The joy and the curse of oil paint is how long it takes to dry. It’s great to have lots of time to work with the paint, re-do mistakes, and get those gradients and edges just right. But then, in multi-layered painting, there are times where you just need to stop and let the paint dry. For days. It can be very disruptive to artistic momentum.
Some painters are fine with letting paintings dry for days or even weeks. They work on more than one piece at a time and come back to each one when it’s ready. But sometimes you want stay with one piece, working every day. Here are some ways to control the rate at which oil paintings dry:
- Paint in thin layers (like the thickness of a normal coat of house paint).
- Avoid slow-drying pigments like titanium white and ivory black. Use fast-drying pigments like lead white and burnt umber.
- Use paints ground in linseed oil. Avoid paints made with slow-drying oils like safflower and poppy. Also avoid walnut oil, which dries faster than safflower or poppy, but slower than linseed.
- Use a lean lead-containing medium such as Maroger’s (in very small amounts).
- Add a bit of solvent to the first layer. Sprits of turpentine and oil of spike interact chemically with the paint, causing it to take up oxygen more rapidly and dry faster. Mineral spirits do not react in any significant way, but all solvents will make the paint layer thinner, which does make paint dry faster. Don’t add so much solvent to paint that it becomes washy or watery. Just add a little bit.
- Paint on a panel primed with glue-chalk gesso. The first layer will have some oil absorbed by the gesso, so the paint dries more quickly.
- Add small amounts of metallic driers to the paint. I prefer lead napthenate. I add one tiny drop (from a toothpick) per blob of paint on the palette and mix thoroughly. Excessive use of driers will damage the paint film, but that much should not be any problem. I generally add driers only to slow-drying pigments.
- Paint on a copper panel. The first layer of your painting will dry more quickly.
Some painters also use alkyd mediums such as Liquin, Neo-Meglip, and Galkyd. I don’t use alkyd mediums and I don’t recommend them. However, they do make oil paint dry faster.
When I need to, I can get oil paint dry in a day, so I don’t usually have to wait for a layer to dry before I can paint over it. Sometimes, I choose to use a medium that makes the paint dry more slowly, or I use a slow-drying pigment like titanium white. But when I do that, I know that the paint will need extra time to dry. My glazing medium (a 50/50 mixture of black oil and Venice turpentine) is somewhat slow-drying, so glazes usually take two or three days to dry.
It’s also the case that I often complete one section of a painting at a time. That way, it doesn’t matter whether yesterday’s paint is dry, because today I’m working on a different part of the picture.
Update 22 February 2007: In a comment on this post, Louis R. Velasquez pointed out to me that some solvents do cause oil paints to dry more quickly via chemical action. I have corrected the information in this post. I am grateful to Louis for pointing out my error.
Update 19 February 2008: Added painting on copper panels as another way to make oil paint dry more quickly.