Ventilating Your Studio

By Louise Buyo

If you are an artist today, chances are you’ve been creative since you were a child. Likewise, you’ve probably been handling art supplies for most of your life. Artists have a particularly intimate relationship with their respective media. Because this relationship is positive and enriching, artists tend to focus on their ability to express their ideas, rather than on how these activities might affect their health and safety. As a result, artists who have chronic exposure to certain chemicals and art materials are at greater risk for developing health problems, including cancer, leukemia and heart disease.


Recommended Reference

Cancer Risks Among Artists by Barry A. Miller and Aaron Blair. Leonardo. Vol. 25, No. 2: 169-73, 1992. An independent study by Miller and Blair highlights the increased risk of exposure to carcinogens amongst artists.

Ventilation is one aspect of handling art materials properly that is vital to maintaining a healthy workspace. Unfortunately, studio ventilation is routinely ignored or misunderstood. It is often overlooked by artists who rely upon open doors or windows, an air-conditioning unit or a ceiling fan to circulate the air in their studios. In many cases, this is simply not enough. Without proper ventilation, chemical fumes can rise and pool at the ceiling, even when there is no detectable smell. This lingering cloud of chemicals can not only cause physical injury with chronic exposure, but potentially start a fire in your studio.

Why Artists Are at Greater Risk

When this air is inhaled, tiny particles travel through the respiratory tract, making their way into the lungs where they are then absorbed into the bloodstream and organs. You might experience certain symptoms immediately: sneezing, coughing, burning, dizziness or headache. Other symptoms will manifest over longer periods of time. While the human body is quite capable of recovering quickly from occasional, brief contact to hazardous materials, for artists who practically live in their studios, minute amounts of contaminants build up unnoticed, accumulating in the body over a period of years.

Improve Air Quality in the Studio:

  1. Know your materials. Each medium has its distinct hazard with different safety demands. Research the particular safety protocol, and ventilate properly. Make an inventory of the products in your studio. Keep the details and the contact information for your local Poison Control Center in a binder that is easily accessible in the studio.
  2. Substitute hazardous materials with less toxic alternatives whenever possible.
  3. If you can, enclose any harmful substances to create a barrier between yourself and the source. Spray boxes and booths with an outside exhaust system are excellent for glazing or airbrushing.
  4. Keep dust to a minimum cleaning surfaces religiously and by vacuuming and wet mopping rather than sweeping.
  5. A healthy adult is more resilient to exposure than children, pregnant women, the elderly and small animals. If you work in a home studio, keep the area off limits to your family members and pets.

Types of Ventilation

There are two basic methods of ventilation: dilution ventilation and local exhaust ventilation.

Dilution ventilation (also known as cross-ventilation) introduces large amounts of clean air into the studio where it mixes with used air before being exhausted out. This method alters the balance of fresh air and used air so that contaminants are kept at a safe level. This can be accomplished with two windows on opposite sides of a room, and two industrial window fans. Similar to box fans, but more powerful, these types of industrial fans have sizes based on cubic feet per minute (CFM). Fans range in CFM from 20 to more than 2,500. Choose an industrial fan that produces as large an air volume as your space can handle. The fans can be purchased at big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s or Wal-Mart.

In a small studio using this system, the artist's position is very important. Ideally, the fan pumping in fresh air will be behind the artist, blowing fumes away from the artist's face and toward the fan exhausting the air outside in order to create a continuous stream of clean air for the artist to breathe in.

The dilution method is adequate in scenarios where there are fumes are of low toxicity, or there are very small amounts of moderately toxic vapors. This includes painting, black and white photo developing, and small amounts of adhesive, ink or shellac. It is not appropriate for controlling dust. Do not employ this method when using aerosol cans or spray paint. In these situations, and in environments where moderately or highly toxic substances are present, you will need to use local ventilation instead.

Local exhaust ventilation is the best method for removing large amounts of particles and vapors, and for controlling moderately toxic and highly toxic fumes. Through a hood placed over or very near to the source of pollution, this system exhausts contaminants and carries them away through ducts. Often the ducts will connect to an air cleaner that filters the air before pumping it outside. For high dust situations, where painting with pastels, grinding, plaster mixing and carving, sculpting, local exhaust ventilation is a necessity. Art processes such as silkscreen printing, acid etching, paint spraying, welding, woodworking operations and photographic development often use local exhaust ventilation to protect artists.

