I remember hearing when I was young if an artist wants to make something that lasts they must use toxic materials. It's the nature of organic materials to decay and disintegrate; if you want something to last, it's got to be resist this natural progression.
It's no coincidence that I work with glass paints and enamels from the stained glass tradition. That stuff can last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. If a material can't last that long, I don't want to be bothered with it. Long after Damien's shark has resisted the final taxidermist's attempts to save it and Tracey's bed has driven conservators to despair, my pieces should be able to sit comfortably glowing in the corner -- needing only a change of lights every so often.
However, I care about the environment, and it pains me that some of the materials I need to use to achieve this permanence are, let's face it, toxic. Lead, cadmium, chromium. (Though they are safe in my pieces once the glass has been fired.) So, I want to minimise the amount of these materials I release into the environment.
(I'm also cheap and hate waste.)
In my studio the primary source of enamel waste is the result of washing brushes. Here's how I minimise the amount of enamel I waste and wash down the drain. The core of these ideas came to me from the lovely man and teacher Mark Angus, and have been built upon and adapted to my way of working. I work almost exclusively with water, vinegar, propylene glycol, gum arabic and other water-soluble media. If you work with oils, you'll need to devise your own methods.
First, I use a separate tub of water for each enamel colour I use. Here you see my black and white palettes, and their corresponding black and white tubs of water. These tubs have covers, so they can be kept clean in between uses. I use these to clean and refresh my brushes while painting. Of course, in order for this work, I’ve got to use separate brushes for each colour. Dipping the brush with black enamel into the white tub will pollute the white enamel.
Cover the tubs of water and your glass palettes. This keeps them clean and helps prevent evaporation.
Finally, I wash each brush under cold running water until the water runs clean. By the time I’ve reached this step, there is very little enamel left in the brushes - therefore very little being put into the water stream.
What to do with all that sediment?
So, you've saved the enamel from going down the drain. Now what?
Usually in my work flow, I have periods of intensive painting, and periods where I’m not doing much, if any, painting at all. After a week or more of not being disturbed, the enamel in my tubs has settled to the bottom, leaving largely clear water.
For the smaller, color specific tubs, I gently pour the clear water into the large settlement tub by my sink. I can then scrape this untainted paint back onto the appropriate palette and use it as normal.
I don't like to leave this clear water sitting around too long. Once all the toxic stuff starts to settle out, things start to grow in it.
So, I gently pour the clear water out of the large tub, leaving the mixed colour enamel sediment at the bottom.
I usually let this set out for a day to dry out somewhat, then I scrape the sediment out of the bottom and into a tub marked ‘Settlement.' I don't worry if I'm not able to scrape every last bit out; it can always stay in the bottom of the tubs for the next lot. I refill the large tub with water and set it back beside the sink.
The sediment from the ‘Settlement’ tub is going to be a mongrel mix of every enamel I’ve used. It will also likely have dust and stray brush hairs in it. I can either set it aside to use in a project later – if I want some slightly dirty, grey-ish enamels. If I’m teaching outside my studio, I can either offer this sediment to the students to take home with them and use (if they're feeling brave), or it can be painted onto waste glass from the class and fired with the last firing. In this case, the enamel is still ‘wasted’, but it is affixed to the glass and can be thrown away without worrying about it polluting the water.
What methods do you have for reducing the waste from your glass enamels?