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Oil painting without solvents

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).
  • 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.

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65 Responses

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  1. Fefe says

    Thanks so much for your post. I tried water mix­able oils from W&N, they are beyond hor­ri­ble, they are incred­i­bly rigid out of the tube and take a lot of thin­ner (not water, since that iron­i­cally makes the “water mix­able” oil paints unsta­ble), I went back to oil after a few days and now I’m using Win­ton W&N with refined oil.

    I will prob­a­bly switch to their pre­mium oil, I just hope the con­sis­tency is the same as the more “stu­dent grade” Win­ton oil.

    Brush­ing your brush with oil is really easy once you get the hang of it.

  2. Fefe says

    Regard­ing Liquin, I don’t use it either, there are so many chem­i­cals in liquin, I tried it when it was all the rage but I couldn’t han­dle the smell, very nasty stuff, I’m back to oils and never missed liquin.

  3. yikori says

    I tried this for a while now. My tip would be to rely on brights more, they allow you to pick up so much paint, they allow you to han­dle the heavy paint much eas­ier, and they don’t cre­ate an unwanted impasto effect like flats do with heavy paint.

    After the block in is done you tran­si­tion to softer brushes of course. Bright also became my favorite type of brush lol.

  4. Ancient Painter says

    Thank you ever so much for this post­ing. I live is in gov’t hous­ing= small qters for my stu­dio + I’m a long term veg­e­tar­ian. My guess is some of your stu­dents may have requested an alter­na­tive to eggs so I’m request­ing that info from you. If it can be avoided, it’ll be a lot eas­ier for me all around. Look­ing fwd to your response before I pur­chase a new set of oils– so far I’ve been seri­ously con­sid­er­ing try­ing David Gray’s palette (Seat­tle) which uses mostly M Gra­ham that I’ve never tried before. My old set, which I’ll use up, is Gam­blin. I want more qual­ity out of my paint for my next work. Kindly send a response directly to my email where I’m sure to find it. Again, thank you for this info on solvent-free oil ptg

  5. Ancient Painter says

    Oh help. I never ever post. Please switch my name to “Ancient Painter”.

  6. David says

    Ancient Painter,

    Changed your name as requested.

    I tend to respond here rather than in email so that oth­ers can see things. I’m not sure what you mean by an alter­na­tive to egg as egg media are dis­cussed in this arti­cle but so are sev­eral oth­ers. If you need an emul­si­fy­ing agent for oil paint other than oil, one alter­na­tive is hide glue (distemper).

    Hope you do well with the Gra­ham paint. It’s very liq­uid, which may or may not be to your taste.

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