Clean air in the studio

How do you get rid of the stink without opening windows?
Midsummer mid-Atlantic, 18X24, oil on canvas, unframed; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.

“Got any air purifier recommendations?” my correspondent wrote. “My new studio windows don’t open.” She’s an oil painter who uses Gamsol as a solvent. She has only two entrances, both of which open to interior spaces.

Oil paint is pigment suspended in a binder, usually linseed oil. The oil is neither toxic nor flammable. The pigments can’t get airborne, so they’re not an air pollutant.
It’s the Gamsol that’s raising a stink. Not all odorless mineral spirits (OMS) are created the same. Different brands use different additives to speed up drying time. Gamsol contains naphtha. Gamsol is mildly flammable but, more importantly, a known aspiration toxin.
Beauchamp Point, 12×16, oil on Archival cotton panel, unframed; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.
The best solution is to use an exhaust fan and provide adequate cross-ventilation. Needless to say, OMS should never be used near an open flame. Containers (including trash bins for used paper towels or rags) should be kept closed when not in use. Dump the trash daily.
My correspondent uses paper towels, not rags. That increases her ventilation problem, because OMS evaporates faster from thin paper towels than from thick rags.
She’s located on the Gulf Coast, where heating is not an issue. Working windows would solve her issue. However, those of us in the north face the same question. The recommended turnover for studio air is ten times an hour, something that’s nearly impossible in a cold climate. There are air exchange systems available, but they’re expensive.
Horno, 8X10, oil on archival cotton panel, unframed; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.
There are two kinds of indoor pollution: particle and gaseous. Particle pollution includes airborne drops of liquid and solids like pastel dust. These particles can be incredibly small, but they can still be trapped in a HEPA filter.
Paint solvents emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These gasses are made up of chemical molecules bonded together and vaporized into the air. The molecules are vastly smaller than even the tiniest particle, and a HEPA filter won’t touch them.
Luckily for artists, there’s been a lot of attention paid recently to “gassing off” by interior home finishes like carpets, paint, vinyl, etc. That means we have air cleaners available to remove VOC molecules from the air. These are based on activated carbon, a substance that adsorbs VOCs effectively.
However, carbon filters are useless for particles. If you’re filtering the air, you might as well take the dust out too. For that purpose, they make combination air cleaners as well. It turns out that both of my old HEPA air cleaners also have charcoal filters in them—I checked.
Today, you have a choice of activated charcoal, HEPA, or combination filters, all starting at a few hundred bucks and going up from there. But I found an even cheaper solution, one that will take less room than an air cleaner—a simple bag of activated charcoal that I can set near my painting station.
My correspondent would be wise to get those windows unstuck for other reasons—fire being the first thing that comes to mind. But failing that, she can still get cleaner air using activated charcoal.
My Hidden Holiday Sale for readers of this blog is on its sixth day—check here to see all the additions! On Friday, the sale goes public with advertising, so your chance for first dibs is limited.