I am fortunate in having no particular sensitivity to the aromatic solvents such as spirits of turpentine and oil of spike often used in oil painting. I take reasonable precautions while painting to avoid overexposure and ensure good ventilation.
Some people are specifically sensitive to spirits of turpentine, but are able to use alternate solvents such as oil of spike. Others are very sensitive to aromatic solvents, but are able to tolerate modified substances such as odorless mineral spirits. (I don’t like using OMS with oil paints because I don’t like the way they interact with paint. I also have a slight skin sensitivity to mineral spirits.) Note that not all spirits of turpentine are the same. Most modern gum turpentines are made from boiled tree stumps, which makes a nasty-smelling product. Look for stuff that doesn’t have a foul odor.
But there are some individuals who just can’t be around any of the solvents that are useful for oil painting. And even people with no sensitivity may find themselves taking a class or in some other situation in which solvents are not allowed. I think it’s useful, therefore, to discuss strategies for working with oil paint without solvents.
I’d first like to note that, for the first 100 years of oil painting, there is scant evidence of solvent use. Paintings from that period often exhibit very fine detail, demonstrating that just about any sort of painting in oil is possible without solvents. Since those paintings have often lasted very well (without excessive cracking or yellowing), it also demonstrates that multi-layered solvent-free painting can be done without having to dilute the paint with excessive oil or by egregiously violating the principle of fat over lean.
Water miscible oil paints
I’ve written about these convenience paints before. They are made with oils that have been chemically modified so that they are mixable with water. I don’t use them for three reasons. First, while it is possible to dilute them with water, it’s not a good idea to paint with a lot of water added because that can disrupt the binding strength of the paint. Second, since adding water makes an emulsion, dark-colored paints with water added become a bit lighter, then darken as the water evaporates. Third, because water miscible paints are mostly marketed to amateurs, the paints are mostly not of the same quality as artist-grade oil paints. For these reasons, I personally don’t find water miscible oil paints to be a good strategy for oil painting without solvents.
M. Graham paints
There is one company that has achieved some success by promoting a solvent-free strategy with their products. M. Graham is the only manufacturer, so far as I know, that makes all of their oil paints with walnut oil. They suggest the avoidance of solvents in favor of diluting the paint with walnut oil or with their faster-drying walnut oil alkyd medium. They tend to promote the idea that using their paints, with their special solvent-free methods, is safer. I’ve head of demonstrations they do in which company representatives use their walnut medium to cook with. It’s true that walnut oil is safe, but their marketing is also a bit misleading. All of the other oils used by their competitors are also safe, and you can cook with any of them. While their paints are well-made, there is nothing about them that is particularly more suited to solvent-free painting than any other oil paint. Any of the solvent-free painting methods described in their product literature will work just as well with other brands of paint and with plain linseed oil.
Using regular oil paints without solvents
There isn’t any one approach to solvent-free painting. The most appropriate methods will depend to some degree on your style of painting and which materials you feel comfortable working with. Here are some ideas:
- Use paints that are smooth and creamy, not thick and pasty. Avoid brands like Old Holland and Williamsburg which, while of high quality, are often difficult to work with without dilution. Instead, use paint brands like Doak, Studio Products, and (notwithstanding what I said above) M. Graham. These paints are more like fresh-mulled paint and are far easier to work with without additives.
- For the initial layers of a painting, use lean mediums that contain no solvents. Emulsions using egg yolk, hide glue, and small amounts of oil are very lean and can be effective, fast-drying dilutents for oil paints if you prefer initial layers to be loose and easy to apply. I sometimes make a medium consisting of 3 parts egg yolk to 1 part black oil or linseed oil, for example. It can be slightly diluted with water and, mixed with oil paints, allows free application of a lean underpainting layer. Tad Spurgeon provides this recipe:
If you want to use your regular oils without solvent you can create an emulsion using 1 part egg yolk and 2 parts warm glue solution (3T glue to 2c water, above) and paint with that on panels. The emulsion will set as it cools but still be workable: you can add a bit more water if this feels too thick: warm slightly and shake it well to re-emulsify. You can also add a bit of oil to this (first, before the water) and/or a small proportion of one of the water soluble wax products sold for tempera. You can also emulsify Canada Balsam or Strasbourg Turpentine into this but I developed this for students who paint in community places where solvents are forbidden and felt that might cause problems. I’ve actually ended up like the simplicity of the egg yolk and glue: it sets up very quickly, holding the pigment although the oil is still wet. If you feel like you’re working too tightly you might enjoy a few sketches in this stuff.
- For upper layers of a painting, add very small amounts of oil (I prefer linseed oil or black oil) to the paint in order to get it to flow more freely. It doesn’t take much, especially when using one of the paint brands recommended above.
- Do initial layers of a painting on panel in egg tempera or tempera grassa. You can then glaze over the initial very lean layers with oil paint (to which you can add a small amount of oil when necessary).
- Paint with a wax-based medium such as this one from Studio Products.
- While painting, clean your brushes with linseed oil. Dip the brush in oil, wipe with a paper towel, repeating until the brush is sufficiently clean. At the end of a session, clean your palette with a paper towel dipped in oil and your brushes with soap and water.
- Keep your paint warm. I’m not kidding. Warm oil paint flows a lot more smoothly than cold oil paint. You can keep paint on a glass palette on top of an electric hot plate. Just be careful never to use an open flame or an exposed heating element near oil paint or any solvents.
- You can thin your paint with an alkyd-based medium such as Liquin or Galkyd. I don’t like alkyd mediums for multi-layer painting. I also hate the way they smell, so I don’t use them.
There is no reason why you can’t paint effectively with oils without solvents, although you will have to adjust your materials and methods. You will have some limitations, but they are not so severe that you will need to give up painting in oil.