Safe Spray Painting

 Safer Spray Painting and Airbrushing          

Chuck Close airbrushing on canvas | spray cans | spraying waterbased acrylics in a spray booth

Spray painting is a fast and effective method 

for the application of paints and varnishes. 

Spray painted coatings are typically smoother 

than surfaces that are painted, 

and large surface areas can be covered quickly 

at the touch of a nozzle. 

The ease of use and spectacular results make spray cans

 the paint of choice for millions of hobbyists, 

artists, and graffity artists. 

Spray painting is also used extensively in industrial applications such as the car industry where very strict safe guards are in place to minimize exposure to solvent fumes, and to protect the environment from VOC air pollution. Today, many car manufacturers have shifted to water based paint systems, for instance Mercedes Benz and Fiat. The EPA lists car paints as the largest contributor to VOC pollution in the environment.

The graffity artist Banksy uses spray paints extensively; some of his works are very poetic

Spray painting can be a lot more hazardous than conventional painting using brushes. The active ingredients in many conventional paints are relatively inert (with the exception of high VOC oil paints), but in Spray Painting paint, binder, pigment, and solvent droplets are finely atomized, and this spray mist is easily inhaled and absorbed into the body. Exposure to concentrated spray paint fumes can lead to neurological shock, and suffocation in extreme cases. Toxic dangers are not just presented by the highly concentrated solvent and propellant fumes coming out of a spray can (or a spray gun), but also by toxic pigments that can be much more easily absorbed by the human body when sprayed. 

The famous founder of photo-realism and avid user of airbrushing, Chuck Close suffered a complete and near fatal neural break-down at the height of his career. Following treatment he recovered many of his faculties, paints better than ever, and now works from a wheelchair. It is entirely conceivable that his predicament is in some way related to the possible inhalation of sprayed paint fumes and pigment particles over the years.

solvent based spray paints require the use of effective ventilation / local extraction and a personal respirator with organic vapor cartridge

spray cans excell through ease of use   |   Krylon waterbased spray paint   |   Apartment
Krylon H2 0   Latex Waterbased Spray Paint (link)
‘This eco-conscious spray paint delivers a super premium finish and easy clean up.        Protects against nicks and chips, indoors and out.        Contributes 55% less to smog pollution than most solvent-based spray paints        Non-toxic; low odor; soap and water clean up’ (Krylon), dries in 15 to 45 minutes

The Toxicity of Solvents
Safe Solvents
Airbrush, Spray Cans and Spray Guns (UIC)

Acrylic Spray Paint with less toxic solvent?
Liquitex have a new line of acrylic spray paints,
not solvent-free, but based on ethyl alcohol not
Naptha solvents; promises to be considerably safer
than regular spray paints |
use with some ventilation and respirator

Commercial spray painting shops use elaborate extraction systems and respirators to contain the hazards. Strict environmental guidelines also request that such facilities use filtration to minimize VOC emissions into the atmosphere.

The hazards of domestic spray paints are particularly pronounced, as spray cans are often used without protection. Spray cans have also been implicated in addictive solvent abuse. Especially if used indoors and without a mask and ventilation – as is the case in many DIY projects or in artist studios – there is an immediate hazard of toxic shock and neurological damage. Research at the Stanford University Environmental Chemistry Department found that solvents and their VOC emissions are 1000 times more harmful if used indoors.

Many artists and art schools are overly cavalier about the use of spray paints, and at times a cloud of noxious solvent fumes emanates from painting studios and workshops, especially before end of the year exhibitions. The convenience of being able to quickly finish off any art, design, or craft project with a handy can of spray paint from the local hardware store often overrides the necessary safety considerations.

Spray Paint Innovation   Waterbased Spray Paints

use carefully: although safer, this spray paint may contain some harmful VOCs

Spray Paints used to be notorious for their high content of toxic VOCs. Whilst nontoxic and waterbased alternatives have been steadily gaining ground in the DIY paints and varnishes market, spray paints remained toxic. Finally this is changing. Some firms are offering nontoxic waterbased spray paint solutions that are vaporized through spritzing bottles rather than the pressurized spray can to avoid any solvent use.
The smoothest coatings of spray paint are produced with the use of compressed air or propellants. Completely nontoxic waterbased airbrush solutions have been well established in the marketplace for decades, both for artist and craftsman use, and for automotive applications. Finally, the first waterbased spray paints are also emerging in the format of the individual spray can: a concept that is bound to become very popular with users of spray paints in years to come.
The company Krylon developed a latex based waterbased spray paint – Krylon H2 O – that uses the high pressure technique of the individual spray can, with significantly reduced exposure to toxic VOCs. This product promises excellent results, due to its finely atomized spray droplets, whilst bringing a considerable improvement in safety, compared to conventional high VOC spray paints. The spray coated surfaces are nontoxic when dry. Best use an organic respirator and ensure good ventilation during use; ideally work outside.

