Safe Studio: Oil Painting without Solvents

In this blog post I would like to discuss how to keep your artist studio safe from toxic materials; safe for children, pets and yourself. Just the other day someone told me she would like to use oil paints but did not because of the toxic solvents. Of course it is sensible to stay away from hazardous materials, but there is no need to stay away from oil painting!

I started using oil paints shortly after my children were born. Indeed, instead of moving away from oil paint when small children came into the world, I actually moved to it! And I moved to oil painting in a safe way.

Do note that one can be perfectly safe AND use toxic materials in the studio. One simply has to use common sense. This blog post is aimed at those who are reluctant to work in oils because of the toxicity issue and to show that it is possible to use oil paints without using any solvents or hazardous materials at all.

 

Child and Pet Proofing your Studio

Tidy Up

The first step in child and pet-proofing your studio would be to not have anything toxic lying around. Make sure everything has a place and can be put away in cupboards and drawers. Don’t have anything lying round that would invite little hands or dog mouths to explore. When there’s nothing to pick up, nothing will be picked up. If you just bought yourself an expensive sable brush you might not want your toddler having a little testing round, or Fido using it as a dog’s bone. And you don’t even want to think about them picking up something hazardous. So having storage and tidying up is the first step to a safe studio.

Remove Hazards

Second is, naturally, banning all toxic materials. Or, if you really think you need to use a toxic material, make sure it is put out of the way in a place no pet or child could EVER reach or open it. To save myself that hassle I just stuck to banning it all completely. And oil painting without toxic materials is much easier than you think!

Option 1: Use water-soluble oil paint

There are various brands that do WS-oils these days and quite a few are of a very decent quality. I have worked with Winsor & Newton’s Artisan Oils and quite enjoyed them. You can clean your brushes, thin your paint and clean your hands with water. It is super easy, non-toxic, and feels pretty much like normal oils.

Option 2: Ban all toxic materials

You can take this as far as you like or find sensible. Banning all toxic materials can vary from not using any solvents, to not using solvents nor any paint with toxic pigments in them. I used to ban it all although now my children are a bit bigger I have introduced some toxic solvents.

Paint

Some paints are made from toxic pigments, such as cadmiums, cobalts or lead. Whether a paint colour is toxic is not always stated on the tube, so you might have to do some research.

Do keep in mind that the toxic bit is not always dangerous in the same way. Some pigments are dangerous to touch as it can get absorbed through cuts and grazes on the skin.

For other pigments it is mostly dangerous if the dust is breathed in. Clearly a tubed oil paint does not have any dust so those pigments are relatively safe to use, as long as you don’t eat the paint or grind your own paint from the pigment. That said, if you want to sand your painting, for effect, or to prepare to paint over it, you are loosening dust particles and must be careful. You won’t drop dead the minute you breath in a toxic pigment particle, but if you do this regularly over a long period of time it can harm you.

Toxicity is Relative

If you want to ban all hazardous materials you need to ban all toxic paints. That means no cadmiums, no cobalts, no lead or cremnitz white, no naples yellow, or chrome yellow. There are other colours that are “moderately” toxic so you must use common sense. You will have to decide how far to go. I read somewhere that even burnt umber is slightly toxic but it is so minimal that most paint manufacturers do not list it as such, nor are they required to. So toxicity is a relative thing.

Just don’t eat your Paint

As far as I know toxic paint pigments are only dangerous if eaten, or if they get into the blood stream via wounds. They cannot get absorbed by the skin by merely having a smear on your finger. So having paint all over your hands is not necessarily unwise but washing your hands thoroughly before you rub your eye or eat your sandwich is vital.

Tell that to a Toddler

Common sense is all nice and good, but a toddler or a dog generally has very little of it. So it might well be a good idea to simply ban all paints that are considered toxic. You might be sensible enough to wash your hands, but your baby will not be. So stick to titanium white and cadmium alternatives.

Alternatives

For most toxic paints there are alternatives out there. Instead of a cadmium red you can buy various different reds. Each brand will name them differently so it is difficult to give suggestions. I use Mussini’s Brilliant Scarlet, for example, which is close to a cadmium red light, or else Vasari’s Permanent Bright Red which is a bit stronger. Most brands are aware that we want safe alternatives to the toxic pigments, and are manufacturing an excellent range of choices. Look out for warning signs and do your research.

Solvents

Solvents are easily avoided. Many artists think that having a jar of turps open next to their easel is an absolutely must, but nothing is further from the truth. Of all oil painting materials solvents are the most hazardous to your health as they have fumes that will fill the air in your room. Oil paint pigments do not have fumes, so you cannot breathe it in. But solvents do have fumes and therefore it is recommended to always keep the jar closed. If you want to ban it altogether, as I have done for years, there are plenty of options.

