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Keeping oil paint fresh

There are a num­ber of strate­gies for keep­ing oil paint from dry­ing out on the palette. One is to put it into the freezer. Another is to sub­merge the paint under water (before using it again, you drain the water away and let any remain­ing drops evap­o­rate). You can also cover your palette in plas­tic wrap to seal out oxy­gen, but that gets kind of messy. Some artists squeeze out a large blob of paint, then let it skin over. When they want to paint again, they cut the skin away with a knife and use the fresher paint inside.

The best paint is fresh paint. In a per­fect world, you would have paint made fresh every morn­ing, but that isn’t prac­ti­cal unless you have an inden­tured ser­vant to wake up at 5:00 AM to mull the day’s paint. The next best paint is fresh from the tube. Fresh paint has the most bind­ing power and the best han­dling. Old paint is sticky. Paint that has been frozen and re-thawed has under­gone chem­i­cal changes—even if it seems OK, it isn’t quite the same stuff. Paint that’s been put under water may absorb some of the water and that also has the poten­tial to cause problems.

Most of the time, I squeeze out only the paint I think I’ll use that day and dis­card any unused paint rather than try­ing to save it. I’ll often save it from one day to the next, but no more than that. I don’t waste a lot of paint, because I don’t put really large blobs of it on my palette any­way. When I need more, I squeeze out more. I’ve seen advice that says you should always have lots and lots of each color of paint ready on your palette, because that some­how makes you freer and more cre­ative. I don’t do that, and I think I’m plenty cre­ative. The worry seems to be that unless you’ve got big honk­ing wads of paint right in front of you’ll be too restrained. Worse yet, you might use the wrong color rather than get up and get more paint. I’ve never done that, because squeez­ing out more paint isn’t really any effort.

So I am a lit­tle stingy with how much paint I put on the palette and always will­ing to squeeze out more on when I need it. Works for me.

Every once in a while, there is a rea­son to save paint for a few extra days. That hap­pens some­times when I’ve made some paint up fresh or when I’ve put a lot of work into mix­ing just the right color. I think the best way to save oil paint is by retard­ing its dry­ing rate with clove oil. Clove oil slows the dry­ing of oil paint with­out, so far as I can tell, caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant chem­i­cal changes or caus­ing any stick­i­ness. I don’t like to mix clove oil with my paint, because that will retard its dry­ing after its been applied to the paint­ing. I have heard of one artist who has lots of small glass jars. She saves paint by smear­ing some clove oil inside a each jar and then putting it upside down over a paint blob on a glass palette. What I do is sim­i­lar: I trans­fer my paint to a ceramic butcher’s tray, then smear some clove oil around the sides of the tray and cover it with plas­tic wrap. Most paint will last an extra few days this way. If you like to paint in one layer and you like to play around with wet paint on the sur­face for days at a time, mix a drop of clove oil into each nut of paint on the palette. It will stay work­able for a long time.

Posted in art materials, oil painting, painting.

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18 Responses

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  1. Incompetent says


    I thought the com­mon sense notion was that oil and water do not mix?

    Lately I’ve been stor­ing left­over paint in small con­tain­ers but found that even a small air pocket can begin oxi­da­tion. I’ve been adding dis­tilled water — do you advise against this practice?

  2. David says


    That’s com­mon sense, but it doesn’t mean that chem­i­cal reac­tions between var­i­ous com­po­nents of oil (which com­prises many dif­fer­ent sub­stances), pig­ment, and water can’t hap­pen. I’m not a chemist, but I worry about using water to stop oxi­da­tion of oil.

  3. Carol says

    What about the Artist Palette Seal made by Mas­ter­son (12×16 white pas­tic tray about 11/2” deep with blue lid)? It cre­ates an air­tight enclo­sure to pre­serve oil or acrylic paints for a few days. You put your palette inside, snap on the lid, push air out of one cor­ner and reseal. It works pretty well. I sup­pose you could also sup­ple­ment with plas­tic wrap as well. A lot of peo­ple put it in the frig, but I just don’t have that kind of space to spare!

  4. phil williams says

    David… as you may have seen on another forum, I’m doing the paint in a jar, under water thing… So far my expe­ri­ence is six weeks in a small jar under water and the paint appears and works as fresh as the day I put it in the jar and cov­ered it with water…


  5. David says


    I’m leery of keep­ing paint under water, but if it works for you, that’s great.

  6. Jim says

    I use the water over paint method. Some­times I get a lit­tle water on the can­vas when I’m in a hurry. Makes for some odd effects

  7. Don says

    Have you tried putting un-use paint back in the same tube from which it came , or mixed col­ors into an empty tube. ReTubeit​.com has a method for doing it.

    • David says


      When I mix up a lot of paint, I some­times put it into a tube. I don’t gen­er­ally find it worth my while to put paint back into a tube.

  8. Carol Roque says

    Wow, what a great arti­cle!! Thor­oughly help­ful! Thanks:)

  9. Barry says

    solu­tion guys — pinch your paint, doesn’t mat­ter how much you waste :-)

  10. Frank Zweegers says

    Always thought freez­ing was the best option, but you’re right, even though you can’t see it the paint does change. ..

    • FG says

      The paint does not change when frozen or refrig­er­ated.. The freez­ing point of the oil binder is way below any freezer tem­per­a­ture. The change in the paint is no more than chicken soup that gels and then thaws. It is absolutely not a chem­i­cal change.

  11. harpo says

    I guess when you are a very begin­ner, very… like me, found oil paint, even for so called stu­dents are not cheap….a large tube is $17.00 They said wind­sor is good make..

    • David says

      It depends on the pig­ment and the brand. Earths can often be had very cheaply. So can tita­nium white.

  12. Nada says

    how do you keep the paint from get­ting too dry inside the tubes them­selves? like if you bought an oil col­ors set an haven’t used it in a long while, what would be a method of sav­ing all those paint colors

    • David says


      The only way I know to do that is to squeeze it all out and re-grind it, adding a bit more oil if needed, then re-tube it.

  13. Lana O'Myer says

    I am an artist and inven­tor of a new prod­uct called Paint Savers. Saves your oil and acrylic for weeks! Please check them out at; http://​www​.paintsavers​.org

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