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Sustainability in art takes many shapes and forms.
An important way to stay conscious of sustainability practices is to ask if a work was created with consideration for its wider impact -- like the choice of materials used. Many artists nowadays use non-toxic, up-cycled materials in their practices with some also integrating conceptual ideas of sustainability into their work.
Another way to look at sustainability in art is to think about the means through which you acquire works: from attending art fairs and galleries to packaging and delivery.
Where do we start?
Well, we start by breaking down each component of what makes art - the medium, the different materials or supplies an artist utilizes to make a work of art. These are things like the canvas, pigment, paint, and any other material an artist chooses to use in their process. But before we get there, how and where do we find this information for a particular artwork?
- Artists’ personal website: Most artists have the medium of a work listed on their website. If you want more information, you can contact them via the contact form or email.
- Websites of the gallery/platform whom the artist is represented by: Galleries and online platforms like Curina store extensive information on the artists and artworks they represent. If you cannot find answers to all your questions on their site, always reach out to them directly.
- Instagram: Many artists actively use Instagram to keep in touch with their followers where they post about new works, shows, events, and partnerships. If you follow an artist and you want to know more about their sustainability practices, DM them!
1) Material - Sustainable Surface
The first component of sustainability comes down to the base necessity of most artworks- the surface. We need to break away from the notion that the only choice for canvas is the traditional cotton or linen blend. In fact, a big source of creativity in a piece comes from the artist’s choice of canvas alternatives! If you’re curious about knowing the sustainability of an artist's chosen canvas, reach out to them via social media, personal websites, or email.
Here are some of the sustainable materials artists have opted to use as canvas.
- Reused canvas: Reusing old canvas is an easy and accessible way to sustainably use cotton canvas. Artists will take old works and either paint over previous paintings or scrape off old oil paint to use the canvas anew.
- Hemp canvas: Hemp canvas is a more ethical and sustainable alternative to cotton canvas. It is a renewable resource that is not treated with the same harmful pesticides as cotton.
- Recycled/reused fabric, collaging, household materials: Other mediums besides canvas can be used as a base for art. Artist Hannah Washburn, whose work is shown below, represents the use of recycled clothing and textiles as a “canvas” for her work.
2) Material - Friendlier Colors/Pigment
Take a look at the materials that are used to compose a painting, can you tell if they are ethical or sustainable? Here are some sustainable materials artists have opted to use as pigment.
- Watercolor: As they are water-solvent, watercolor is a great alternative to acrylic and oil paint. But, be sure to be mindful of pigments that contain heavy metals in them. A few heavy metals commonly found in pigments are barium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, manganese, and zinc. These can pollute soil and waterways if not disposed of properly. To avoid this, look for watercolor used from plant-based paint brands. A few brands include Lutea and Natural Earth Paint, you can also look out for DIY watercolor paint.
- Milk and mineral-based paints: Milk and mineral based paints eliminate harmful solvents that can contribute towards pollution. There are a few brands that specialize in making non-toxic, milk and mineral based paints: Fusion Mineral Paint, Old Fashion Milk Paint Co., RomaBio
- Earth (dirt, land): Who needs art materials at all? What is more sustainable than a piece of art that mindfully and consciously uses the Earth’s natural resources to create a masterpiece. Some artists use dirt, grass, and other natural materials, to construct their art. It provides a unique depth and sense of dimension to pieces.
- Charcoal: Charcoal is an art material that is regulated and can be mindfully sourced without causing deforestation or other environmental degradation.
- Found objects: The use of found objects or recycled objects is a show of an artists creativity when it comes pushing for sustainability. These can take many forms.
Ryan Sarah Murphy often uses found cardboards for her art. For Everything’s Put Away Ryan used cut book covers, foam core and poster board.
3) Shop art locally
Scary fact: A small crate (43 x 43 inches) with a 5-kilogram artwork shipped
one way from New York to Hong Kong by air is the equivalent of adding 51 bags of trash
to a landfill. - An Art Basel & UBS Report 2020
Shopping art locally or within your state can reduce the carbon footprint from long-distance shipping. Additionally, shopping local has the added benefit of encouraging collectors to support local, underrepresented artists in their communities.
Courtesy of Glad®
Here are some places you can find local NYC artists:
- Bushwick Open Studios
- DUMBO Open Studios
- Greenpoint Open Studios
- Highline/Chelsea Open Studios
- ARTSee NJ Open Studio
- Winter Workspace Open Studios - in Bronx
- Ground Floor Gallery
- Greenpoint Art Circle
- Paradice palase
After you’ve found a piece you like, ask for eco-packaging if it’s available or offered by the artist! This usually means the works will be packaged in more eco-friendly packing materials like biodegradable peanuts, reused cardboard etc.
- Curina tries to recycle and reuse cardboard boxes for packaging whenever possible.
- If you’re an artist interested in offering eco-packaging for collectors, check out our Sustainability Guide for Artists.
4) Shop online
If you want to kick it up a notch and get even more sustainable than shopping at local art fairs, move your search online! In-person art fairs can produce a lot of waste (from printed materials, dining cutlery, to light usage). It’s unlikely for virtual art fairs to replace in-person events completely, but shopping online is a good alternative for those hoping to reduce their carbon footprint. Look at the websites of local studios and artists and see if they have their pieces listed online. If not, reach out and inquire about if they’d open to sharing some available pieces with you virtually.
In addition to the open studios mentioned above, look out for these virtual fairs/exhibitions:
- Affordable online art fair
- Brooklyn online studios
- Superfine e-fair
- Curina virtual exhibition “Glamorous Decay”
References and Further Reading Material: