Gluten Sensitivity and the Artist: Avoiding Wheat Flour in Art Supplies

flour-49689_640We use products every day with no thought for how they are made or their ingredients. This ignorance is dangerous. Gluten sensitivity can be a serious problem for those who build objects or create works in the physical realm, from painters to construction workers. For background on this condition, a growing problem for people all over the globe, please read our introduction to the subject here. Wheat flour is often used to thicken art supplies and construction materials, just like you might use it to thicken a sauce for your evening meal. Now, some people will tell you that gluten can’t be absorbed through the skin, but the truth is we don’t know that for sure. It’s possible that some people are so allergic that they do react to touching gluten, or they may just not remove it completely from their skin and under their fingernails before eating, putting in their contacts, or biting their nails. Another issue is dust. When gluten is airborne it can be sucked into the lungs, ingested or get into the eyes. These exposures will result in something which we gluten sensitives call a “glutening”. We may get dizzy, disoriented or nauseous, and heartburn, diarrhea, and joint pain are likely on their way. Glutenings can last for a long time; mine range from a few days to a week.

Colorful wheatpaste in Oaxaca. Mexico
Colorful wheatpaste in Oaxaca. Mexico

We all have seen street art or graffiti, in which pictures or writing are painted, scratched or otherwise imprinted on surfaces in public places. One variant that might not be as familiar is called wheatpaste, in which paper images are affixed to a wall using a glue made from flour and water. Remember, regular all purpose flour is wheat flour, so if you see pasted images in your neighborhood, resist the urge to touch them– it’s not good for the art and these beauties are probably bathed in gluten.  What would you do if you were a street artist with gluten intolerance? You could avoid the problem by using spray paint, provided you check labels and are on the lookout for gluten, but you don’t have to. Paste can be made from other flours. Check out this rice paste made by Amaco or this recipe (also rice paste), used for Japanese paper crafts.

© Lollyman with CCLicense
© lollyman with CCLicense

Papier mâché is the construction of objects from paper soaked in glue and formed into shape. Traditionally the glue used is wheatpaste, but it can also be made by substituting the rice paste mentioned above. Since papier mâché is often painted, gesso, which is often used to prepare canvases for painting, is a great alternative as well. Check labels and call companies to make sure that anything you buy is free from gluten. It sneaks in all over the place. Parents of gluten intolerant children need to be very involved with school art projects and should be ready to suggest alternatives. There is a great post for parents here which lists safe products. Another concern with papier mâché is that is often used to make craft items and dolls that sometimes end up in the hands of children, despite the fact that they aren’t overly durable. Friends, don’t let kids play with those items– if they are gluten intolerant or have friends that are, someone could become extremely sick. If you handle them yourself, wash your hands frequently. As to masks, bracelets, and even decorative dishes made from the substance, be aware that a reaction is possible; it’s going to depend on your degree of sensitivity.

© patti haskins with CCLicense
© patti haskins with CCLicense

It’s hard to remember all of this, especially with the whimsy and fun that is inherent in papier mâché and our failure to recognize objects made from it. It’s light weight, often painted and shows up in crafts and on theater stages all the time. To see some great art and a video of the process, take a look at the work of Mélanie Bourlon, which you can see in this great post from all things paper. Awesome detail and clever. Experimentation will probably be required to find the best substitute for wheatpaste, depending on what you are making. This can be a point of pride for an artist, sort of like the painters of the past who mixed their own colors before color became more standardized. It becomes part of your brand. An advantage to making your own recipe is that you don’t have to worry about accidental contamination during production or wheat derivatives disguised under different names. Awareness is key to staying calm and in control. Next time: Gluten Sensitivity, Sculptors and Construction Workers

7 thoughts on “Gluten Sensitivity and the Artist: Avoiding Wheat Flour in Art Supplies

  1. divamover Reply

    Reblogged this on Move Sleep Eat and commented:
    You may have observed the growing presence of gluten-free products at your local market. While this is a marketing and dietary trend, it is a serious issue for people who are gluten intolerant. It’s not just in things you eat! Gluten is used as filler in a wide range of non-edible products. I thank Katherine McDaniel for increasing my awareness and educating me about gluten sensitivity. Read and learn!

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  5. avalon Reply

    For sure animal based glues are evil to use and artist should be moral authority. CMC, PVA and starch glues work just fine.

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Hi avalon! Yes, I completely understand your point and agree that we don’t need to use things that are derived by cruel means. It’s important to know what is in your glue, whether the ingredients will make people sick or torture and kill other beings. CMCs and PVA are gluten free sources, and starch glues can be if they are not made from wheat, barley or rye. Thanks for bringing up this issue, which is not within the scope of the article, but is also related to an artist’s branding. For those who would like to know what CMC and PVA are, I’ll post some links. Thank you!!

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