Cleaning

Most artists use solvents to clean their brushes. So what do you use if you want to avoid solvents? Water and soap, for example works well. Dishwashing liquid and water, also works well. Or else use painting oil (linseed, walnut) to clean out the paint, after which you wash the brush with water and soap to remove the oil. There are also safe brush cleaning soaps on the market, such as Masters soap (which is what I use). To clean my brushes while I am painting, I simply wipe them on some kitchen roll.

Thinning

Many artists like to use solvents to thin their paint. Perhaps in an underpainting they would like to start with thin washes of paint. One alternative to this is to use water-soluble paint in the underpainting stages. Another option is to use acrylic paint for an underpainting (it is absolutely fine to apply acrylic paint first and go over it with oil paint. It is not so great to do it the other way round). It is not a good idea to use oil as a thinning agent in an underpainting, as it would make the paint too oily (‘fat’) and you might get into trouble with the ‘fat-over-lean’ rule. Keeping the paint lean in the first few layers is always sensible.

I simply use paint straight from the tube for the underpainting. If I want a thin layer of paint, I simply use a sturdy brush and thinly scrub on the paint. I don’t need a solvent and I don’t have issues with drying time as the paint is scrubbed on so thinly it is dry in no time and I can paint over it pretty much immediately.

My underpainting stages: scrubbing paint straight from the tube onto a canvas, and working some colour into it next.

If I feel like I need thinner paint in later layers,  I add a non-toxic medium such as linseed oil to thin the paint (never more than around 20% mixed in the paint, or just a drip!). If you need a more fluid paint, you can also consider changing brands. If you like thin paint (as I do) using a brand that makes fluid paint is a good start.  I find, for example, Old Holland quite thick and pasty, while Vasari and Blockx more fluid.

Mediums

Most ready-made oil painting mediums have solvent in them. Do look at the ingredients, or if they are not listed on the bottle, just ask the manufacturer or seller what is in it. Many are more than happy to answer. The best advice I can give is to just keep it simple. You might not need a medium at all. I generally do not paint with a medium and use paint straight from the tube. If, and only if, I need my paint to be more fluid, I might add some linseed oil (now that my children are bigger I sometimes also use a mix of solvent/linseed oil/stand oil). You can try linseed oil or walnut oil to see if it suits you. There are various oils on the market that do various things to your paint. But they all make your paint ‘fatter’ so it is important to only use tiny amounts.

Varnish

I have yet to find a non-toxic varnish for oil paintings. That said, there is no rule that you HAVE to varnish your work. Some artists do and some artists don’t. I do. I believe that if I sell my work I should offer the best protection I can give and a varnish will simply add a synthetic layer between the paint and the outside world. If dust or grime gets onto the painting, it lands on the varnish and not the paint. If it gets a clean or a light dust, it is the varnish you are cleaning, not the paint. I find this a reassuring thought and so I do varnish. I do it when the kids are out, with the door/windows wide open. I know plenty of artists, however, who do not varnish. They don’t like the look of it (although there is matt/silk/gloss varnish out there) or the idea of adding a layer to their paint. We are waiting for a manufacturer to come up with a solvent-free varnish…

It is Up to You

It is up to you how far you want to take this. Some artists wear gloves, I don’t. Some artists are very strict in which pigments they ban, I generally just ban the heavy metals like lead and cadmium. I suppose it all depends on you, your situation, your studio, your children, your health etc. If you are pregnant or have small children I believe it a good idea to follow the guidelines for a safe studio and ban toxic pigments and all solvents. I do not think it is necessary to wear gloves as most, if not all, toxic pigments cannot be absorbed through the skin. Besides that I am a fairly ‘tidy’ painter and do not get any or much paint on me or my hands while I work. If you are particularly messy and are always looking very ‘arty’ with paint splatters all over you (ie. you look like a real artist!), you might want to be more strict with yourself about toxic materials.

How to make your studio child and pet safe:

  • Tidy up
  • Put away
  • Ban all toxic materials

How to get your studio free from toxins:

  • Use water-soluble oil paints and/or
  • Ban all toxic pigments such as cadmium, lead etc.and use alternative colours
  • Ban all solvents and use soap for cleaning and oil for thinning

I hope this short guide will help you make the move to oil painting if you haven’t already. It is such a fantastic medium to work with. It would be a shame if any of you would avoid it because of its supposed toxicity. Honestly, it is completely doable to work  solvent free and safely, and more and more paint manufacturers are waking up to our call for eco materials.

