In 2023 I tidied my tubes of acrylic paint away, I wanted to reduce my art waste and stop pouring paint water down the sink. I looked at alternatives and began to experiment with other materials.

Artist friends have switched to refillable paints and pens or invested in filtration systems for paint water. Many of us are thinking about reducing waste and pollution when making our art.

What is acrylic paint made of?

Acrylic paint “is a fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion and plasticizers, silicone oils, defoamers, stabilizers, or metal soaps”. (Thank you Google.) In other words, it contains plastic and other additives. Some of those additives might not be very friendly either, including ammonia, formaldehyde and heavy metals.

Art waste and pollution

At the end of a painting session I would wash my brushes in the sink and pour away my paint water. Any palette papers and used paper towels went into the bin to go to landfill. I’d scrape dried paint from a silicon sheet and that went in the bin too. Every time.

Meanwhile I’m taking time to support Surfers Against Sewage and doing beach cleans. I felt like a hypocrite. Obviously my paint water is not a major source of water pollution, it’s literally a drop in the ocean. But how could I get so furious about water pollution when I was washing microplastics down the sink, how ever little?

Water filtration systems for paint water

I read about water filtrations systems and cat litter and other filters but none of these things were suitable for a small art table in my living room. 

If you have the budget and the space it is worth looking into. Some are easier to use and cheaper than others. This suggestion seems simple and GOLDEN even sell their own paint solids water cleaning system.

That said, I still had a nagging uncomfortable feeling about what happens to the waste products afterwards.

Low waste art materials

Something had to change in my practice and my criteria were simple. I wanted to minimise waste as much as possible, preferably with reduced water use and contamination. My budget was very low (zero) so I needed to experiment with the art supplies I already had, rather than buying something new.

I pulled out Neocolour II watersoluble wax pastels, watercolour pans, drawing inks and coloured pencils.

The first thing I realised was that these materials were not going to be very effective on canvas. I did try a few things, desperate to get the effects I wanted but failing to get results that I liked.

I tried watercolour paper and was given some Khadi cotton rag paper that allowed for a more heavy application. I remembered that I didn’t really like using watercolours which was why they were hiding in a drawer.

Neocolor IIs were gorgeous for blending colour but I was struggling with building layers. I was trying too hard to recreate my acrylic paintings with different materials.

A change in materials creates a shift in style

At some point during this process I realised a couple of things. Firstly, I love to work in layers but I had started to feel bogged down by heavy opaque paint. I looked back at my acrylic paintings and felt a bit suffocated by the heaviness of it.

I wanted a lightness in the layers that I hadn’t had before. This meant leaning into transparency which seemed to go against everything I had been learning about heavy, opaque paint application.

Secondly, changing the materials was giving me room to experiment. Working on paper was bringing a new set of challenges but I was enjoying inks and drawing tools. I began introducing more drawn elements.

Reducing waste

Initially I noticed that I didn’t really use a mixing palette anymore. I was blending and layering pigments on the paper. At most I was using a scrap paper to test colours before use. Water use was less too. Just a small brush dipped in water and then wiped on a paper towel after use. One towel would last for days.

I love working with Neocolor IIs directly on to paper and using a wet brush to blend them. Black ink, Letraset style transfers and coloured pencils also found their way in.

Then I had an idea to introduce my beloved acrylic colours but with a zero waste rule. Acrylic inks have always been on my favourites list. The transparent colours are juicy, vivid and layer beautifully.

To keep them low waste, I didn’t drop out puddles of ink onto a palette, just inked my brush with tiny amounts from the droppers. While keeping the paint use to what was needed, there was little waste water too. If I needed to mix colours, it was in tiny amounts as needed. No more piles of acrylic paint on a palette.

The acrylic inks seemed like a compromise. I hadn’t ditched the vivid acrylic paint that I enjoyed but I had found a way to use it that gave me lighter layers, worked well on paper and could be used with low waste and minimal brush washing.

I settled into working on paper and began experimenting on small pieces with different ideas. These would lead to the first 100 day project I ever completed.

Header image of tiny abstract art pieces on paper scattered on a white background

Tiny art on paper emerges

What developed was to become the core of my art practice for the next year and is still going. The tiny art collections were so suited to my space and my time and energy.

It has been a period of exploration and I’ve enjoyed testing and challenging myself to create with these new guidelines for myself.

While I haven’t completely eliminated the waste in my art practice, it has reduced significantly. I no longer worry so much about paint water or acrylic paint scrapings.

It’s not much. After all my contribution is literally a drop in the ocean too. But I feel better knowing that I’m doing what I can.