Acrylic paint is a widely used medium in the art world due to its versatility and durability.
However, from releasing volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) to their contributions to plastic waste, energy expenditure, and water pollution, the plastic polymers used to make acrylic paint can harm the environment.
So, here, we explore some of the best eco-friendly alternatives to acrylic paint that have minimal toxic chemicals, natural ingredients and require less manufacturing.
These alternatives include tempera, poster paint, milk paint, water-based ink, and gouache.
How Are Acrylic Paint Alternatives More Eco-friendly?
The alternatives in this article are more eco-friendly in terms of their components, environmental outcomes, and harmful effects.
To explain, we first need to examine the current issues with acrylics (which we’ve covered in detail in this article):
As you may know, acrylic paints comprise plastic polymers such as polymethyl methacrylate, poly butyl acrylate, and poly ethyl acrylate.
These are plastic molecules joined together in chain-like structures with water and pigment.
While they do not contain oils, research shows that these plastic components can degrade over time, releasing harmful VOCs.
VOCs, also known as volatile organic chemicals, are highly soluble vapors that can pollute the air and irritate humans and wildlife.
Among other issues, studies note that acrylic paints can contribute to plastic waste, energy expenditure, and water pollution.
Considering these points, the key aspects of any acrylic paint alternatives would ideally avoid many of these problems – thus providing more eco-friendly use and disposal.
5 Eco-friendly Alternatives to Acrylic Paint
Here, we’ll look at options with minimal toxic chemicals, natural (i.e. non-plastic or oil-based ingredients), and those that don’t need extensive manufacturing, which wastes energy and resources.
1. Egg Tempera
Egg tempera is an age-old medium that dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece, China, and Babylonia.
In the most classical form during the Renaissance up to the Enlightenment, egg whites and yolks were combined with colored pigments and other experimental emulsions by famous artists such as Raphael, Botticelli, and William Blake.
An emulsion is a mixture of two immiscible liquids (in this case, water and pigment) stabilized with an emulsifying agent (in this case, the egg yolk).
The egg yolk contains a substance called lecithin, which acts as an emulsifier and helps to bind the pigments and water together.
When the egg yolk mixture is mixed with pigments and water, the lecithin molecules surround the pigment particles, preventing them from clumping together and separating from the water-based solution.
This results in a stable mixture that artists can use for painting.
When the egg tempera paint is applied to a surface, the water in the emulsion evaporates, leaving behind a layer of pigment particles bound together by the dried egg yolk.
Overall, egg tempera is a good alternative for acrylic paint because of its luminous, matte finish and long-lasting properties.
Using a guide from the Royal Academy, you can make it at home with ingredients you may already have in your cupboard, such as chalk, food spices, and makeup, in lieu of pigment.
This saves any plastic packaging needed to purchase paint, and you can avoid waste by only making as much as you need.
Plus, you can skip the energy-intensive nature of the paint-making industry all in one go.
Just remember that it requires a skilled hand and a lot of patience due to its fast drying time and the need for multiple layers to build up depth and color.
2. Poster paint
Unfortunately, these glues and resins contain plastic components and are not an ideal substitute for acrylic.
To create non-toxic poster paint, many brands have replaced this plastic component with other natural binders, such as:
Starches (i.e., potato starch or cornstarch), is an abundant and cheap carbohydrate found in most plants.
It is composed of a complex chain of sugar molecules, making it a suitable binder for poster paints, with potato starch, in particular, having a high viscosity which makes them ideal as a painting medium as it will dry more slowly.
Starch is suitable for use with most pigments and provides good binding power, resulting in strong color and good adhesion to the paper or canvas.
Just keep in mind, as a natural substance, it will be prone to mold if not stored or dried correctly.
Cellulose is a material that is derived from plant sources, such as wood pulp or cotton, that helps maintain the structural integrity of plant cells.
In powder form, cellulose acts as a thickening agent due to its ability to absorb water and form a gel-like substance.
It is relatively cheap compared to synthetic binders and is transparent when dry, which can be desirable for some artists.
Just remember, it can be difficult to dissolve in water and can result in lumps or uneven texture in the paint when not correctly mixed.
It may not provide enough binding power for some pigments, resulting in weak color and poor adhesion to the paper or canvas, so you may need to experiment to get the best outcome.
It’s also worth noting that cellulose can also be prone to mold growth if not used quickly or stored properly.
Gum water is made from boiling water, and gum arabic, a product derived from Senegalia Senegal, which is a type of pea plant.
Although gum arabic has a very low viscosity, it can help you achieve the glossy and vibrant finish we see in acrylic paint.
Moreover, since it is plant-based, it does not produce VOCs. However, it can be expensive compared to synthetic binders.
Gum water can also be prone to cracking if used with the incorrect ratio of water and pigment, so again, experimentation may be needed.
All of these options can produce non-toxic and eco-friendly alternatives to acrylic paint, with varying effects and outcomes.
You may just need to work trial and error to find the best application for you.
3. Milk Paint
Another interesting option is milk painting, also known as casein painting.
Casein is a phosphoprotein derived from cows’ milk. In its homemade curd form made from soured skim milk, casein has been a traditional adhesive and binder for more than eight centuries.
