Thursday 10 June 2010

Green paint.

Based on a recollection. Names changed, paraphrasing abounds. This ain't how it really went.

Me: Art Supply Shop, how can I help you?

Customer [Let's call them "Green-Required-Event-Eventually-Needs".]: I'm looking for some green paint, like eco-friendly paint.

Me: Like a particular brand?

Green: I don't know a specific brand. Whichever brand is the most green.

Me: Okay, let's see...what are you using it for?

Green: It's for the eco-home show, at the convention centre. We want to have a kids' station, for them to do crafts, so we need whatever's the most green paint you have. Isn't there enviro-friendly paint?

Me: Well, I don't think any of the paint brands we have market themselves that way. Lots of the sketch papers do; hydro-powered or wind-powered production plants --

Green: --Yes. Like that. The wind-powered paint.

Me: Okay. As I say, I can't think of a paint manufacturer who markets themselv--

Green: --Just whichever one is the most GREEN.

Me: Alright. Well, let's start with this. Since it's for children, the most common type of paint would be tempera, sometimes called gouache. It rinses off with water, and it's made from gum arabic, some binder agents, maybe resin, and pigment.

Green: So it's the most eco-friendly?

Me: Well. Yes and no. Okay, just to be a bit on the technical side: All paints are made of a vehicle, and pigments. The pigments used in any kind of paint, or brand of paint are the same pigments. They're what give it the colour. The vehicle is what the paint is carried in. Oils are carried in usually linseed oil from flax, acrylic are in an acrylic polymer and water-colours are in gum arabic, which is water-soluble. The tempera I mentioned is a lot like watercolour, only the colours used are more opaque, and their may be other chemical binding agents in it. I think they used to use egg sometim--

Green: --I don't want other chemical agents or whatever. I want the best enviro-friendly, natural paint. This is for children!

Me: Okay, yeah, I understand that. Here's the thing. The chemicals themselves in that paint are non-toxic, that's one reason it's popular for kids. Okay, so all paints have a vehicle, and pigments. Vehicle-wise, if you want the most "natural" that would actually be oil paints.

Green: But oils are toxic.

Me: Not necessarily. The pigments are usually mixed in linseed oil, which is just oil from flax. Hmm, probably the most natural of the paints, really. If you use solvents to clean up it would be toxic, but there's non-toxic solvents out now. But it's hard to get out of clothes, so for kids maybe not so good, but if "natural" matters, it might be the best bet.

Green: I heard there's fumes from oils, I can't use that.

Me: The fumes are mostly from solvents people use to clean it up. Using oil paint is like leaving any vegetable oil open in the kitchen. Like having a dish of olive oil on the dinner table. I don't really recommend oils for little kids anyway without direct supervision. It's an interesting idea: "green" paint.

Green: Are you sure there isn't anything? I really need to get something.

Me: Well to be technical again, I guess there's a lot to consider. Let's start with the vehicles. Oils are probably the most natural, acrylics probably the most un-enviro-friendly, since I think the acrylic is probably a petroleum derivative. To think about the pigments, some are more natural than others --

Green: Okay. Give me those, in all the primary colours, and a bunch of other colours.

Me: Well, natural and non-toxic aren't the same thing. Flake white has lead in it. Lead is more natural than say, quinacradone which is used in a lot of reds, but quinacradone is non-toxic in typical use. And I can't gather up a whole rainbow of colours. Some are more arguable more earth-friendly, like the browns. They're usually made from clay silica, like from different regions, which is why they're called raw sienna and burnt umber and such. Arguable they're more eco-friendly.

Green: Only the browns?

Me: Probably not only, but now that I think about it, it could be they're worse than the manufactured pigments: how do they get the clay? Do they clear-cut a forest to get at the clay? Gently by the riverbed? I don't know. Clay's non-toxic, unless the dry pigments are breathed in, then it can damage your lungs, which doesn't normally happen when you're painting. Other colours like the madders are from plants, I think the roots. I assume they're greenhouse grown, that'd be efficient, but I don't actually know. And the non-toxic, manufactured pigments may have other waste chemicals from production that aren't good wherever they're disposed of.

Green: Okay. Umm..

