Artist John Sabraw completed this painting using pigments from a polluted stream.
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John Sabraw, Bijagos, 2013. Oil on canvas, 72x96in. (182.9x243.8cm). ©John Sabraw.
Sabraw and Riefler collect polluted water from local rivers and streams and then convert the toxins into pigments.
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Courtesy of John Sabraw.
An artist used Air Ink to paint this mural in Hong Kong.
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Courtesy of Graviky Labs.
This rendering shows a device that fits over a car’s tailpipe and captures pollutants before they can be released into the air.
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Courtesy of Graviky Labs.
Turning Poison Into Paint
Scientists and engineers transform pollution into art media

By Paul Cates | for Scholastic Art

Cars, factories, refineries, and mines introduce toxins into our world every day. But scientists and artists are finding new ways to use these pollutants in a positive way: to create pigments and paints. Their efforts not only make usable media for painters, but also remove poisons from our environment.

Fresh From the River

Ohio’s many abandoned mines have leaked toxic metals into some rivers and streams, leaving the waterways unable to support plants and animals. A pair of Ohio University professors are breaking new ground by turning the contaminants into paint.

First, John Sabraw, an art professor, and Guy Riefler, an engineering professor, carefully collect water samples from their local rivers and streams. Then, in a laboratory, they put the water in tanks that aerate it with bubbles. This separates the pollutants from the water, making them into a sludge that consists mostly of iron oxide. The professors combine this waste with various polymers (chemical compounds) and resins (substances used to make plastic) to make acrylic paint. They have also experimented with drying the iron oxide and mixing it with linseed oil to make oil paint.

Sabraw then uses the paint in his ecologically themed art. The example above is from a series of paintings inspired by the universe and the natural world. The team hopes to someday sell the pigments commercially.

Captured at the Source

In India, scientists at a company called Graviky Labs are using exhaust from cars to create a paint they’ve named Air Ink. Experts at the company designed a simple device, called a Kaalink, that attaches to the end of a car's exhaust pipe. It catches pollutants before they are released into the air.

The scientists collect the grimy contaminants from the Kaalink and treat them in a way that makes the resulting substance nontoxic and safe to use. Then they convert it into a pigment and combine it with oils and pressurized gas. This process creates a spray paint that behaves much like any other paint in an artist’s tool kit.

These new techniques change toxic waste into materials that anyone can use. But don’t forget that they started out as poisons and that the experts who work with them have special equipment to keep themselves safe. You definitely don’t want to try this at home!