Sustainability Guide for the Broke Artist

This guide was part of our April 2021 Sustainability Campaign.

Also check out:

  1. Guest Curators Seema Lisa Pandya & Basia Goszczynska
  2. Sustainabiliity Guide for Collectors 

Sustainability in art can take many equally valid forms.

Material VS Theme 

Are you going to use sustainable materials that have been recycled or leave the smallest carbon footprint? Or will you address environmental issues in the content of your work to jolt audiences into action? Or both? 

Preservation VS Sustainable Development 

This is a debate that we don’t see settled anytime soon. Namely, do you see our modern civilization as inherently harmful to nature, or can it make constructive modifications to coexist with nature? Think of the former as alternative communes and the latter as investments in renewable energy. 

Personal Philosophy VS Social Justice

To a certain extent, sustainability is a personal philosophy and practice. Many people find it really satisfying to be part of a large issue and to build daily rituals around action items. 

But as with anything, socioeconomic complications kick in once you start asking questions like: “how did colonization affect the natural environment of native communities?”,“how does urban pollution affect neighborhoods of different income levels?”, or “how accessible are resources such as renewable energy or low-impact packaging materials?” 

Practicalities VS Metaphors 

As much as environmental issues directly reflect us (global warming, pollution, floods…) they also indirectly refer to possible issues in our value system. It’s not only a social but philosophical conundrum. 

So what are resources artists can find in New York? 

Luckily, efforts for sustainability have been made in other sectors so that artists don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” as one guideline puts it. We researched existing guidelines from various fields from government and office management to Broadway theaters...and of course, practicing artists in Curina. 

1. Art materials

The paint 

  • Oil paint itself consists of linseed oil and pigment, which are both non-toxic. You can even eat linseed oil (you just wouldn’t want to because...yuck). The problem is the solvent. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s made from pine trees - turpentine is as poisonous as it smells, which is why studio buildings should be well ventilated and leftovers must be disposed of as hazardous waste. More about disposal under 3. Studio life. 
  • That doesn’t mean you should give up the beautiful sheen of oil paint. You could make small changes like cleaning your brushes in brush soap, baby oil or linseed oil instead of turpentine; underpainting in watercolor or acrylic before using oil (you can’t use watercolor or acrylic after oil, on the other hand); or forego solvents and paint straight from the tube. Different brands have different fluidity levels, so if you find it too thick to paint without a thinner you could try out different brands.   
Artist Debbi Kenote's studio. 
  • Acrylic is not toxic, but you can’t wash it down the drain because it contains plastic. It’s called latex-based paint - think about whether that’s something you want fishies to accidentally eat. 
  • Watercolors: plant/natural dye based watercolors are available and use non-toxic pigment and binder. 
  • The next time you’re in the market for rich reds and yellows, remember to look for cad-free paints. Heavy metals are damaging not only to the environment, but to the artist!
  • Avoid plastic glitter, as it is made of plastics that harm the environment. Alternatives include eco glitters made from biodegradable Eucalyptus cellulose or mica. 
They "gather and processes pigments in the North East US (often on occupied Lenape and Mohican land), making natural small-batch oil paints, oil pastels, drawings sticks, and research how to recycle pollutants into pigments." 
  • Get creative and make your own pigments! Use natural materials that stain as a part of your process. You can "donate and find reusable materials at Materials for the Arts", says Curina artist Jacqueline Ferrante.
  • Filtration: Golden paints, a company that sells paints produced as ethically and sustainably as possible, sells a kit for artists to filter paint solids from water. The kit is derived off Golden Paints’ own water conservation and reuse efforts.

The surface 

  • Limit your paper use when possible. Sketches and quick draw-ups can now be made on smartphones and tablets with the use of a stylus, yielding similar results as the traditional pencil and paper method. If paper is essential, consider using sustainable paper such as Hahnemühle
  • "You can also reuse paper - if you make something you don’t like, save this paper and use it as the foundation to another work", says Curina artist Johanna Aenderl Ryan 
  Artist Marta Lee's studio. Scavenging and "the dichotomy of precious and not precious, even using balls of tape which are basically trash." are an important part of Marta's practice. "I like making unstretched things or things with unconventional surfaces." she says. 
  • Painting on alternative surfaces is not only low-waste and economical, but is a great conduit to experimentation.
  • "Thrift stores and organizations with a reuse/recycling mission are good places to find new materials. Some personal favorites around New York City are Big Reuse and Fabscrap. Many of these stores also offer discounts or free materials if you volunteer", says Curina artist Johanna Aenderl Ryan. 
  • Need help learning how to work with these reclaimed materials that you're not used to? "In New York, Makerspace is a co-op model where you join to take classes and use their equipment or materials", says Curina artist Seema Lisa Pandya