Sabina Ott: Multi Media Assemblage, 2011. The Chicago based painter and multi-media artist Sabina Ott makes extensive use of spray paints in her work.
Sabina Ott:   Artist Website

Using an Airbrush

For smooth coatings and best results airbrushing is typically done in a zigzag pattern. The atomized spray droplets are evenly applied to a clean surface in regular passes. Multiple passes are overlaid at 90 degree angles to achieve the desired thickness. Airbrush compressors come in two types: silent compressors for hobby and artist use, and much more powerful piston compressors for industrial and automotive applications (the noisy kind). Both types work best when fitted with an air reservoir tank, as this allows for a steady supply of air pressure.

a typical zigzag spray pattern | a silent airbrush compressor with reservoir tank | a spray gun

Airbrush spray nozzles and containers come in many shapes and varying designs. Successful airbrushing and spray painting is dependent on following very strict cleaning routines from the outset of a painting session. Waterbased paint systems often use soapy solutions as an intermediate cleaning solution during spraying. Especially acrylic based systems have an intrinsic tendency to clog, especially when equipment is left unattended. Disassembing and cleaning intricate nozzle parts can be the most unwelcome part of spray painting.

Simple airbrush and spray gun designs can be much more user friendly, and are easy to clean, for instance using pipe cleaners and cleaning pins; these are often provided with the airbrush kit. We recommend citrus-based cleaners as a quick solution to free up and clean clogged nozzles and parts. Products such as D-Solve, De-Solv-It, and CitraSolv are ideal for this.

See  Safe Solvents  for details.

Protection against low level VOC exposure

Today there are many paint products that are marketed as ‘safe’, yet there may still be harmful low-level VOC emissions, such as glycol ether. Examples: many water-based paints, acrylic floor finish, some artist acrylics, low odor, low VOC solvents, and printmaking resists.

Although a full organic respirator may be impractical for a dayÂ’s work we would recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some organic vapor protection. Dispose of the mask after a dayÂ’s work (about $ 5 per mask).

Product example:

3M™ Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief
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Safer Spray Paint: is it truly safe?

we would advise consulting both the information printed on actual products
(especially in small print) as well as material safety data sheets.
NOTE: In some states and countries some potentially
harmful ingredients do not require listing on MSDS sheets,
especially in low concentrations. If in doubt: do some web searching, ask an expert,
…or consider checking the Californian hazard information on the product:
the strict regulations in California ask for more faithful safety data sheets.
BLICK have extensive online MSDS info on all their products.

The unhealthy side of Safe Spray Paint
Even presumably safe, safer, less-toxic, nontoxic, or eco-friendly spray painting products
are likely to contain considerable amounts of harmful or toxic ingredients.
Medical studies show that even low concentrations
can cause ill health. The vaporizing process in spray painting exacerbates any health hazard.
The artist Chuck Close is known to have engaged in spray painting for his
large scale works of photo-realism, and it is conceivable that his
medium of choice caused ill-health through regular inhalation.

A common problem is mislabeling.
With traditional harmful paint products cross-bones and hazard warnings give
ample warning that imply ‘beware’ …you are dealing with volatile chemicals not foodstuff.
With the new and increasingly widely sought after safe and nontoxic
products such warnings are frequently missing, even if they should
still be in place.

Spray Paint isnÂ’t Breathable
In spray painting the dangers from inhalation of toxic pigments are exacerbated.
The new VOC labeling, and lower VOC in spray cans is a very significant step towards
safer and less unhealthy spray paint,
but not an ultimate resolution to the uncertainty
that still surrounds the subject of spray paint safety.
Spray painting is one of the most convenient forms of painting,
yet it is also the most hazardous.

