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Changing the World One Color at a Time with Leah Fanning

Changing the World One Color at a Time with Leah Fanning

Posted by Stuart Gunter, Abridged by Kate Gregory on Mar 25th 2021

When an artist assumes the mantle of creating a new product that before her did not exist in the world, cool things can happen. Leah Fanning, an Oregon-based artist, decided she was tired of exposing herself to the toxins present in oil-based and acrylic paint. So, she embarked on a journey of discovery, unearthing how the old masters created their color palettes by using natural ingredients available to them in their region. Leah has created Natural Earth Paint, a women-run small business with an impressive range of paint products intended to combat the proliferation of toxic substances in the art world. She is on a mission to save her fellow artists and the earth from dangerous chemicals.

We’re chronicling her story in a vibrant interview originally conducted by Stuart Gunter; take it away, Leah!

Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview; I’m sure you’re quite busy, Let’s start there: what’s next for you? What are you working on currently in the studio? What is exciting you and inspiring you right now?

I’m continuously inspired to create things that the world needs, that the Earth needs, and that people need. Everyone is a creative being and needs to express their creativity in some way. I just want to make sure that if they choose a visual expression they can create safely and in harmony with our natural environment. I’m very excited to continue developing and formulating much needed art supplies that do not currently exist. After much testing, research, and experimentation over the past 5 years, we are very excited to release the world’s first natural acrylic medium and paints this year. Since conventional acrylic paints are the most commonly used paints on the planet, I get so excited thinking about the possibility of eliminating the massive amounts of toxins regularly washed down drains from this product alone.

I’m very inspired by all of the amazing, eco-friendly businesses rising up around the world who aren’t just green-washing but are actually making change in the world and coming up with incredibly creative solutions to solve all of the challenges we face. Businesses are figuring out how to replenish and give back to the Earth’s resources more than simply using them.

I never stop getting excited about teaching people about natural art materials and how you can create higher quality and more archival paintings with absolutely nothing toxic—using all plant and earth-based ingredients. Most people have the misperception that if it’s natural or eco-friendly it must not be as permanent or radiant but it’s actually the opposite.

Leah, please tell me about Natural Earth Paints and what prompted you to start a business selling non-toxic painting supplies? No other companies are offering this kind of paint. Granted—before that, you had the masters creating their own paint, but you have created something that was previously commercially unavailable. Anywhere. That is remarkable.

Yes, absolutely. I had been living in an earthen cob house in Southern Oregon when I was first introduced to natural earth pigments—which we used to plaster our walls. I had been a full-time, professional artist for 15 years at that point and had always wanted to find a replacement for my toxic oil paints—but I’d never found an alternative. Then one day I found out that I was pregnant with my first child and within a week found out that I would be having my first one-woman art show a few days before my due date. So I would need to paint full time throughout my pregnancy! I quickly disposed of all of my toxic art supplies and dove into researching an alternative. Necessity pushed me to quickly figure it out.

There was almost nothing online except one artist in Arizona who made natural paints for his own art and he recommended an out-of-print book on collecting earth pigments in nature “Colors of the Earth”. This book led to finding other paint-making books from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond. I was hooked and within a few weeks, I was exploring the woods of Oregon and Northern CA, harvesting green, red, yellow and orange pigments in creek beds, road cuts and abandoned quarries. There was a lot of trial and error in my steep learning curve but I found it fascinating that the highest quality and most archival paintings in the world from the prehistoric people to Rembrandt and the Old Masters were all painted with 100% natural and non-toxic supplies. I also researched new, scientific developments in non-toxic materials and over that first year figured out a non-toxic and superior quality alternative for every toxic one that I had always used.

After using these natural materials and techniques for my own art for about 2 years, I started experimenting making natural children’s paints for my growing baby, too. One day, I was quietly nursing my son, Django, in our tiny cabin in the woods and it literally hit me in a flash—a true aha moment—I should create a business to share what I had learned and re-discovered! I was so excited about it, I felt like I was going to explode—it felt so right and so meant to be. I anxiously waited for Django to finish nursing and then jumped up and ran to the computer to see if the url naturalearthpaint.com was taken, it wasn’t!

I had been researching the ingredients in conventional children’s paints and face paints at the time and was utterly shocked at the harsh toxins and chemicals in almost all of these supplies. Everything seemed to conspire and lead me right to the path that I was meant to take.

Yes, we are the only 100% non-toxic art supplies company out there right now and when we started 8 years ago, there was absolutely no information online about how to paint or create art in a non-toxic way. If you walk through any art store today, there are absolutely no truly non-toxic options for artists. It seems strange to me because most other markets these days are embracing the eco-friendly or earth conscious option, but the art market seems to be lagging behind. We’re working on changing that and changing people’s perception of “natural” being inferior. It’s not just paints that need to change but almost all supplies— markers, inks, primers, mediums, solvents, printmaking supplies, fabric paints and dyes, the list goes on and on. By the time we’re through I want to have created a non-toxic option for every toxic supply out there.

In the beginning, I simply created products that I wanted for myself but didn’t exist: a completely non-toxic solvent that I could paint with and clean brushes with, a non-toxic gesso for my canvas that didn’t have formaldehyde, ammonia, or petrochemicals, a professional quality oil paint that is so harmless I could eat it, and natural nut oils to thin my paint. Now, I’m listening to the demand from our customers and formulating what they request almost daily through email.

What is important about saving artists from toxicity?

Judging from the emails, calls and feedback we’ve gotten over the years, I would guess that about 90% of artists don’t have any (or very little) knowledge of the severity of the toxins in their supplies or what it’s actually doing to their bodies and the environment.

