Why I Chose Watercolor


Back in the early 1980s I was diagnosed with a strange and dubious condition referred to as environmental illness.  Proponents described it as being allergic to the 20th century and blamed it on pollution, pesticides and modern chemicals.   Mainstream medicine said it was all psychological and that the patients were paranoid and mentally disturbed.

For me it started with sensitivity to pesticides and petrochemicals like diesel and gasoline. Soon I was reacting to fragrances in laundry products, perfumes and cleaning solutions.  I could be feeling fine, but just walking past the detergents and fabric softeners at the grocery store would make me dizzy and nauseous.  I would have to leave the area immediately and get fresh air.  Eventually any exposure would leave me exhausted for days.

Back then many people went to specialty clinics, but their treatment centered around avoidance of all the “triggers” for their symptoms and most of us ended up being very isolated.  Just a simple get-together with friends could become a nightmare…the charcoal lighting fluid for a barbeque, candles on a dining table or a freshly painted room could send me into a tailspin.  Over the years I learned what foods and chemicals to avoid and basically tried to dodge all the exposures that would make me ill for days. 

In the past several years much has changed regarding the understanding of this condition which is now usually referred to as MCS, or multiple chemical sensitivities.  In my case it turned out to be caused by mutations in genes that code enzymes which break down various chemicals.  I was unable to process things like benzenes, formaldehyde, alcohols, vinyl chloride and many other compounds.  There’s really nothing I can to do cure it and a small exposure which would not bother a normal person can become toxic to me very quickly. 

When I decided I wanted to pursue painting more seriously (I started with watercolor pencils) I ran into all kinds of issues with art supplies.  Everything from paper treated with mildewcides to paint preservatives that I could not tolerate almost discouraged me from going ahead with my plans.  Acrylics and oils were totally out for me…even the newer water miscible oil paints caused reactions. 

I finally found two brands of watercolor paints I could tolerate, M. Graham and Daniel Smith.  Both companies are very environmentally conscious.  I don’t buy any paints containing cadmium or cobalt since they are toxic, but so far I haven’t had problems with any of the other pigments.   Unfortunately Winsor & Newton adds something as a preservative to their paints that makes me ill.  I can’t even use a dot of their paint without reacting.

For papers I settled on Fabriano Artistico. Arches treats theirs to prevent mildew and as soon as it got wet, I was in trouble.  Some watercolor artists use boards (instead of paper) that are especially made for watermedia.  However I can’t tolerate whatever the wood is treated with.  Once I brought home a small sample and it made me so sick I had to put it outside!  There is one other surface I can handle and that is Yupo, but it’s a totally different technique than traditional watercolor. 

If you’re reading this and have MCS, I feel for you.  It’s like walking a tightrope every day just to avoid all the things that can potentially make you sick.  But don’t give up if your dream is to become an artist.  Please email me if you need information on particular products or manufacturers.



This entry was posted in Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Non-Toxic Art Supplies. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Why I Chose Watercolor

  1. Pingback: Human Canaries and Friendship | Ichigo Ichie

  2. Heidi says:

    Thank you for posting this – and your preferences for papers and paints. I’ve just entered this world of MCS. I had to dismantle my pottery studio, get rid of so many painting supplies…. actually we got rid of everything due to a mold allergy. We are starting over now and I am soooo sensitive, as is my 9 year old daughter. It is inspiring to hear of another artist – I too have been considering the world of watercolor!

  3. Ienke says:

    Dear Jan,

    I recently found information about MCS and felt like a lot of puzzlepieces came together. For years i’ve been struggeling with my health and have allergies for food and other things and lack of vitamines B12 and B6.
    I live in Holland and there is no recognition about MCS, but I am totally sure it is very real and I am suffering this condition.

    My actual question is: I am to become an art-therapist and ofcourse I’m afraid this condition will negatively affect my profession.
    First of all, I think you are able to help me pick materials that are natural and non-toxic?
    Do you know about (scientific)studies regards MCS and (art-)therapy, i would like to investigate this condition and maybe use it for my final exam/ investigation for my study.
    This for myself, but also for the benefit of every human beeing and animal on this planet!

    Thank you very much in advance!


    Ienke Goldewijk

  4. Slurp says:

    Thanks for this blog. I have MCS among numerous other debilitating illnesses and just got into watercolor paints about 9 days ago and became very ill from them. I never considered they might make anyone ill, even an MCS sufferer. I was using Winsor and Newton Cotman pans (numerous cadmiums) and Cansons 140lb paper from Walmart. I last painted 46ish hours ago and am still reacting. I’ve not yet figured out if it was the paints or the paper, or a combination. But thank you so much for writing this. I searched for nearly 8 hours on MCS and watercolors and yours was the only post. Also I’ve read a number of your posts on WetCanvas.
    I want to purchase some paints and paper. I think I’m going to go with Fabriano Artistico paper and I can’t decide between M Graham or Daniel Smith watercolors yet. Are they both still MCS safe? If so, which ones would you choose? Really, thanks again for this blog… you have no idea how informative sharing your findings is 🙂


    • Zac, glad the information was helpful. I can’t use any Winsor & Newton products because of the biocides they add to the paints (including formaldehyde). I definitely do best with the Fabriano Artistico paper. I use both 140 and 300 lb weight depending on what I am painting. 300 lb does not require any stretching or stapling, but it is quite a bit more expensive. I staple my 140 lb to Gatorfoam board. It does contain some styrene foam and may bother some people with MCS, but after airing out a little I can’t smell it at all.