The caseins act as a binder, naturally dispersing in an aqueous solvent while carrying relatively large quantities of calcium and calcium phosphate, making it a good painting medium as it will set nicely.
When prepared without adding additives and harmful pigments, it is VOC and plastic-free.
You can find an easy guide provided by Martha Steward, which uses the juice of a lemon mixed with 1 quart of skim milk in a large bowl.
The mixture is left overnight at room temperature to induce curdling.
It is then poured through a sieve lined with cheesecloth to separate the solid curds from the liquid whey.
This curd can then be mixed with natural or mineral pigments and used to paint.
However, it’s important to note that homemade milk paints do spoil and must be used up the same day.
Not to worry, though. The sour smell will disappear once the paint has dried. It will provide an antique-looking and textured finish that many artists admire.
4. Water-based Inks & Paints
While watercolor paints can be a useful medium in and of itself, since we are looking at creating alternatives to acrylic paint, we want to focus on water-based inks.
According to the art supplier EtchrLab, while watercolors and inks can achieve similar effects and have a similar composition, the effect of ink is much brighter.
This is because of how the color particles are suspended in the solvent (i.e., water).
In the case of watercolors, pigments don’t fully dissolve into the water but are suspended by the binder, allowing hues of color to mix.
But it also means that the subsequent layers of colors can dull the brightness of the paint overall.
Comparatively, inks often use dyes as opposed to pigment, which means that color particles are completely dissolved in the medium giving a more vibrant effect.
In short, the main three ingredients are the same – a binder such as gum arabic, a solvent, and colorant – but with inks, a dye is used instead of pigment.
While synthetic dyes are usually the preferred choice for commercial inks, these are frequently derived from harmful petrochemicals.
Instead, to create non-toxic, VOC, and plastic-free inks, you can use natural dyes, such as roots, berries, bark, leaves, vegetables, and lichen.
For instance, you can use a combination of the primary colors to create any shades you will need:
Yellow – Turmeric dye comes from the turmeric plant and creates bright yellow shades.
Blue and red – Boiled red cabbage can produce both red and blue shades depending on PH.
It will turn a blue hue when alkaline (such as with the addition of baking soda) and red when acidic (such as with the addition of vinegar).
Gouache paint is a type of water-based paint that is often used in art to create opaque and highly pigmented images.
Unlike watercolor, gouache paint does not allow the paper surface to show through as it forms a thicker layer of paint.
Tate notes that larger percentages of the binder are used in gouache than watercolor, along with various amounts of inert pigments such as chalk to enhance its opacity.
Compared to watercolor, this aspect of gouache makes it more comparable to acrylic, as painters can use it to create highly detailed, colorful, vibrant, and opaque images.
According to Chapman University, gouache paint is nearly identical in makeup to watercolor, consisting of pigment and a water-soluble binder that allows the paint to be altered even after it dries with the addition of water.
However, the opacity of the gouache comes from the white pigment or chalk (calcium carbonate) that is added along with the colored pigment and binder to make it less transparent.
You can use a gum arabic binder for gouache, the same as that used in watercolor paint.
One advantage of gouache paint is that it can be an eco-friendly alternative to acrylic paint.
Acrylic paint uses synthetic polymers and often contains toxic chemicals that can harm the environment.
Gouache paint, on the other hand, is water-soluble and typically made with natural pigments.
As such, it can be an excellent choice for artists looking for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option for their artwork.
Do These Alternatives Work Equally Well?
Yes, these alternatives can work exceptionally well as acrylic paint alternatives.
Namely, if you understand how paints are made, you can play around with the composition of the ingredients to get the desired effect.
To give you an overview, there are four main ingredients of most paints:
- Pigments are finely ground particles that provide color, opacity, and other physical properties to paint.
They are usually made from minerals, organic compounds, or synthetic materials.
Standard pigments include titanium dioxide (used as white), iron oxide (used as red and ochre), and carbon black (used as black).
- Binders, also called resins, are the primary components that hold the pigments together and adhere the paint to the painted surface.
They provide physical and chemical properties such as hardness, flexibility, and water resistance to the dried film.
- Solvents are liquids that help dissolve the binders and pigments in the paint, making it easier to apply to the painted surface.
Organic solvents such as alcohols, esters, and ketones are typically used in solvent-based paints, while water is used in water-based paints.
- Additives are chemicals added to paint in small quantities to improve its performance or characteristics.
For example, additives can improve the spreadability of the paint, prevent foaming, increase its shelf life, or provide mold resistance.
Many types of additives are used in paint, and they can be either natural or synthetic.
With acrylic paint, the composition is around 41% water, 32% polymer binder, and 6.5% binder and additives.
From this, we can see the main issues are with the binder (being plastic), additives, and pigments.
The pigments in acrylic paint often include titanium dioxide, which, while important to the vibrancy of acrylic paints, has been noted in research to be an irritant and carcinogen, and has some risk relating to water pollution.
This is where acrylic paint alternatives can be a great eco-friendly option.
We can replace the binder with some of the above-mentioned choices, such as egg yolk, milk, or gum arabic, combined with plant-based or natural pigments to create more environmentally sustainable paint.