Episode 11: Painting a Greener World

Welcome to 3 Changes a Week: your weekly update on how to save the planet.

Earth without art is just “eh”.

This is a fairly specific list of changes, but as a member of University of Exeter Art Society (and an artist myself) one of the major things I struggle with is how much excessive waste gets produced by the art supplies I buy. This is one of the major switches or reductions I have struggled to make.

To reduce costs, I often have to buy online, which also adds more packaging. Sometimes it seems like my art might have to take a back seat because of its impact on the environment, which is, of course, a huge shame.

I get particularly riled up about the thin plastic that covers canvases, and seems to be unavoidable. This article will detail my research into art products that have a lower environmental impact and where they can be purchased.

Remember, however, it is always useful to look in stores; whether these be cheap places like the Range, or specialist art shops, to see what they stock that is low in packaging. For example, shops may sell pencils, brushes or pens individually, which may be more expensive, but means no throw-away packaging (at least at consumer level). If you do need to buy online, note that it is always better to buy in bulk, as with food, with things like paint or pencils, to limit packaging.



Ease: ****

Cost: wooden paintbrushes add no extra cost over plastic, wooden palettes are around £5 and the linked refillable ink pen is £23

Many paint brushes, palettes, or palette knives, are now made of plastic. This has to be binned and does not biodegrade when it has reached the end of its use. However, there are many paintbrushes available with wooden handles, which means at least part of them will eventually biodegrade (although they will probably be varnished, which unfortunately won’t help). There is also the case of natural (animal-based) versus plastic based bristles: animal hair ones will obviously biodegrade, but are not vegan-friendly. The type of bristle you might want to use will also depend on your medium.

I also saw that the Range stocked a nice cheap range of Windsor & Newton metal and wooden palette knives, that were very sturdy and would last much better than my current cheap plastic one, and with no packaging; you can have a look here, but go in store to buy. Similarly, you could try a wooden palette like this one, rather than a plastic one, which is also more likely to snap.

Also consider that pens will necessarily have plastic waste from casing at the end of their lifetimes. If you like working in ink, consider a refillable ink pen, with a refillable cartridge. You use a pot of ink, which lasts for years, and dip the cartridge in and suck up the ink before screwing back into the pen.

This is the one I have, and it is very smooth and well-weighted, but a little pricey (I got it as a gift). Alternatively, purchase a standard refillable cartridge that you could use with a fountain pen you already own. This refillable technical drawing pen might also be worth a look for those who do fine line work. Also note that charcoal, as a natural material, is a great eco-friendly tool, alongside pencil.



Ease: *****

Cost: the drawing pad is £7.49 for A4, and wallpaper lining paper is less than £10 for 40m!

It’s not pricey to use recycled paper, and while it’s not a solution, encouraging recycling and the production of recycled products is always useful. I have this recycled drawing pad: the paper quality is lovely and it arrived without any extra plastic wrapping! The cover is exceptionally sturdy and therefore very protective.

Another eco-friendly option recommended to me by a life drawing teacher was to use wallpaper lining paper. This is paper which is put on walls under wallpaper to cover damaged plaster, and is available at homeware stores (here’s an example).

It is exceptionally cheap and a very low packaging option. This is especially great if you do a lot of life drawing, which  means you are likely to go through a lot of paper, or draw particularly large. It takes ink, paint or charcoal well, and resists fade and yellowing well.



Ease: **

Cost: stretcher bars are £8.50 for 50 of one size, and the canvas varies greatly in price – the organic cotton one linked below is £7.50 per half metre

This is something I’ve really wanted to look into for ages, but as a student, I’ve always gone for lowest cost possible, over quality. Sadly, a lower cost also occasionally gets prioritised over environmental impact, especially as I always need large canvases. I always go for the cheapest I can find, but they are always covered in a thin layer of protective plastic – which usually gets ripped in transit anyway!

I came across this article by an artist who uses eco-friendly canvas options. It points out that cotton (which most canvas is made from) is over-farmed and uses a lot of water, pesticides and herbicides. Eek. He uses Belgian flax linen from this company, which worryingly doesn’t list prices on its website. I can imagine it is not forgiving to a student budget. He also uses this hemp canvas, as hemp naturally suppresses weeds and therefore needs few herbicides. Again, pricey.

This also means stretching your own canvas, which is widely recommended for better quality art work. It actually doesn’t look to hard if you follow this guide. This would allow you to choose better quality canvas, and have canvases of any size.

The ‘stretcher bars’ or frame for the canvas that is used in the tutorial can be bought here, and they are cheap. It recommends untreated canvas; an organic cotton one can be found here, or you could go for a linen flax canvas, like this one. I’d recommend more research to find the best options. It is extra effort, but if you don’t go full eco with organic flax linen, and choose a more reasonably priced but similarly responsible canvas, this might not actually be too expensive. I can’t wait to try this out.


Made these changes or already doing them? Tag your pictures to #3changesaweek and spread the word!