2. Packaging and handling 

Many lifestyle brands are foregoing packaging or using reusable packaging. To be fair, this is more difficult to literally translate to artworks since they are fragile items. So our goal here is to protect artworks but in a less wasteful way. 

  • Rent or buy local: research galleries and artists operating in your neighborhood. More on this in our Sustainability Guide for Collectors.  

Our own CEO climbing into a box. 

     The Box

  • Recycle boxes: your neighbors and your local house appliances store are your best friends in the game of getting weird sized boxes they don’t sell at home depot. TV and desk boxes do a great job holding big paintings. All good as long as you clean the insides! 
  • Learn how to make your own boxes, so that you can ship in a smaller package. Here's how we like to do it at Curina [video]

     The Insulation 

  • Packing peanuts or air bags instead of bubble wrap or styrofoam. If you still need bubble wrap, use corrugated bubble wrap instead of regular. 
  • Buy sustainable packaging from places such as Ecoenclose

      The Transit 

  • Think about how you ship your artwork. "Is there a more sustainable way? If the work is going somewhere local, can you walk/bike/use public transit? If you are shipping, can you find a carbon neutral option (perhaps from the company you are shipping with or through a carbon offset app)? It is important to recognize that these options are not possible/feasible/accessible for everyone though", says Curina artist Johanna Aenderl Ryan. 

3. Studio life 

     Waste Management

  • Hazardous waste: Refer to oil paint under 1. Art materials. Usually, you can drop paint thinners at SAFE disposal events or directly at Special Waste drop-off locations. But you know what sucks? Due to COVID-19, both facilities are closed until June. So here are two ways you can go about it:
      • You can reduce turpentine use by letting used liquid sit for a while until it separates into pigment at the bottom and clear liquid on top. Carefully pour out the clear liquid into another container and it’s all good to be reused. 
      • What about the remaining pigment? Dry out the container as much as possible so there is less than ¾ liquid at the bottom, then you can put it in regular trash 
      • Keep large turpentine containers tightly closed and ventilate your studio frequently


  • If you need artificial lighting in your studio, opt for energy-efficient LED bulbs. Switching to LED bulbs can cut electricity consumption by up to 80%.
  • If you are in a building with other artists, create a space to encourage exchange of materials (one person’s trash is another person’s treasure!)


4. Exhibition space 

  • LED lighting fixtures save on energy usage for the light itself, produces less heat, saves on HVAC cost and emissions, and reduces the use of disposable gel.
  • Utilizeas much daylight as possible. "As long as you put UV film to not damage the work, it can be beneficial for establishments. There’s a philosophy called biophilia - that humans are biologically inclined to be more attracted to nature. To have more artwork under natural light will have audience members more drawn to them.", says Curina artist Seema Lisa Pandya.

  • Gallery owners use a lot of paint. Sustainability is not just about energy but about human health, so choose paint that will not emit gas. Low VOC or no VOC paints are going to help air quality not only for people who maintain the space but also for visitors", says Curina artist Seema Lisa Pandya

  • Repurpose underutilized spaces. "Spaces like Chashama have a great model. They use temporary retail locations, so instead of taking up more square footage with new plumbing, electricity, and everything after demolishing what was already there, they are using existing spaces", says Curina artist Seema Lisa Pandya. 

  • Opt for gallery spaces that have LEED certification. 
  • Consider the format, time, space in which the exhibition will be held. "Get creative! Virtual events create less waste and leave less of a carbon footprint. This isn’t always optimum but think about how the “space” you choose will influence who you reach, who can be included, the experience, and the impact.", says Curina artist Johanna Aenderl Ryan. 

Sources and further readings:  

Looking do dive deeper?
Also check out:
  1. Guest Curators Seema Lisa Pandya & Basia Goszczynska
  2. Sustainabiliity Guide for Collectors 


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