A Painter Who Became Allergic to Paint?

This article was republished in Pyragraph, April 2017. A more in depth interview with Friedhard Kiekeben of Nontoxic Print followed: NontoxicHub

I am happy to report that my health situation continues to improve and I am in my studio painting with safer studio practices and less toxic materials.

studio, willy bo richardson
“Seven Sisters” in the studio. Near completion. oil on canvas 53 x 57 in

February 2016, I taught a painting class on color theory and oil glaze techniques at Santa Fe University. Early in the semester I went home with a headache and nausea. I hadn’t exposed myself to anything unusual that day. The next morning, I woke up with what felt like a hangover, and from that day on I could no longer set foot in my painting classroom without feeling sick the rest of the day. I also could no longer enter my own studio! I had become sensitized to the solvents and cleaning agents used in my painting practice.

My life turned upside-down, as I learned to cope with the sudden onset of these new physical ailments related to my work. Aside from the emotions of fearing I may never paint again, I became physically sick when I walked down the detergent isle at a grocery store, entered a mechanic shop, or inadvertently set foot in a room where someone was painting their nails. On the worst day, I simply walked past the janitor cleaning cart at my daughter’s school and subsequently felt sick for hours afterwards. As well as nausea and headache, I had the new experience of my reptilian brain’s fight or flight response, along with “brain fog,” which felt like early onset dementia.

You can imagine this past year was quite a ride. I revamped the painting studios at the school — switched students to a solvent-free painting medium and canola oil for washing brushes. However, I did not want to short change my class, so I continued to teach a traditional technique that required small amounts of mineral spirits to build “lean to fat” glaze layers of oil. To avoid consistent nausea and headaches, I finished up (what would ultimately be my last semester teaching at SFUAD) with the students painting en plein air.

I changed my own studio practices too: solvent-free mediums, new ventilation system, and a respirator when working long hours or working on large surfaces with mineral spirits. Thankfully I had guidance from chemist, artist, and one of our nation’s leading experts in industrial hygiene, Monona Rossol. I met Monona when she was consulting SFUAD, and then by chance sat next to her on the red-eye to New York. She is a national treasure and worth looking up.

One of the known, and more obvious, cures to chemical sensitivity is to stay away from chemicals. For nearly six months, I spent as much time as possible in fresh air, both hiking and skiing. Sounds like fun right? I relied on a surplus of paintings in my studio to sustain my income. (Fortunately, 2016 was my best year ever in sales!) I sought out the healing council of friends, and had an unexpected encounter with a Lakota heyoka when I was in Standing Rock, ND last Fall. I am further convinced this is a shared dream, and any situation can be transformed.

Within the past two months, I have only had one episode, which is a major improvement. I was in my studio, starting to get brain fog and went home feeling sick. It didn’t make sense because I was working with watercolors that week. I called my studio neighbors to inquire and was surprised to hear, “nothing toxic going on over here, just cleaning floors with plain ol’ bleach and Fabuloso.” Bingo! I will assume all my readers understand the level of toxicity in those two products, especially combined. I bought my neighbors non-toxic cleaners. Problem solved.

Today, I am happy to say that my condition has improved and is now manageable. I have new rules about diet, studio practice and lifestyle, but I am — for the most part — back in action! I no longer wonder, Will I feel sick today? Also during the time away from my studio, I was able to reflect on my work and put new energy into my vision and career. I became inspired to work on new, long-term projects, which are currently in motion but I cannot announce yet. Be ready for exciting news!

25 Replies to “A Painter Who Became Allergic to Paint?”

  1. I am finally reading this post. What an experience – to suddenly have to re-think your environment around what you love doing (and make a living at) and how you can continue in good health. I’m glad you found multiple solutions, and took some time away to heal as well. Here’s to more beautiful works in the future! Hugs Willy!

  2. Hello Willy
    Many folks around us have allergies. I use unscented laundry soap and avoid dryer conditioners (anti static cling) because the scented kind raise an allergic breathing reaction in about 15 minutes after putting on a freshly washed shirt. This has not happened in quite a few years, possibly because of the supplemental minerals and vitamins that I take daily. Most Americans are deficient in magnesium, which can lead to a variety of illnesses. See Dr. Carolyn Dean, “The Miracle of Magnesium”. Also Dr. Andrew Saul’s website, DoctorYourself.com . He has a book of the same name. I believe that if the body has all of the essential building blocks, it will heat itself. When it is deficient, illnesses like allergies can be triggered. Also see Dr. Joel Wallach’s book “Lets Play Doctor”, and “Health and Nutrition Secrets” by Dr. Russell L. Blaylock. Good luck with it, and long life to you. Om Mani Pedme Hung. Regards, Tore

  3. Hi Diane,

    Golden’s SDS sheet shows Golden acrylics have ammonia and Propylene Glycol

    You definitely do not want to have anyone sleeping in the same room as acrylic paintings that are drying. If the paintings are dry and you air out the room then my guess is it’s fine, but that’s an unprofessional guess. Best to do real research.

  4. Willy. Good to hear that you are feeling better and that you found a way to continue painting. Hug from Uli

  5. Wow Willy! Thank you for sharing such a moving testimony. I’m glad you are still able to paint again and your solutions (pardon the pun) will help others. When I was working on the documentary about Vietnamese in the nail industry, I discovered women who were combating the same issue. There is now the CA Healthy Nails Collaborative (with a chapter in other States) that is actively helping advocate and educate workers. Unfortunately although there are some alternatives for the workers, they are not fully toxic free. So they either have to get sick or quit. It’s so hard when it’s your livelihood! Or in your case you livelihood and life expression has an artist. Congrats again on transforming your situation. A Buddhist lesson that really put you to the test. Much love to you and the family.

  6. I’m sorry you had this experience. I’ve avoided oil paints because I simply don’t like the smell. I use watercolor or acrylic paints instead, but now I’m worried by your comment about the ammonia in acrylic paints. My studio is a spare bedroom that doubles as a place for foster children to sleep. I move my easel and materials out of the room when we have overnight guests, but now I will look into this further. Thank you for the heads up!

  7. What an awful experience. I am so sorry to hear that you have been struggling with this. This is a strong wake up warning to others. It’s wonderful that you have adapted what you can use in your art and that you can continue your work. So glad that you are feeling better and have discovered what you need to do to stay healthy. Best to you!!

  8. I appreciate the feedback.

    We are lucky to have health and safety as a priority for many of the higher quality products out today. I spent hours on the phone with Gamblin last year. We are still far from the day when a pregnant woman can take a painting class. The complex regulations regarding the handling of art materials is not in our favor, and companies are not obligated to be on the cutting edge of studying toxicity, or to go above and beyond the mediocre regulation laws.

    SDS sheets will show most acrylic paints are made with ammonia, so ventilation is still a consideration (not as much as with solvent based oil mediums).

    Monona Rossol has a very thorough guide for artist studio practices:

  9. Hey thanks for sharing. As you know, I am a fairly avowed oil devotee BUT after spending 10 days at the Golden acrylic factory and artist residency in upstate NY, I became convinced that painters are barely scraping the surface of what’s possible with this (less than 100 years old!) material… If you ever want an introduction to the kind folks there, I highly recommend a visit and conversation. In all my years of being a practicing artist, I have never seen such dedication to health and safety + environment as from this company. AND they routinely develop new products specifically for painters who need the paint to behave in a very specific way. Custom paint, custom mediums…they do it. It’s how the company started, actually… delivering tubes to painters in the Bowery who wanted their paint to do certain things. Anyway, just a few thoughts for you. Blessings. C.

