Updated May 2018
A Hot Topic amongst many (beginning) oil painters is the toxicity of working with oils. Many people refer to the unpleasant smell of oil paints and so choose to stay away. Others do not like the idea of working with toxic materials for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps they are health or environment conscious, or they are pregnant or have small children or pets around. Some of my blog readers mentioned it not so long ago and I thought I should pick up on their comments and write a little bit about oil painting and toxicity.
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I was pregnant when I started to think about toxicity
When I started out in oils in 2006 I was pregnant with my second child. I did not want to fill my house with toxic materials! I was painting with pastels already and kept an eye out for health and safety (do not blow at the pastel dust!) but the smell of turps and the hearsay about toxic materials put me off trying oils. I now notice that many others struggle with the same questions as I did. So what about that toxicity with oils then?!
Oil paints do not smell
When people talk about the smell of oil paints they are talking about the turpentine that many use to dilute their paints or clean their brushes. Oil paint itself does not smell of anything. Many use turps as if they are using watercolour and leave their pot of turps open en swish their brush in it every few minutes. The room you’re in will be filled with toxic fumes in no time.
Oil paints are not toxic
(unless you eat them)
Most oil paints are not toxic, even if you do eat them (not recommended). Oil paint is basically pigment and oil, and most pigments are perfectly safe. There are toxic ones, of course, such as lead-white, cadmium, and cobalt. But these are only toxic if you eat them or breathe in particles. You would struggle trying to breathe in oil paint. As long as you wash your hands after use, you should be absolutely fine.
The toxic metals in some of the pigments are hardly dangerous as long as you use the paints sensibly, but if you want to remove these from your palette there are plenty of alternative pigments that are completely safe. I, for example, do not use lead-white or any cadmiums in my work. I avoid them if I can and so far I have not missed them. Instead of heavy metals I use synthetic alternatives, and there is plenty to choose from.
Solvents are Toxic
The only toxic risk within oil painting is in the solvents and mediums you use. Turpentine and mineral spirits are toxic as they exude fumes that are very bad for your health. It is perfectly fine to use them, but do so sparingly, keep lids closed and windows open. Plenty of full-time artists use them every day without any adverse effects. Just use common sense. If you feel bad when using it, listen to your body. I once tried a medium called Oleopasto, which contains a solvent, and felt so very ill I never opened that tube again. However there are lots of artists that I know who are happily using it every day!
Safe Solvent Alternatives
If you would rather paint without solvents, you can easily paint without a medium or use a solvent-free medium. Gamblin and M. Graham produce some safe mediums for example, and some alkyd mediums are solvent free as well. Check the labels or manufacturer’s website! Of course you can also opt to work with just a tiny bit of oil: linseed, walnut or poppy oil for example. Some paints are more fluid and thin than others so if you want to work with more fluid paint perhaps try a different brand (Old Holland for example is quite thick and stiff, while Rembrandt or Blockx is fairly fluid).
Solvents are most often used for cleaning brushes so perhaps do this outside, and only at the end of a painting session. Low odour solvents (such as Sansodor, Zest-it or Roberson’s Studio Safe Orange Solvent) are still toxic but have less of a smell. They are less aggressive but can mislead you into thinking they are ok as there is no smell!
Cleaning Brushes without Solvents
There are, however, many solvent-free alternatives for cleaning brushes. I wipe my brushes on some kitchen towelling while I paint and so have no need for turps. You can get yourself in the habit of using a few brushes for different colours/tones to avoid cleaning too much, although I prefer to work with just a single brush at a time and just wipe now and then on some paper towels.
I clean my brushes (not often enough!) with The Masters Brush Cleaner which is completely safe to use. Besides The Masters there are brush soaps by Da Vinci and Escoda that seem popular. I have heard other artists using baby oil (wash it out thoroughly!), dishwashing liquid and more. Just make sure that brushes are not left with any residue of your cleaning agent and all should be well.
Most varnish has solvents in them and also give off toxic fumes so if you want to varnish, make sure you do this in a well ventilated room. Of course there is always the option of not varnishing your work at all or using one that contains a low-odour solvent. Many artists don’t varnish as they don’t like the look and feel of it or for health and safety reasons. I do varnish my work but it is something you’d have to decide for yourself.
If you want to cut out the toxicity of oil painting, one alternative is to use water-based oils such as Winsor & Newton Artisan, Holbein Duo and quite a few other brands. I have used Artisan in the past and although they feel slightly different from traditional oils you can thin the paint and clean your brushes with just water. The manufacturers produce special mediums for these paints that are solvent free as well. You can mix them with traditional oils although you would then need different mediums (not water-based but more traditional ones) and cleaning materials if you do. Plenty of artists use these paints with pleasure so I am sure they are worth a go.
Reduce the Risk
In a nutshell, it is very easy to work without toxic materials and it should not be a reason to stay away from oils. If you use solvents (in a medium or a brush cleaner) do remember to keep the lid closed, use it sparingly and make sure your room is well ventilated. If you decide to cut out solvents there are plenty of options for you.
Online artists groups on and social media are full of advice and experienced artists who happily share their experiences so do some online research and find your own ideal way. Personally I have not banned all toxic materials from my studio, although I did in the past, but use them as sparingly as I can. Use common sense and don’t eat your paint – all should be well!