      I am okay with both M Graham and Daniel Smith watercolors. Some of the earth pigments like raw and burnt sienna or raw and burnt umber have a musty smell, but they have never given me an actual mold type reaction. It just smells like wet dirt. I think M Graham paints are a little easier to rewet. I have different palettes and the cheap plastic ones work fine for me. M Graham is a little more sticky and in humid climates the paint may run if you have it in a kit that gets hot in the sun. I have collected way too many brushes, and over time learned they really aren’t that important. A nice size 6 or 8 sable is fun, but not essential. I see many professional artists now do award-winning paintings just with synthetics. I used a lot of the Simply Simmons brushes from Michael’s or Hobby Lobby when I got started and I also like the Golden Fleece brand from Cheap Joe’s. My favorite synthetics are the Loew Cornell La Corneille series. New brushes can have some odor from either the hair, handle paint or glue in the ferrule. Often you can’t smell it until it is wet, and I think sometimes the hair is treated with a pesticide because I’ve gotten a few that smelled like mothballs (and they never did air out – they were from China). The major brands have never bothered me, but they are awfully expensive. I usually wash the hair in some baking soda and always dry them horizontally (slight slant toward the tip to keep water from staying in the ferrule.

      I would avoid Arches watercolor paper. They do add biocides to the paper to prevent mold and many people react to the smell when it is wet. Strathmore 140 lb isn’t too bad as long as you don’t try to make corrections. Cheap Joe’s has their own brand called Kilimanjaro that I use, also. I haven’t noticed any reaction.

      Please let me know of any brands you do well with. We’re all so different in our reactions, but overall watercolors do seem to be the safest paints. I also enjoy charcoal drawing.


      • Slurp says:

        Per your recommendation I’ve ordered some new stuff, and will let you know how it works soon 🙂 I ordered a 6 tube set of 5ml Daniel Smith starter set just to test it out, and a 20 page block of Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper. I’ve never used premium watercolors nor paper, so this will be interesting. I read the blocks contain glue around the sides, hopefully it won’t affect the MCS issue… guess I’ll see. I’ll regret it if I ordered the wrong type.

        Thanks again for that reply, it was perfect. I hope to by painting again in a few days when these items arrive 🙂

        I enjoy your art, by the way! Checked out your website and it was awesome! It’s inspiring to hear of your health journey and you continuing through art!


      • I’ve never had a problem with the glue on watercolor blocks, so hopefully you’ll be okay. That’s the best way to go since you don’t have to stretch the paper. Keep us posted!


  5. Elena Shadle says:

    Oh my goodness. I’m so glad I found you. Well, first, I”m sorry you suffer this. Anyone that relates to you has such an unfair advantage. I thought I was crazy when I started painting acrylics. Since I can’t smell them, I had no idea I was damaging myself. I knew I had sensitivities to cleaning supplies and some lotions and shampoos, but no idea about perfumes, candles and now paints.
    It took months before I realized my severe sinus issues were from that. I tried watercolors, spent much money, thinking that this would eliminate all my issues. Nothing.
    I can hardly find any information online regarding this!!! I thought it was all in my head. I mean, my joints, my brain, i thought I had dementia for some time. I would just sit and stare at the tv in pain for days, wondering what was happening to me. Eventually I started to notice my neck, back pain and hand pain increased when I painted. It took months to recover from the effects of these “non-toxic” paints. Buzzing in my brain, ringing in my ears, blurry visions, loss of word recall, forgetting basic street and driving rules, chest and rib pain, hormonal issues!
    Ugh…I do have some Daniel Smith paints, but I get just as sick. I haven’t tried other paints, because I had spent so much money on the others i’m afraid to spend more and have it backfire. I wanted to try liquid Dr. Ph Martin’s radiance concentrated colors and see how that goes. Their MSDS sheet seems more innocuous that most watercolors. Maybe Mijello Mission Gold? Anyone tried those? What about the Russian White Night paints?
    If anyone has experience with those, please let me know. I don’t want to give up the only hobby I have left from having an autoimmune disease that makes me allergic to all forms of life and fun.
    My latest attempt is I just bought a cotton mask online, with charcoal filters. Looks like a surgeons mask and gloves. I’ve had reactions to all kinds of gloves and masks already, but I’m still trying. Running out of money trying everything. And of course, the safer it is, the more expensive.
    This probably came off as a vent, it is not. In fact, it is relief that I did not dramatize these problems I was having. I do not have insurance to look into or get diagnosed for MCS, but I have, without a shadow of a doubt, MCS. Maybe different than other individuals, but it’s there and it’s not improving with time, so I have to learn to protect myself.

    • Sorry you’re having such a tough time! I only use M. Graham and Daniel Smith so hopefully someone else will respond about the other brands. Some of the earth colors smell a bit odd, kind of musty or moldy, but they don’t cause me to have an allergic reaction.

      What kind of paper are you using? I know many chemically sensitive people who can’t tolerate Arches. Some manufacturers do add a biocide to the paper to make it more resistant to mold.

      I do a lot of drawing with charcoal and graphite since they’re safe for me. However I could never use kneaded erasers. I finally found a product from the UK called BluTack which you can get without the dye. It works great and doesn’t bother me. Have you tried watercolor pencils?

      I’d be glad to give you some tips on getting diagnosed or treating MCS. You can message me on Facebook or send an email.


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