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Eco-Friendly Art Making

by Madelyn McArthur, School-Based Learning Intern


sustainability , artmaking

Even though Earth Month 2024 is over, the museum celebrates sustainability every day.
Artist and CAM intern, Madelyn McArthur, writes about her passion for incorporating sustainable practices into her own art making—from creating paints to using eco-friendly and upcycled materials. To encourage others, Maddy created this post as a resource for getting started.

There are many ways to be conscious of the environment while creating art! Making sustainable choices manifests in more ways than you might think. These choices include eco-friendly swaps for art materials, creating materials from natural sources, and shopping second-hand or upcycling found materials. Here are some examples for those interested in doing the same:

Eco-Friendly Swaps

Hemp/flax vs. cotton canvas

Hemp and flax have a smaller ecological footprint than cotton production, using half as much land and water for a larger yield. Because of this, choosing canvases and other art surfaces made of hemp or flax is an eco-friendly choice!

Tempura vs. acrylic paint

Acrylic paint, although lightfast and practical, generally contains acrylic polymer emulsion and plasticizers, silicone oils, defoamers, stabilizers or metal soaps, and dries into plastic. For an alternative, tempura paint is another water based, colorful paint, but made from water, calcium carbonate (chalk), corn starch or cellulose composition, and non-toxic pigments and preservatives—and tempura paint is also often less expensive than acrylics!

A painting of two women walking together. One has a severed head hidden in a basket on her head.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1444/45–1510), circa 1469/70, Florence/Italy, tempura on panel, John J. Emery Endowment, 1954.463

Linseed oil vs. turpentine

Popular oil painting solvents, such as turpentine and mineral spirits, emit volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) as they dry, which are toxic to people as well as bad for the environment. Eco-friendly paint-thinning alternatives include walnut oil, linseed oil, or poppyseed oil.

Sustainable brands, such as Natural Earth Paints, also provide eco-friendly art material swaps!

Materials Found in Nature

Natural Pigments

Premade natural pigment powders can be purchased online when searching for a color that is difficult to source locally. For example, indigo plants create a bold navy-blue color, but they are not easily found in the Cincinnati area, and growing your own in an indigo vat is time-consuming and laborious. An alternative is to order from The Yarn Tree USA on Etsy, which sells an assortment of preprocessed natural pigments that can be used in homemade dye, paint, crayons, and other art materials.

A rich, blue artwork with images of Buddhist figures on the right and rows of Japanese characters on the left

Sutra, 1185, Jingo-ji Temple/Kyoto/Japan, gold and silver on indigo paper, John J. Emery Fund, 1985.12.

Foraging for Plants and Rocks

You can also utilize local plants and rocks by foraging in your area! By mindfully foraging, you can be aware of where the products come from, how they are cultivated, and how they are processed. When foraging, it is always important to be careful of your surroundings and to be respectful to the land. I try to abide by the principles of honorable harvest, an Indigenous code of respect for the land.

Secondhand + Upcycled Materials

Another way to decrease waste while art making is to shop for secondhand objects or use found materials. Here are some local resources in Cincinnati for finding secondhand creative materials:

  • Indigo Hippo – Secondhand arts & crafts materials with pay-what-you-can pricing.
  • Scrap It Up! – Gently used art materials and upcycled items shop.
  • New2You – Local thrift store with secondhand clothes, items, furniture, etc.
  • Recycling and Reuse Hub – Accepts recycling donations and offers recycled materials such as fabric, school supplies, and tiles to be “shopped” for free.
  • Wave Pool Tool Library – Rent woodworking tools rather than buying your own for specific projects.

Neutral, natural colors on a white fabric

Whistling Winds, Madelyn McArthur, 2023

In my personal practice, I try to use most materials secondhand or from natural, ethically sourced resources. The piece above is made from natural pigment paints and repurposed fabric.