  10. What a terrible experience… but it is good to hear that you are on the mend. Chemical fumes can be a serious matter in the schools; I have a close friend who taught classical photography in a new art building at a college in the Midwest. She became similarly ill, and they found it was due to the fact that the builder had installed a recirculating vent in the photo lab/darkroom instead of a true exhaust vent. She was diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity left the college, and spent 6 months in a tranquil convent in Italy. After her return to the US, she and her family moved to Taos where they built a chemical-free adobe home….

  11. That’s quite a story, Willy, and I am encouraged by your ending! I too had a close friend, college professor, who developed a reaction to turps — long ago, before alternative solvents were around. She sadly did give up oil painting and I’ve always remembered this. She was such an incredible oil painter… I’ll mention that we often overlook our skin, which is a permeable and vulnerable organ. I use a barrier creme in the studio, in addition to the other protective layers. Makes a difference! Be well Willy!

  12. So pleased you are well and back to a full life of art and recreation with family and friends. I threw out all my cleaning supplies about 3years ago. I’m using vinegar or other natural ingredients exclusively. No more nail salons or toxic environments physically and spiritually. Thank you for sharing your story. You are always an inspiration.

  13. A mutual friend told you went through that. Considering the “materials” you use today, which includes life giving substances and mental/emotional/spiritual phenomena, I’m curious if your bodily response was partially what brought you to where you are today – I look forward to that conversation.

    Initially, the brain fog, and memory loss was the scariest part, because I didn’t know if there was an undo button for that. There is.

    I chose to understand that I am healthy, but my body had had its fill of toxic solvents and cleaning agents. So I focused on detoxifying with foods, sauna, and other methods, immune strengthening, and avoiding toxic chemicals and toxic environments.

    I feel lucky that I had Manona Rossol and others to guide me through the maze.

  14. Willie! This TOTALLY happened to me! I had MANY years (from teen print-making where we cleaned plates in solvent-soaked wood chips, through my jobs, as sign painter and house painter and cabinet-shop lacquer sprayer, etc…) culminating in an extremely unwise episode working on my hotrod. I woke up in full-on allergic response, my eyes swollen shut. It took years of careful backing away from many of the materials that I used and loved. One thing that was super interesting-I developed an almost dog-like sense of smell! I could smell if someone had cleaned their fingernail polish off with acetone polish remover! It’s because you get so paranoid about being exposed….
    Anyway, it does get better. Stay vigilant.

  15. Thank you for sharing your story Willy Bo and your journey to overcome your illness. I am sure it will help others who are faced with the same physical challenges.

  16. It’s amazing how commonplace it is for artists and people in roofing, house painting, construction, theater and other fields to become sensitized to toxic solvents and cleaners. It’s also disappointing that art schools do not take this more seriously. If we were working with the exact same products in a university science lab, proper ventilation and other health and safety issues would be a priority.

    I’m familiar with the Grumbacher water based oil paints, and we experimented with them in my class. They are quite good for certain types of painting. They tend to dry darker than when wet, but that’s manageable. The place where they don’t work is if the artist wants to build up transparent glaze layers. The pigment has to end up suspended in a dried oil film, and water simply evaporates. So one can still do thin layers, but not glaze layers.

    The solvent free medium I use is made by Gamblin and is new since just last year. The technology is catching up to where painters can work in less toxic environments. It will take some time for the culture to catch up. Unbelievable that when I was in undergrad we were working with turpentine and Damar etc.

    One of the reasons I wrote this, was to advocate for safer studio practices.

    Best to you!

  17. So sorry (and now happy) for you. Monona is our expert in health and safety in my field of art conservation, and she is incredible. I’m so glad she helped you!

  18. so glad you found the answer to your feeling sick, willy…not your paints but your studio neighbors’ cleaning.

    a friend of mine, who had painted with oils for 30 years, did become very allergic to the solvents and, even after installing a whole air filtering system, he found he could not paint. so, he worked with grumbacher to develop an oil like paint without having to use solvents.

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