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Alkyd mediums

There are a num­ber of oil paint­ing medi­ums based on syn­thetic sub­stances called alkyds. Alkyds can also be used as a binder for paints, but I’m specif­i­cally talk­ing about medi­ums made for mix­ing with reg­u­lar oil paint. These include Liquin, Galkyd, Neo-Meglip, and a num­ber of other products.

Although they are pop­u­lar, I don’t use them, for sev­eral reasons.

  1. I don’t think they’ve been around long enough to prove them­selves. While the first pop­u­lar alkyd medium, Liquin from Win­sor New­ton, has been around for decades, it has appar­ently been refor­mu­lated sev­eral times. So we don’t know what mod­ern alkyds do to paint­ings, exactly.
  2. I have heard a few (not many, but a few) reports of delam­i­na­tion in multi-layer paint­ing that artists have blamed on alkyds. It appears that under some cir­cum­stances, one layer of oil paint con­tain­ing alkyd medium may not reli­ably adhere to another layer of paint con­tain­ing alkyd medium. This issue is prob­a­bly not a con­cern for for single-layer alla prima paint­ing. If you do choose to use alkyd medi­ums in multi-layer paint­ing, my rec­om­men­da­tion is to recon­sider. But if you do choose to will­fully ignore my excel­lent advice, you should at least scuff the dried paint in between lay­ers with a kitchen scrubee pad to encour­age mechan­i­cal adhesion.
  3. I like using tra­di­tional paint­ing mate­ri­als. I use some mod­ern pig­ments, but I don’t like using mod­ern binders or medi­ums. That’s just me.
  4. I don’t par­tic­u­larly like the way the cou­ple of alkyd medi­ums I’ve tried handled.
  5. I hate the way they smell. It’s not a strong odor, but it’s insid­i­ous. Com­pared to, say, Canada bal­sam and oil of spike (one of the best smells in the world), alkyds smell like a dis­tant petro­leum refinery.
  6. Used exces­sively, alkyd medi­ums can cause yel­low­ing. So do many of the more tra­di­tional medi­ums, of course, but alkyds do not have “don’t dis­color” as an advan­tage. As with any addi­tive to oil paint, only a very small amount of alkyd medium should be used.
  7. It’s hard to say whether alkyds are “fat” or “lean.” Fat medi­ums dry slowly and are rel­a­tively flex­i­ble. Lean medi­ums dry quickly and are more rigid. Alkyds dry quickly and are flex­i­ble. In multiple-layer paint­ing, the rapid dry­ing of alkyds could cause prob­lems when used with other, slower-drying, fat medi­ums. If you use alkyd medi­ums in multi-layer paint­ing, my rec­om­men­da­tion is to use the same medium for­mu­la­tion through­out the paint­ing, sim­ply using a bit more from one layer to the next. Don’t use other medi­ums as you go.
  8. Some artists seem to use alkyd medi­ums mainly for their prop­erty of caus­ing the paint to dry more quickly. If that’s what you are look­ing for, there are a num­ber of more tech­ni­cally sound methods.

Although they are cheap and eas­ily acces­si­ble, I don’t see any par­tic­u­lar advan­tage that alkyd medi­ums have that might bal­ance out these con­cerns. If you are using medi­ums cor­rectly, the amount that goes into any paint­ing is so small that the expense of even a rel­a­tively expen­sive bot­tle of medium is minis­cule. I admit that I’m a bit of a paint­ing mate­ri­als snob, but I’m OK with that. In my view, alkyd medi­ums are the fast food of oil paint­ing. They are cheap and you can get them almost any­where, but they aren’t very good for you.

I have heard of some artists who become so enam­ored of alkyds that they use them as a medium and also as a final var­nish. That’s an espe­cially bad idea, as most of the com­pa­nies that make alkyd medi­ums will tell you. If used as a var­nish, alkyd medi­ums may cause yel­low­ing. Also, it will not later be pos­si­ble to remove the var­nish when clean­ing the pic­ture, which is a crit­i­cal prop­erty for a var­nish to have.

Update

1/31/07: rewrote with some addi­tional information.

Posted in art materials, oil painting.

Tagged with , .


