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Solvent-Free Oil Painting
Health and safety is a major concern for artists, and many people avoid painting with oils to avoid complications. Solvents, even odourless mineral spirits, require sufficient ventilation. The fumes can be irritating and are toxic, with some artists intolerant to them. However, oil painting can be done without using any solvents at all.
The simplest solution is to use water-mixable oils, which have been modified so that water can be added to create a stable emulsion. These oils clean up with soap and water and require no solvents at all. However, they are relatively new and many purists prefer to use the tried-and-true traditional variety. There is also a wider variety of brands and qualities of regular artists’ oils.
You want to paint freely without having to add much to the paint, so look for paints that are smooth and creamy, such as Gamblin Artist Oils. These will require less dilution than a thicker paint.
Keeping your paint warm – by using a glass palette on a hot plate, for example – will make your paint flow more freely. Keep several brushes organized by colour so that you will require less clean up during painting.
Consider painting with no mediums, or very little linseed oil. This suits an alla prima style of painting, as fat-over-lean principles still apply, but limits the amount of glazing possible. If this is a concern, you might want to try Gamblin Gamsol, a mild artist thinner that gives you more versatility. Gamsol is biodegradable, has a very slow evaporation rate and is refined of aromatic compounds, making it popular in classrooms and home studios.
Thin your paint with an alkyd medium such as Galkyd. You can also use Gamblin FastMatte Alkyd Oils, which dry quickly with a matte surface for high adhesion of subsequent layers. Egg tempera is also excellent for underpainting. It dries fast, and you can make it yourself – there are many recipes available on the Internet.
Some artists like to use acrylics for underpainting because it is easy to use and dries quickly. There is some disagreement about the longevity of this technique, but it should be okay in the short term. For maximum adhesion on your acrylic layer, use a matte paint or give the layer a light sanding.
Cleaning your brushes
First, wipe off as much excess paint as you can with a paper towel, rag, or scraps of paper.
Rinse the brush in oil, instead of mineral spirits. You can use walnut oil, linseed oil, or mineral oils such as baby oil. Use a brush washer or brush-cleaning tank to aggravate the paint off of the bristles. When most of the paint is off, wipe and squeeze the oil out into a paper towel. Use soap and water to clean the brush. We recommend Masters Brush Cleaner, Mona Lisa Pink Soap, or SavvySoap. Some artists just use regular bar or dish soap.
Oily rags and paper towels can create a fire hazard. Drying oils (like linseed oil) dry through oxidation, and this process releases heat. If the heat isn’t able to dissipate quickly, it can build up to its flash point until the rags spontaneously combust.
There are a few ways to prevent the heat from building up.
One: allow the wet rags to hang dry in a controlled, open environment where they can stay cool until dry.
Two: soak them in a container half-full of water, until they can be disposed of.
Three: Use an industrial, fireproof container meant for this purpose. Consult your local laws regarding disposal, and never throw oily rags in with your regular trash before they are completely dried.
While there are some limitations, solvent-free painting methods allow everyone to enjoy this centuries-old medium. Give it a try!
General Safety Tips:
- Avoid getting paint on your skin; pigment toxins can be absorbed through it.
- Avoid eating or drinking while you paint. You could unknowingly ingest some paint.
Be careful not to mix non-drying oils into your oil colour, and thoroughly remove oils from your brushes after the painting session. While some painters clean brushes with non-drying vegetable oils, they will compromise the integrity of oil paint if mixed together.