Hood design and use often determine the effectiveness of the system. Some hoods, such as spray booths, completely enclose the source. Others consist of slotted hoods, canopy hoods, or flexible or fixed duct pipe systems that are positioned adjacent to the source. Artists should position their work as close as possible to a slotted hood because the contaminant-capture efficiency drops dramatically with distance. When working within a hood that encloses the source, work as far back into the hood as practical. Regardless of its type, a hood must be strong enough to draw air and pull it away.

Further Reading on Studio Safety and Art Materials

If you’re in need of a guide to setting up proper ventilation in your home studio, Monona Rossol, president and founder of A.C.T.S. (Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety) recommends Ventilation: A Practical Guide for Artists, Craftspeople and Others in the Arts by Nancy Clark. Unfortunately, it is now out of print. Used copies can be found online at Amazon and other venues for varying prices. If you are unable to purchase Ventilation, I suggest borrowing it from your local community college or university library. The following books are also good references. I personally consulted both Artist Beware and The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide when writing this overview.

General Resources

  • Artist Beware, Updated and Revised: The Hazards of Working with All Art and Craft Materials and the Precautions Every Artist and Craftsperson Should Take by Michael McCann. New York: Lyons Press, 2005.
  • The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide: Third Edition by Monona Rossol. New York: Allworth Press, 2001.
  • Health Hazards Manual for Artists, 6th Edition by Michael McCann. New York: Lyons Press, 2008.
  • The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques: Fifth Edition, Revised and Updated by Ralph Mayer. New York: Viking Press, 1991.
  • Making Art Safely: Alternative in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Graphic Design and Photography by Merle Spandorfer, Deborah Curtiss and Jack Snyder. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

Medium-Specific Resources

  • Overexposure; Health Hazards in Photography by Susan Shaw and Monona Rossol. New York: Allworth Press, 1991.
  • Painter's Handbook: Revised and Expanded by Mark David Gottsegen. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2006.
  • Printmaker's Guide to the Safe Use of Materials by Nancy Seeger. Chicago School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1984.
  • Safety in the Ceramics Studio: How to Handle Ceramic Materials by Jeff Zamek. Iola: Krause Publications, 2002.

Testing for Ventilation Effectiveness

Before starting to work, make sure that the local exhaust system is on and that there is sufficient airflow through the system to capture air contaminants. Periodically, conduct an incense test to the system’s efficiency: Light some incense; watch the direction of the smoke; is it collected by the hood and expelled outside? If not, your system isn’t functioning properly.

Once you’ve checked the local exhaust, you’ll want make sure that your system does not allow any exhausted air to be re-circulated into the your studio. You will also want to make sure your studio has negative pressure in comparison to the rest of the house to prevent contaminants from entering your home. In other words, you always want to be drawing air from the rest of the house to the studio even when it isn't occupied. One way to check if you studio is negative is to do another type of incense test. Close the studio door, and, with the house air-conditioning unit running, light some incense and see which way the smoke goes. If it is drawn into the room, your studio is negative to the rest of the house. If it is drawn out toward the rest of the house, the studio is positive the rest of the house.

Proper ventilation is a major concern in every studio. You may need to install a system or upgrade your existing ventilation. If you have any doubts as to what to do about exhaust, please consult a licensed HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) contractor or registered engineer. See sidebar for more information. AC


A former art consultant and assistant office manager at Hoypoloi Gallery in Orlando, Florida, Louise Buyo is the assistant editor of Art Calendar. In 2007, she graduated from the University of Florida with a B.A. in Art History, and has also studied at the University of Miami, Pratt Institute and the Paris Research Center at Columbia University's Reid Hall in Paris, France. She has served as a curatorial assistant in the exhibitions department at the Orlando Museum of Art and in the contemporary art department of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art. To see a portfolio of her writing, visit her Web site at www.louisebuyo.com. Louise can be reached at lbuyo@artcalendar.com.

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