16 Responses

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  1. Angel says

    I will def­i­nitely give the “sound meth­ods” a try. I’ve been paint­ing, how­ever, with alkyd mediums(namely, the one called “Galkyd”), and I am lov­ing it. It dries fast, and I am able to prac­tice lay­er­ing. It doesn’t smell(at least I don’t smell it), if it smells well the smell is barely there! You could com­pare it to Damar medium. AND, it doesn’t smell one bit as badly as the dreaded TURPENTINE. Surely, you can put the Spike of Laven­der in it to mask the odour, if it seems “insid­i­ous”, the way the old mas­ters did to turps. ??? What are your other con­cerns about Galkyd? I add such a tiny amount to my blobs of paint that are just meant to speed things up, that I am NOT notic­ing any of the bad effects you are describ­ing. (and I var­nish with Damar var­nish)… I know, R.Doak doesn’t rec­om­mend alkyds, but he’s an old fash­ioned guy who doesn’t use com­put­ers, and you seem to work with com­put­ers just fine! I use Galkyd in con­junc­tion with Damar medium, and again, in MINISCULE amounts. There are only pos­i­tive things that I am not­ing every time I paint: beau­ti­ful sheen, and alkyd’s main func­tion, the speed of dry­ing. Don’t tell me Buorgurou would not have used Galkyd if it was avail­able in his times — I know of at least three “bad rep­u­ta­tion” “six­a­tives” is what he called his speed dry­ing medi­ums. Now I am not sure at all if he would have accepted the com­put­ers, hehe!!! What I’m try­ing to say is, Galkyd is not a fast food of medi­ums, as you are try­ing to por­tray it — how­ever, in oil paint­ing the best medium is what suits your needs! So an artist should choose using his/her own research/judgement, not just some MERCHANTS words:”this stuff is bad, but the stuff I sell is great”

  2. David says

    Angel,

    It’s good that you use only a small amount of Galkyd—that’s a smart thing to do with any medium. I am not say­ing that an alkyd medium will cause your paint­ing to explode, just that it could cause prob­lems with multi-layered paint­ing. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent sen­si­tiv­i­ties. I much pre­fer the smell of good tur­pen­tine in a well ven­ti­lated stu­dio to the smell of alkyds.

    I’m not try­ing to sell any­thing (I get no kick­backs, unfor­tu­nately), and I don’t think that Robert Doak knows every­thing there is to know about which paint­ing mate­ri­als are best (I’ve had sev­eral friendly argu­ments with him about such matters).

    I guess we’ll just have to dis­agree on alkyd medi­ums. I hope they work out well for you.

  3. David Patch says

    Hi David,

    I have read your arti­cle with great inter­est. I have done all of the bad things you men­tion above with grif­fin alkyds, and have not noticed any adhe­sion prob­lems, and very faint yel­low­ing of the whites in a four year old pic­ture. Do all oil paints yel­low slightly or is it just alkyd type paints that are prone to this?

    Which brand of ready made up oil paint would you rec­om­mend as the most stable?

    best regards Dave P

  4. David says

    David P.,

    This post refers to the use of alkyd medi­ums with reg­u­lar oil paints, not the use of alkyd paints. For a post that does talk about alkyd paints, see this post.

    Alkyds are not oil paints. How­ever, they do share the prop­erty of yel­low­ing slightly over time (although notice­able yel­low­ing in four years would be pretty quick with reg­u­lar oils). That’s espe­cially the case with paints ground in lin­seed oil (which is the strongest of the oil binders). I don’t have enough expe­ri­ence with alkyds to say whether they yel­low more or less than oil paints.

    Any artist-quality oil paint should have good over­all sta­bil­ity. Like most painters, I have pre­ferred brands, but not because I think one brand is more sta­ble than another.

  5. Incompetent says

    Some­thing I’ve been won­der­ing — for all their dis­ad­van­tages, alkyds have a rep­u­ta­tion for extra­or­di­nary flex­i­bil­ity — wouldn’t this elim­i­nate the risk of crack­ing in medium rich glazes?

    Of course yel­low­ing would be another issue…I’ve painted test swatches and the claims of “non-yellowing” are indeed spu­ri­ous. I guess they mean no more yel­low than they already are? :P

  6. David says

    Incom­pe­tent,”

    Lots of peo­ple use alkyd medi­ums and swear by them. I’ve out­lined my biases above. 100 years from now, con­ser­va­tors will either sing their praises as the sav­iors of late 20th cen­tury and early 21st cen­tury paint­ing, or com­plain about how they’ve caused all sorts of prob­lems. I don’t know which way it will go, but for my part I will avoid them.

    I’ve heard the non-yellowing thing, too, and that does seem kind of silly.

  7. i hate alkyd says

    alkyd sucks & every­one is free to screw their art with that garbage.

