangers has improved, some companies have managed to strip noxious art materials of their harmful properties. But the more you know about the risks, the safer you’ll be. Here are seven deadly art supplies to handle gingerly, and with great care.
It’s safe to say that cadmium held revolutionize modern painting—but it may have come at a price. Discovered by German chemists in 1817, this rare metal yields vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds even in minuscule doses, allowing painters to render a range of colors and scenes they could previously only reach for. What’s more, cadmium-based paints are “lightfast,” meaning their color doesn’t degrade with exposure to sunlight. If you’ve ever been struck by the burning sun or glowing autumn leaves of a Monet painting, you’ve seen the power that cadmium can bring to a composition. Many of the most famous modern painters, including Paul Gauguin, Max Ernst, and Henri Matisse made extensive use of cadmium paints in their work—Matisse’s epoch-making 1911 painting The Red Studio may have never been made without it—and the pigment has become ubiquitous in serious painters’ palettes.
There is a catch, however! Exposure to cadmium is known to be toxic, and is linked to an increased risk for cancer as well as a number of kidney and liver afflictions; inhalation can also cause a host of respiratory problems and a flulike condition known as the “cadmium blues.” (Note that these risks are associated with working with large quantities of cadmium in industrial settings; it’s unclear how the small amounts of cadmium in paint affect the human body, although improper disposal of such pigments risks the metals leaching into aquifers and the ecosystem.) Luckily for painters looking to stay healthy and keep their works vibrant, the paint company Liquitex has just released a cadmium-free acrylic paint that is said to match its poisonous counterpart in quality; the company reports that in a blind test of painters, none identified their product as the cadmium-free variety. (The company also continues to create its original line of Cadmium paints for those who prefer them, leaving it up to the artist’s choice.)
While the word may be closely associated with poison these days, in the 19th century arsenic was commonly found in all manner of household goods, from beauty products to medicines to flour for baking (where it was used as both a food coloring and a bulking agent). However, its most infamous—and most widespread—application was in wallpaper, where this chemical element was utilized to produce a range of bright colors, including a coveted emerald green hue known as Scheele’s Green. Despite a growing awareness of arsenic’s dangerous properties, manufacturers in the 1800s catered to a growing demand for intricate wallpapers to cover the homes of a newly ascendent middle class.
Few people had as big a role in the spread of this form of deadly decoration as the British artist and all-around polymath William Morris. A central figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris designed and manufactured the now-iconic wallpapers that are still closely associated with his name, coloring most of them using arsenic. In addition to his aesthetic aims of reforming and beautifying the modern home, Morris had a vested interest in the chemical: much of his fortune was inherited in the form of stakes in his family’s arsenic mine, one of the largest in the world. It was only gradually that experts began to draw a connection with a string of mysterious illnesses and deaths—mainly young children—and the lush wallpapers in their bedrooms.
While Morris initially thundered that “the doctors were bitten by witch fever,” increasing evidence of his favored pigment’s inherently risky qualities, and the resultant public outcry, forced Morris and other wallpaper companies to turn to other colors by the end of the century—though arsenic remained prevalent in homes and businesses for decades after.
Vincent van Gogh certainly had his issues (to put it mildly), but now some researchers think they may have found a reason why: the painter was apparently in the habit of licking his used brushes, which were coated in lead paint. Lead poisoning, as we now know, results in a range of symptoms ranging from stomach pains and uric burps to arthritis and a range of neurological afflictions, including the depression and delusions with which the great Impressionist is now so closely associated. (Note that physical and mental health problems generally arise from a complex set of issues, and that speculating on the diagnosis of historical figures is at best an exercise in guesswork; the causes of van Gogh’s ailments, like those of any of the other artists mentioned here, are simply inferences and should not be taken as diagnoses.)
That there were health risks in the painterly profession was well known as far back as the 1700s, though the cause—chronic exposure to lead via their beloved paints—remained unknown until recent times. Based on their own accounts, it’s suspected that some of greatest painters in Western history (including Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Goya, among others) may have suffered from some form of lead poisoning. Though lead is still present in some paints, increased awareness and a shift to coloring agents like zinc and titanium have helped improve the safety of oil paints.
