Science of Paint: Acrylic Paint and the Environment

Another entry in my science of paint series. Today’s post is about what I consider to be unequivocally the most diverse material for creating traditional paintings: Acrylic paint.

Abstract olor field painting with purple, white, and yellow areas.
One of my own paintings. Oh look it’s all the fast drying of watercolor and all the depth of oil painting.

One would think that the answer would be oil paint, but with the vast range of mediums and additives available for acrylic paint, my own opinion has shifted in favor of acrylic paint in terms of overall versatility. Acrylic paint is more affordable, can be used in a greater variety of ways, and is safer for people to use compared to traditional oil painting materials. I would argue that nowadays, oil paint is more of a symbol of status in the art world than it is the most viable material; it is the traditional painting material, so it is generally considered more high art to use it.

So first, what is acrylic paint? Essentially, it is a plastic-based paint. It’s not only used in the arts, but also used for houses and buildings (though in this use it is often called latex paint. An interesting phenomenon, as there is no latex in latex paint). In acrylic paint, the binder (feel free to refresh yourself on paint science terms here) is an acrylic polymer emulsion. In other words, the pigment is suspended in a water-based, liquid version of acrylic plastic. The use of a plastic binder allows it to be water resistant when dry while being water soluble when wet. Acrylic paint in its most basic form doesn’t require anything for its use and cleanup but water. This offer significant advantages over oil-based paint, that traditionally requires harsh chemicals for clean-up, making it less safe for indoor use.

There is a simple reason as to why acrylic paint is so durable and weatherproof in its dry form; it is plastic. Plastics are a class of material defined by massive polymer molecules. This just means that at a chemical level, plastic molecules are made of many repeated units. This allows them to be easily synthesized and modified, resulting in the wide array of plastic materials we have today. Plastics in general are waterproof and do not biodegrade, so they are the ideal choice for a paint meant to last a long time and be resistant to all conditions. However, more and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of our overreliance on plastic. Because it does not biodegrade, human use of plastic has created a tremendous waste management issue that has severe ramifications for the environment. So what does this mean for acrylic paint?

The good news for artists is that the far larger environmental issue with acrylic paint is in its industrial and home applications. Every time paint is sanded way from a surface it creates fine plastic dust. This dust ends up in the ocean and over time severely pollutes our environment and poses a direct threat to animals, particularly filter feeders. The amount of paint an artist uses is minimal compared to this. However, there are still good practices one can do to minimize the impact of acrylic paint on the environment. These include allowing everything to dry and disposing of it as a solid instead of washing paint down the sink and thoughtfully reducing the amount of waste to begin with. More information on this can be found on Golden Acrylics website.

Blonde child holding up hands covered in many colors of paint.
Hands look like this? Maybe you shouldn’t wash them right away… If you wait for it to dry and peel it off it’s better for the environment!

Acrylic paint is a modern invention, and with it comes modern convenience and modern issues. While the debate between oil paint and acrylic paint goes on (and I’ll certainly be discussing the environmental concerns of oil paint in a later post), whichever paint you choose, it’s important we all paint responsibly to keep our planet as happy and healthy as possible.

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