  8. David Patch says

    Cheers ^

    Im using the old hol­land stuff now which seems to give bet­ter results than alcid, it took some get­ting used to but fine once you learn how the lin­seed oil behaves, and know when to add a bit of stand oil. V. good pig­ment load :-) regards Dave P

  9. liquin says

    I am using liquin and it gives the results I want but I know how toxic it is. You give 8 good points but no clear alter­na­tive or solu­tion. I know lin­seed oils are good for dry­ing but is it the best or non toxic/least harm­ful in a stu­dio with lit­tle ven­ti­la­tion? Also, is there any non toxic/least harm­ful way to accel­er­ate oil paint­ing dry­ing time?

    • David says

      liquin,

      I don’t know about the tox­i­c­ity of Liquin. I’d sug­gest you check with the manufacturer.

      One way to accel­er­ate dry­ing time is to use quick-drying pig­ments and oils while avoid­ing slow-drying pig­ments and oils. For exam­ple, tita­nium white is a slow drier. Poppy oil is a slow drier. Umbers are fast dri­ers (and accel­er­ate the dry­ing time of paint mix­tures. Lin­seed oil is a rel­a­tively fast drier. If you under­stand the prop­er­ties of your mate­ri­als, you can do more with them.

      The alter­na­tive or solu­tion I’d rec­om­mend is the set of tra­di­tional paint­ing meth­ods described through­out this blog. Take a look around.

  10. Ken says

    Who cares?

    Please ignore that ques­tion. It is not for you to answer.

    A future generation’s per­cep­tion of you as an artist and the artis­tic merit of your work….. these are the pri­mary fac­tors for the longevity of your art.

    All mate­ri­als, even the very best, will fail over a rel­a­tively short time.

    All paint will fade or yel­low, every ground will fail, and dirt grad­u­ally dimin­ish the return of light in every work of art.

    The somber real­ity is that every work of art will require restora­tion or at least major clean­ing in 100 to 150 years.

    The main cul­prit is the very ground. Can­vas will need to be replaced in that period, and this is a dif­fi­cult and expen­sive task. Only art that is highly prized will receive “relin­ing” in the future.

    We place such empha­sis on paints and medi­ums when it is in fact the ground that will first fail.

    If our art is con­sid­ered great in time, then we need not worry unless we are using house paint, as even today’student oils will out­live the can­vas. Some­one will be try­ing patiently to restore our cel­e­brated works and undo any tech­ni­cal mis­takes we have made, within two cen­turies time.

    Of course, if our art is not con­sid­ered great, then even our Old Hol­land and tra­di­tional medi­ums will not restore themselves.

    So, I sug­gest we relax and try out those alkyds, resins, and polymers…..

    or, stick with the tech­niques of the old masters….

    per­haps we are cre­at­ing some­thing great enough to catch the restorer’s eye in 2160.

    • David says

      Ken,

      I’ve made the point before that the most archival prop­erty a paint­ing can have is to be val­ued so much that rich peo­ple will buy it and pay experts to keep it in the best pos­si­ble condition.

      Nev­er­the­less, I don’t per­son­ally think that using mar­ginal mate­ri­als is a good idea. I believe in paint­ing as a craft as well as an art. Artists who value their own paint­ings will make them well, in all senses of the word.

  11. Alejandra says

    I like you. You are like the “Shel­don” of paint­ing. Bazz­inga! Just a joke.
    I am using alkyds right now for an impasto I am try­ing. I can say that I hate the odor and the refin­ery smell is accu­rate, but the results are great. Who knows if it will out­last me? but I hon­estly do not care. There are so many things to try out there that there is no sense on lim­it­ing our­selves with what’s been proven good. Who knows? there might be great things to dis­cover yet.

  12. Jeff Hayes says

    Hi David,

    Thanks as always for the thought­ful dis­cus­sion and use­ful coun­ter­point to a per­va­sive prac­tice. I don’t cur­rently use alkyd medium in my reg­u­lar work, but am exper­i­ment­ing with it in a few stud­ies and tests. Regard­ing point num­ber 2 (delam­i­na­tion), do you think an appli­ca­tion of retouch var­nish would mit­i­gate that problem?

    I also found I couldn’t stand the smell of Liquin, so I bought a small bot­tle of M. Graham’s wal­nut alkyd medium, which dis­perses the resin in wal­nut oil. I have no idea what that does for it’s other prop­er­ties, but it han­dles very nicely, and the only odor I can dis­cern is that of the wal­nut oil itself, which it to say almost none.

    All the best, Jeff

    • David says

      Jeff,

      I have not tried the Gra­ham wal­nut alkyd. Glad it has no objec­tion­able odor and is work­ing for you.

  13. Bob Abrahams says

    I love to use an alkyd and wal­nut oil medium with oil paint made with wal­nut oil rather than lin­seed. Very good qual­ity easy to use. Look at M Gra­ham oil paints.



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