4. Polyester Resin
Lest you begin to think that painters are the daredevils of the art world, let it be known that sculptors take on their fair share of peril in the studio, too. One of the main culprits is polyester resin, which is used for making molds, coating or sealing artworks, and even fashioning entire pieces. This synthetic material, however, is highly toxic, causing burns, allergic reactions, and serious irritation of the eyes and skin through even brief contact, with the potential for more serious conditions up to and including cancer rising with increased exposure. (Styrene, a central component in polyester resin and many other plastics, is known to be both genotoxic and carcinogenic.) As pieces coated in even a thin layer of this resin may take several days to set before ceasing to give off poisonous fumes, proper handling and protective headgear are all but required.
Nevertheless, the resin remains popular among many artists, who see it as superior in quality to safer epoxy resins. It’s thought that the brain tumors that brought on the celebrated Postminimalist sculptor Eva Hesse’s untimely death at the age of 34 may have been brought on by her exposure to this material (as well as fiberglass, discussed below)—although, again, attributions as to the causes of any disease are best left to medical professionals.
Though it may be best known as the cotton-candy-esque foam insulating basements and garages around the world, fiberglass is also an essential part of many sculptor’s practices, useful for its strength and durability despite its light weight. This fiber-reinforced plastic has its downsides, though—like polyester resin, contact can cause uncomfortable irritation and burns, and inhaling its dust can cause serious breathing problems. There is also evidence that repeated exposure can cause cancer, though different preparations and safe handling practices may alleviate some of the risk.
The sculptor Duane Hanson, famous for his uncannily lifelike renderings of human figures in various states of banal ridiculousness, has spoken candidly about his rather cavalier methods of working with this and other hazardous materials in his early days as an artist in New York. “I’d lay the stuff up with bare hands,” he said, “and I think that did more damage than breathing it, you know, going right through your skin.” He has gone on to speculate that these materials may have had something to do with his eventual development of lung and lymph gland cancer, though he also suspects the stress from a painful divorce may have played an even larger role.
Okay, this one may not be in every artist’s studio, but it’s still not to be trifled with. Formaldehyde, sometimes known as embalming fluid and widely used as both a preservative and a component in various varnishes and paints, is a known human carcinogen that can cause leukemia and brain cancer with prolonged exposure. Though it has a wide range of uses within the context of art, there’s only one artist who can truly claim it as his own: the gleefully insolent YBA bad boy-turned-art superstar Damien Hirst.
His famous vitrines—featuring sharks, sheep, cows, and more deceased critters suspended in formaldehyde baths—helped usher in the current era of in-your-face conceptual sculpture, but they may also have inadvertently been a cause for worry among any number of assistants, movers, and viewers along the way. A study of his 2012 Tate Modern exhibition shows that higher-than-legal amounts of the chemical fumes may have seeped out of his works over the course of the show, a shocking fact for museum aficionados the world over.
The researchers noted that concentration of formaldehyde in the air may have reached as high as 10 times the allowable limit. That said, given the relatively short time that most viewers were exposed, the levels were unlikely to cause noticeable harm in viewers. Regularly smoking cigarettes is a far greater source of formaldehyde—and, unlike visitors to the British museum, smokers have to pay for the privilege.
7. Large Pieces of Metal
The dangerous art materials discussed so far may carry serious and scientifically documented risks, but, as noted, their actual, proven deadliness is a matter of some uncertainty and debate. That is decidedly not the case for the metal hunks that have already claimed several lives. Unlike their more insidious chemical counterparts, which kill slowly and often untraceably, big pieces of metal leave little doubt about their potential to do real, bodily harm.
Two grisly tales from the history of American art stick out as particularly clear examples. In the first, piece of Alexander Calder’s painted steel sculpture Five Disks, One Empty (1969-70) crushed two art handlers during the monumental stabile’s installation at Princeton University in 1971. That same year, a 5,212-pound plate (made, perhaps somewhat ironically, out of lead) from Richard Serra’s Sculpture No. 3 fell on a worker at the Walker Art Museum, killing him. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned here, it’s this: take all proper precautions when it comes to making art, and beware of falling metal sheets.
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