Interesting links:
https://www.gamblincolors.com/studio-safety/solvent-free-painting/
https://www.jacksonsart.com/blog/2017/03/17/jesse-waugh-tests-gamvar-picture-varnish-gamblin-solvent-free-gel-medium/

Thinly scrubbed in underpainting for Elizabeth Kate

12 thoughts on “Safe Studio: Oil Painting without Solvents

  1. Thank you for this in-depth and all-in-one-place post on the joys of Solvent-Free Oil Painting. When I’m not painting watercolors, solvent-free has been my own approach to oils for years and years (out of necessity and wisdom). Great to hear there are kinfolk out there. 🙂

  2. Hi Sophie,
    Thank you so much for such a wonderful blog. I was actually interested in why you have chosen Vasari paints. I’ve never tried Vasari as they would be an expensive experiment (i live in blighty too) and have mostly used Michael harding, but with some of the hardings I’ve found they are a little bit too oily. Obviously no paint will make you a better artist, but how do they compare and what made you take the leap to the more expensive Vasaris over the others?

    Thanks
    Neil

    1. Hi Neil, thanks for stopping by, much appreciated. I love trying out different brands. I got to Vasari because it was recommended to me on a forum (wet canvas.com) and I couldn’t resist. I tried a tube (out of the cheaper range, they’re not all that pricey) and liked it. So I bought more. I still mainly buy the cheaper range with the odd crazy splash out now and then (sometimes just because I want to see what all the $$-fuss is about). I like MH as well, in fact I buy it more and more. One silly reason is I like the 60ml sized tubes…. I find Vasari quite unique in its quality. I know lots of people say it is all image over quality but I don’t agree. It is really top notch paint. But it is slightly different (for most colours, not all) in that many of its colours are not transparent and they all are very ‘long’. That means they spread out easily, in fact very far, without losing colour, texture or chroma. So it is very fluid paint, but it is not oily. It has a beautiful fluid quality that is perfect for painting thinly. I don’t think it is suitable for impasto work. On top of that their colours are really gorgeous. Their reds are to die for. Their grey tones (Bice, Cedar) are so subtle. Perfect for a subtle and toned down palette. So only you will know whether it suits your style, palette and subject matter but I do love them. (OK I think I deserve some advertising money for this, Vasari, are you listening?). That said (sorry Vasari) I have W&N, MH and Mussini and many other brands as well. At the moment I mostly buy Vasari and MH.

      1. Thank you so much for the reply Sophie, really interesting! I love geeking out over materials. I’m going to have to try them! Keep up the great work!
        Thanks again.

          1. Hi Sophie,

            My Vasari’s arrived this morning, I had a couple of minutes today so I gave them a test. I get Rosebud and yellow Ochre. Both Gorgeous paint with a wonderful consistency. They look like they’ve found that sweet spot where its thin enough to spread well but thick enough to have great covering power.
            But one big thing is even though it lovely it is just SO extortionately expensive and it doesn’t give you any impasto options at all. So I put my experimental cap on!
            I mixed the equivelant rosebud colour with Michael Hardings, I used titanium white/bit of zinc/napthol red and touch of permanent orange. This matched the Rosebud colour however, it was a hell of a lot thicker. So I started adding Oleogel, I thinned it and thinned it, its amazing how thin Vasari is, it makes Michael hardings look like Old Holland. And finally got the consistency where it covers but isn’t oily. However, next to each other I noticed that Michael hardings look a touch more waxy and Vasari looks for glossier and luminescent.
            So i came up with a cunning plan. I use a fat medium which is refined linseed oil mixed 50/50 with Stand oil. I got the original thick Michael harding rosebud mixture and added a touch of the ref/stand medium to it, It wasn’t very long before I got exactly the same consistency, drag, opacity and luminosity without the waxy look. The little bit of stand gave it the vasari sheen and drag. I couldn’t tell them apart. I added the same medium to michael hardings french yellow ochre and it looked and felt the same as well.
            I only had 2 vasari paints to work but this might be something you could try in the future to vasari-ify a colour and save a few pennies.
            Hope this comes as useful 🙂
            Neil

            1. Hi Neil, that was quick! Glad you liked the Vasari’s and very interesting to hear about your experiments. Great tips there. I do think that adding all these mediums will make your paint unnecessarily ‘fat’ which might cause problems in the future. The Vasari oils are very lean so it would be a shame to spoil that. But you are right, some of the colours are very expensive (but others less so!). There are perfectly wonderful other paint brands out there, so if too expensive I’d go for those and if you need fluidity, just add a medium like you describe. I prefer to work without mediums and keep my ‘ingredients’ as simple as possible. Have you tried Blockx? Those are also very fluid in texture and work very nicely. It is a Belgium brand.

              1. Hi Sophie,

                Yes I do like Blockx, they are super smooth. The fact that its made with Poppy oil makes the blues and purples very vibrant.
                As for the fat and lean issue, I don’t know how Vasari makes their paints, but i could only assume they add more linseed oil to make it as fluid as they are but as I say they are understandably very secretive about these things.

                PS. Love your new site too, beautifully designed.

                1. Hi Neil, yes it remains a mystery what Vasari puts in their paints, although I have never asked them – they might well tell us. The paints do not feel oily though.
                  Thanks for liking my site! Nearly there now, just tweaking here and there… and no doubt I’ll play with it forever anyway…

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