Spray Paints used safely: always use Good Ventilation!
Anyone with in-depth knowledge of the subject would
agree that the best strategy for health-aware paint
practice is in a combination of:

•   choose the least toxic materials and products
•   do not handle spray paints around kids. Spray paints have been implied in 'glue sniffing syndrome' .
•   study all ingredients and their potential side-effects
•   always maintain good ventilation
•   do not inhale any spray paint or solvent fumes
•   avoid traditional mineral spirits and thinners  Solvent Toxicity
•   eco-and health-friendly solvent alternatives are now widely available   Safe Solvents
•   do not use spray paints in your home; spray safely outdoors
•   use local and general fume extraction, and filters in a professional setting
•   heavy-duty spray painting may even require the use of a ventilated breathing suit   Katharina Grosse
•   wear organic respirators when needed
•   cross-linking polymers and acrylics may require a dry working environment or even heat-setting to help create a permanent surface without VOC off-gassing

Some new models of respirator now protect against
VOC exposure and are more comfortable to wear
than the heavy-duty ‘gas-mask’ type.

Note: Most types of plain paper dust masks do not protect against
paint fumes and VOCs.

      Airbrush Techniques Magazine
     Free Resources

‘Airbrush Technique Magazine is the most complete resource you will find for airbrushing, kustom painting published by anyone.Our combination of the digital format, printed format of Airbrush Technique Magazine and our web sites that promote the art forms of airbrushing, kustom paint offer support to the entire airbrush, kustom painting community. By subscribing to Airbrush Technique you help us provide the following web sites where we publish free airbrush, kustom painting information, articles, tutorials along with providing support forums, gallery’s, airbrush product reviews. Â– provides free airbrush lessons, information, articles along with a forum, gallery and airbrush video gallery for those new to airbrushing. Â– a work still in progress but when finished it will cover custom painting much the covers airbrushing.

The above web sites are all free to register on, take part in supported by folks subscribing to our magazine. We publish monthly a list of links to articles about airbrush artist that made the headlines …. CLICK HERE    Airbrush Industry Press Releases CLICK HERE’

  UIC   Health in The Arts Library

Airbrush, Spray Cans and Spray Guns

By Angela Babin, M.S.

           Artists use many products in spray form, including

fixatives, retouching sprays, paint sprays,

varnishes, and adhesive sprays.  Airbursh, aerosol spray can and

spray guns are used.


  1. Spray mists are particularly hazardous because they are easily

inhaled.  If the paint being sprayed contains

solvents, then you can be inhaling liquid droplets of the

solvents.  In addition the pigments are also easily

inhaled, creating a much more dangerous situation than applying

paint by brush.

  1. Aerosol spray paints have an additional hazard besides

pigments and solvents.  They contain propellants,

usually isobutanes and propane, which are extremely flammable and

have been the cause of many fires.

Other aerosol spray products such as retouching sprays, spray

varnishes, etc. also contain solvents,

propellants and particulates being sprayed.

  1. Airbrushing produces a fine mist which is a serious inhalation

hazard because artists work so close to their

art work.  Airbrushing solvent-containing paints is especially


  1. Spray guns are less common in art painting but usually involve

spraying much larger quantities of paint

than either spray cans or airbrush.  Spraying solvent-based

paints is a serious fire hazard.


  1. See section above for precautions with pigments.
  2. Try to brush items rather than spraying if possible.
  3. Use water-based airbrushing paints and inks rather than

solvent-based paints. 

  1. Use spray cans or an airbrush in a spray booth if possible. If

the material sprayed contains solvents, then the spray booth must

be sparkproof.  There should be no sources of ignition (electric

switches, motors, flames etc.) within 10 feet of the spray booth

opening.  Also, all light fixtures within 20 feet of the spray

booth should be enclosed and shatter-proof.  Spray booths that

recirculate air rather than exhausting air to the outside are not


  1. If ventilation is not adequate, then respiratory protection is

necessary while air brushing or spraying.  Use a NIOSH-approved

respirator equipped with dust and mist filters for spraying

water-based paints, and a respirator with organic vapor

cartridges and dusts and mists (or paint spray) prefilters for

spraying solvent-based paint.

6.  Never try to spray paint by blowing air from your mouth

through a tube.  This can lead to accidental ingestion of the


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Airbrush Supplies, Paints, Mediums, and Manufacturers

                                                                                    illustrative product references (trial resource)

In the paragraph below we give some provisional, non-commercial listings that may require further editing.
Most quotations are taken from manufacturers’ published information, these are
not to be taken as our research, testing or editorial work. 