I’ve unfortunately found that artists are sometimes the least health conscious people since they’re mostly just thinking about the quality of the art. They feel the most important thing in the end is what the final product looks like and since using toxic materials is all they were taught and they know the formula that creates their desired result they tend to be very hesitant to diverge from that. Most just don’t know how easy and inexpensive it is to paint in a safe way, or that they can get ever higher quality results. For art students, unfortunately most find that there is little incentive to work in a safe way until they get sick. I hope to reach art students with our social media campaigns and save them a lifetime of health issues and medical costs.

Many of our customers have chemical sensitivities and can’t paint with acrylics or tempera or conventional oil paints and have had to completely give up making art. We get so many gratitude emails thanking us for creating these products so that they can once again make art. Other customers say they’ve always been scared to begin painting at all because of the toxins involved. Now they can! And ironically, we have another large segment of customers who aren’t concerned about the toxins but are simply drawn to the purity and high quality of the paints that are free of fillers, preservatives, petrochemicals, and additives—which get in the way of the luminosity of the paint.

Children’s art supplies are another scary topic. Conventional children’s supplies don’t print their ingredient lists on the packaging but are still labeled non-toxic. The only way you can find out what’s in them is by having a licensed physician call Poison Control. After doing my own investigation, I discovered that the most common preservative used is formaldehyde, the pigments are petroleum or heavy metal-based, and there are a variety of chemical additives. There’s an article on Art Supplies and Poison Control by PediatricSafety.net that states that “in 2009, the nation’s 57 poison control centers received more than 35,000 calls about exposures and reactions to art products; of these, more than 26,000 calls concerned children younger than 6.”

Conventional non-toxic face paints are even worse, with recent studies showing that 10 out of 10 of conventional face paint kits tested included a variety of heavy metals, and all included lead.

Adult artist materials include a host of even harsher toxins – heavy metals, petrochemicals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic preservatives, solvents, and more. My main advice to parents and artists today would be to read the labels or find out the ingredients of your art supplies and face paints, just as you read the labels on your food. Because when paint touches the skin or is inhaled, it goes directly into the body, just as food does. And when you see non-toxic printed on any art supplies in a store it doesn’t mean that it won’t make you or your child sick, it won’t cause an allergic reaction, or won’t add to the toxic load in your body—it just means that it won’t poison you or kill you immediately.

I also had health issues from using heavy-metal oil paints, solvents and acrylic gesso throughout art school and it continues today. I developed severe allergies, which I’m still trying to heal, as well as intense headaches and trouble breathing while painting. I’m currently getting weekly heavy metal chelation treatments to remove all of the cadmium, cobalt, and lead from my system. I have heard the whole gamut of testimonials from artists who email us and tell us the many health problems that have developed from using toxic art supplies. I worry the most about children’s exposure because they are particularly vulnerable to toxins because of their small size, higher metabolisms, and immature immune systems.

Help me understand your creative processes. Leah, what is your process of creating Natural Earth Paints?

Creating each type of paint is a very different process and ranges from very complex to incredibly simple. For our Natural Face Paints, I worked with 3 different cosmetic chemists and experimented for long periods of time with different natural ingredients and formulation techniques. The oil paints were easy because it is simply earth pigment mixed with oil which has been in practice for thousands of years. Our other products Natural Gesso (primer)Children’s PaintsNatural Egg DyesNon-toxic Solvents, etc. all began by looking at how their toxic counterpart was made and finding a natural alternative that creates the same properties for each ingredient. We have a list of 26 different types of art supplies that are only available in a toxic form. So essentially, if you want to create that type of art, your only choice right now is to use toxic supplies. Our goal and mission is to create a very high quality and natural alternative for each of these products, one by one.

What was the last cool thing you found?

I’m great at finding earth pigments and minerals in the woods! I have a great photo of me, 8 months pregnant, scrambling up the side of a rocky road cut with a trowel and baggie, scooping green earth into a bag, while cars zoom by right below me. Any time I am walking in nature (or driving) I am looking for interesting colors—in the strata where roads were blasted through mountains, or where creeks or rivers cut through land, or even just scattered rocks and minerals throughout the woods—there are SO many art supplies in the woods, you wouldn’t believe.

But these days my search is more global, I’m constantly testing pigments from family owned quarries all over the world to find the most radiant and highest quality earth colors. Earth pigments are simply clay deposits in the ground that have different minerals in them (usually iron oxides) which determine their color. The location of the quarries just depends on where that color is in great abundance in the ground. For example, Virginia has really beautiful yellow and red earths, Kentucky has great browns and violets, France has the best blues and purples, Italy has the best greens and reds. So we now get different colors from all over the world that have been sustainably harvested for many generations and used by artists for hundreds of years.

Why are you an artist? If you never picked up a paintbrush in your life, what do you think you would be?

I can’t not be. That’s the only answer, but I’ll say more since this is an interview. Ever since childhood I’ve only been drawn to create things. My father was an artist and writer and my older siblings were artists and I wonder if it was possibly a genetic inclination because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. If I’m not creating and bringing new, beautiful things into the world, I don’t feel like I’m really alive. I also use my art as therapyI paint what makes me feel good, what soothes me, what helps me release certain hard emotions. I never have a plan with my abstract painting— I just make a brush stroke and wait to see what happens next—whatever comes out is what I needed at that moment.

If I weren’t an artist, I would be an environmental warrior! I would do hands on environmental work in the field—working for the ocean’s health, biodiversity preservation, raising awareness, climate change activism, helping indigenous communities in the rainforest get titles for their land so they can protect it from loggers and miners, local actions to promote re-using, eliminating plastics, composting, re-building the soil and MORE!

Anything you want to add?

This was super fun—the more we can spread the word about how easy it is to eliminate toxins, the better!

Natural Earth Paint products can be found at www.naturalearthpaint.com

Leah Fanning’s work can be found at www.fanningart.com