November is World Vegan Month. According to Wikipedia:
“Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition to being vegetarian, do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products.”
In reality, as there are different types of vegetarian there are different types of vegan. There are those who follow a vegan diet as described above but also those who take that further and avoid the use of animals for any purpose (ethical vegans). The term ‘vegan’ was first used in 1944 by Donald Watson when he founded The Vegan Society in England. At the time it meant non-dairy vegetarian.
Speaking as a vegetarian who avoids using animal derivative products and as an artist, I was interested to look into the implications of the ethical vegan lifestyle on an artist. How do vegan artists manage to avoid animal products in their materials? It takes some effort but there are resources to help you in your quest. For example, Empty Easel provides a list of vegan art supplies which are free from animal products and links for more detail and I have referred to some of their information for this article.
Let’s start with brushes. Traditional brushes tend to be made from hair taken from trapped or farm-raised animals. As an artist the one that immediately comes to mind is sable (marten) but there is also squirrel and mongoose. I remember my art teacher at school extolling the virtues of a sable brush for watercolour painting. Other brushes are made using horse hair, pig bristles or ox hair. Long ago I started using synthetic brushes and good quality ones are easily available.
Some artist pencils contain beeswax but there are good quality brands that don’t. Charcoal can come from vines and willow trees but there is also bone charcoal which comes from, you’ve guessed, charred animal bones. Oil pastels are often made by combining pigments with wax and animal fat but soft pastels are usually animal free. Not all pigments are animal free, ox gall (from cows) is commonly used in watercolour paints and many black pigments come from charred animal bones – there are many more examples of course, this is just a basic overview. When you look more deeply you come across issues with inks (sepia comes from cuttlefish or squid for example), fixatives, varnish etc, etc.
You would think that paper and canvas was relatively easy but in fact rabbit-skin glue is used for sizing oil painting canvases. A lot of watercolour paper is sized with gelatin which is made by boiling animal skins, tendons, calf hooves and bones. These days you can find handmade paper and paper sized with starch.
So, it is far from easy being a vegan artist, though since there has been increasing interest in the vegan lifestyle in recent years, more alternatives are becoming available. It is largely about being a knowledgeable consumer and researching alternative materials on-line and knowing which ones to avoid and which to ask about. And you don’t have to be vegan artist to make these choices of course.
For more information on vegan art supplies Empty Easel provides an overview and links to other useful sources of information. If you would like more information about the vegan lifestyle there is a wealth of information available via The Vegan Society.