Me, barreling onward: I remember speaking with a customer who was vegan who did murals, and loved our in-house student brand. She was worried the carbon black might use charred animal-bone soot. Carbon black always used to. So I called the manufacturer, and asked. They put me on with the chemist, and he explained these days they make it from acetylene, since it they can have more control. The vegan was happy.

Green: ...

Me: And I guess whatever you end up using, you'll have to consider disposal. Most people just rinse brushes in the sink. But you could have the kids rinse them in a basin, let the basin water evaporate, and you'd just have a bunch of pigments at the bottom. Don't breathe that in. You can see, there's different issues to consider for not only the type of paint, but also the individual colours.

Green: Okay. Well.

Me: The best bet, I recommend, is to just use kids' tempera paint, and maybe have them paint in recycled items, like egg cartons or something. I wouldn't advertise the paint as being eco-friendly, though.

Green. Okay. I'll have to check with someone. She said there'd be environmentally-friendly paint, I should just call the store. We just wanted to use whatever's the most green.

Me: Well if your friend knows of a specific brand, I'd love to know about it: call me back! As I say, a lot to consider. Go with something non-toxic and washable for kids, and that would be the best choice in my opinion.

Green. Okay. Thanks, bye.

Me: Let me know how it goes! Thanks.

- - -
Me afterward, thinking: Damn, I read too many science blogs.

- - - - - - - -


Tracey said...

Aww, poor guy! But I do remember reading somewhere green is the most difficult color paint/ink to make in a safe/ecofriendly way. OF course you can always make milk paint and color it with something like powdered sage, but it probably wouldn't act like the guy wanted it to!

Glendon Mellow said...

There's lots of different pigments to make green : pthalo is one of the most popular. Not too many may be envionmentally green, though, you're right.
Most painting isn't, which is sort of the problem.

It's what I was driving at about the browns: oil and a bit of clay, what could be more ecologically friendly than that? It's when you start asking the questions it breaks down. How do they get the clay? What practices are used to grow the plants to make the oil? I don't know the answers, but it's worth asking of environmentally-friendly paint is the goal.

Irradiatus said...

I find that this article has a lot of deep social commentary! For real.

It's such a perfect example of what types of things must be considered in any "green" product that rarely get considered by the scientifically uneducated public.

I think the word "natural" should be banned from all advertising, and perhaps from the English language.

Plus your writing is absolutely hilarious!

Go green! Stay natural!

traumador said...

are you gunning to be the canadian mounty python?

not that this is as whacky as them, but it has their verbal dynamic in the sparing with the overly smart salesclerk. The ring of truth and politness to the story sparks the Canadian qualifier ;)

seriously laughed the whole time reading this. both due to the reality of the conversation, and the unwitting communication of naivety on the part of the customer. like already said just because something is said to be "green" doesn't make it a good thing!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks Daniel! The loss of the word "green" to have meaning was what I was going for.

Thanks for the Python kudos, Traumador! I have a tendency in meetings to sometimes go off the rails discussing really technical things: some of the other managers like to point it out. Like a Python-esque sales clerk.

The customer had good intentions and asked a good question: could their be really enviro-friendly paint? This was more of a parody of myself than anything else.

Rhynn said...

I work in an art supply shop too, (on week ends), and the reactions you describe sounds so very familiar.

I only discovered two weeks ago that there was "eco-friendly-turpentine", though I have a hard time making turpentine and eco-friendly work together in my mind.

We used it for our linocut printing class and, not only it doesn't smell anything, it's also very efficient.
But like you pointed out in the post, it's very hard to actually check if something is eco-friendly.
Because there are so many different parameters, and the brands generally give very little information.

Also, while reading this article I kept remembering the little dead fish logo on my titanium white oil tube....

Also... Do you have any idea of what to do with your used turpentine? I have a big glass bottle almost filled now.

Glendon Mellow said...

Hey Rhynn!

There are a number of good brands of non-toxic turpentine. I like Turpenoid Natural. Non-toxic is not the same as edible of course, but it is much much safer than bioaccumulative toxins like Taltine and Odourless Mineral Spirit.

Typically, to get rid of your turpentine, you should just use it up. After it becomes cloudy, wait a few days for the pigment in the turp to settle at the bottom of the container. Then, decant (pour) the cleaner stuff off the top into another bottle, and keep using it.

The pigment residue-filled bottle should be disposed at wherever your local place for old computers and batteries go.

nago said...
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