Not all MSDS sheets are the same
For more complete information on the safety of any paint product

GOLDEN airbrush colors | GEMPLER’S ® N95 Dust/Mist Respirator with valve (95% capture),
an inexpensive mask suitable for waterbased spray paints
safety note: dust masks do not offer VOC protection

The GOLDEN lines of Airbrush Colors are engineered to meet the highest standards of professionals, for use in airbrush, brush and technical pen. These offer the ability to create opaque, high intensity colors for illustration and fine art purposes. GOLDEN Airbrush Colors are formulated from a 100% water-based acrylic emulsion, incorporating only the most lightfast pigments available. This results in exceptional permanency and performance. These highly pigmented airbrush solutions are also suitable for acrylic wash work and water color effects, and combine easily with regular acrylic paints. Golden are an employee owned company that are known for their concern for the environment and for health and safety in painting and paint making.
Statement from the Director of
Environmental Health & Safety Ben Gavett:
‘Guests often comment on the beautiful rolling mix of woods,
streams and farmland that surrounds our facility.
It is wonderful to work in this setting,
as it is a constant reminder of the sanctity of the environment
and our relationship to it.
This feeling of stewardship extends to our products,
the people making them, and to you.’

Createx AirBrush Colors | a large gravity fed airbrush gun | a car refinished with waterbased spray paints
Mercedes Benz already switched to using water based car paints in 1996,
others car makers are following suit

Createx Colors 

‘Createx Airbrush Colors contain concentrated, ultra-fine pigments. 
For use on many surfaces, including textiles, paper, and ceramics.
Colors come in transparent, opaque, pearlescent, and fluorescent colors, 
and they dry to a matte finish. 
Pigments are homogenized into a special acrylic base which makes the colors permanent on most surfaces. 
Colors can be sprayed continuously without annoying tip drying, spitting, or overspraying. 
All colors are waterbased and can be intermixed. For permanent outdoor application, i.e., cars, vans, bikes, etc…
use Createx Auto Air Colors (right).’

All makers of acrylic paints suggest that when diluted with water their artist paints can also be used for airbrushing. The company Liquitex make a dedicated ‘Airbrush Medium’ that is especially designed for the task. Find the manufacturers’ usage instructions below:

Liquitex Airbrush Medium is specifically formulated to thin acrylic colors for airbrush application. Mixing colors with Airbrush Medium will ensure that the colors do not lose their flexibility, durability and adhesion.

    •    Low viscosity 
    •    Ready to use pre-filtered and pre-reduced to the required consistency for airbrush techniques, add as much or as little as desired. 
    •    Formulated for thinning acrylic colors for airbrush application. 
    •    Ensures colors do not lose flexibility, durability and adhesion. 
    •    Easily thins acrylic color or any water-soluble paints to a sprayable consistency. 
    •    Allows thinned acrylic paint to be sprayed efficiently and retain paint film integrity. 
    •    Liquitex Airbrush Medium mixes easily with all Liquitex Soft Body Artist Colors to produce airbrush paint with the proper viscosity for airbrushing. 
    •    Can also be mixed with Liquitex Heavy Body Artist Colors. 
    •    Can be mixed with all Liquitex paint, mediums and gesso. 

    •    Mix Liquitex Airbrush Medium into Soft Body Artist Color there is no need to strain. 
    •    Mix Liquitex Airbrush Medium into Heavy Body Artist Color and strain to remove any undissolved color. 
    •    Start by mixing 50% Liquitex Airbrush Medium to color and mix thoroughly. Add further Airbrush Medium as necessary to facilitate flow through the airbrush. Each color may require a different percentage of Airbrush Medium to color, due to variation in color pigment size and concentration of pigment. 
    •    Airbrush nozzle size and spraying pressure (PSI) will determine the ratio of Airbrush Medium to paint mixture. Larger nozzles allow for greater amounts of paint in the mixture. 
    •    Keep airbrush wet during use, do not allow paint to dry in airbrush. 
    •    Clean airbrush with water, water/ammonia mixture, Liquitex Professional Acrylic Ink Pen Cleaner, airbrush cleaner or alcohol.

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