Oil painting without using solvents or toxic mediums; can it be done? Absolutely. This guide explains how oil painting can be enjoyed without the need for solvents or heavy metal pigments. It will explore how to keep your studio safe for children, pets and your own health. Just the other day someone told me she would like to use oil paints but chose not because of the toxic solvents she thought had to be involved. Of course it is sensible to stay away from hazardous materials, but there is no need to stay away from oil painting.
Why do I paint Solvent Free?
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, using no solvents or toxic mediums whatsoever.
As they grew older I started experimenting with mediums and solvents, but quickly found I reacted strongly to them. Solvents made me feel quite ill and after trying out a variety of mediums I returned to oil painting without solvents.
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 enjoy oil painting without solvents or hazardous materials at all. Depending on the reasons you want to remove toxins from your studio, there are a few things to implement easily. Other things will require more commitment.
Child and Pet Proofing your Studio
You might not want to stop using hazardous materials, but you are concerned about your child (or other family members) or pet’s health. 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. Make sure any toxic material 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!
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, just like most things, 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 to Solvents and Other Toxic Materials
Toxic Paint Colours
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.
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.
Oil painting without solvents is not hard to do, but it does require some adjustments. 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 toxic 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.
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, and then clean properly with Masters Soap afterwards.
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.
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.
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. A medium will change the normal behaviour of oil paint. So you only need it if you want your paint to do something that it doesn’t normally do. Like drying quickly. Or being very fluid, or very thick (for impasto).
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. You can try linseed oil or walnut oil to see if it suits you but it might slow down drying time. Linseed and Walnut oil are not toxic. 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.
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. Varnishing offers 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. Varnishing happens when the kids are out, with the door/windows wide open. Plenty of artists, however, 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…
If you want to Enjoy painting without Solvents, What are Your Options?
Replace toxic pigments with alternative coloursThere are plenty of options if you want to replace your lead whites and cobalts. Yes, the colours will handle slightly differently and the colours are never exactly the same, but you will learn how to use them to their best advantage.
Use brush soapClean your brushes on rags or kitchen towelling while painting, and use soap and water for the final clean. There are excellent brush cleaning soaps available.
Water soluble oilsThere 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.
Learn to use paint straight from the tubeLearn to work with oil paint straight from the tube. This can be mastered with thin brushing, working alla prima, and using palette knives. I work with oils straight from the tube and do not add a medium or uses solvents. Join one of my online workshops to see how I do that.
Us acrylics or water soluble paint for underpaintingUse acrylics or water soluble paint in the first layers of your painting; a stage where many artists want to work with more fluid and thin paint. You can then continue with oils on top.
Try out different brandsExperiment with different oil paint brands as some are more fluid than others.
My underpainting stages: scrubbing paint straight from the tube onto a canvas, and working some colour into it next.
It is Up to You
It is up to you how far you want to take this. Oil painting without solvents or toxic pigments is definitely possible. But if you don’t want to go this far, then you can use toxic materials and be sensible about it. Some artists wear gloves. 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.
I hope this short guide on oil painting without solvents or toxic paints 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 more and more paint manufacturers are waking up to our call for eco materials. Oil painting does not need to come with health warnings as painting without solvents is the way ahead.
This post was originally published in 2017 but has been rewritten and updated in 2019.
Practice Oil Painting
at Sophie’s Art School!
Join Sophie’s Art School and get monthly workshops, courses, tutorials and articles. You can see how I work toxin free and you can try it out yourself, all the while practising your oil painting skills in a supportive and friendly community.
Thank you! This is a great article. Very informative. 🙂
I have contacted you in the past . Hope you do not mind me asking this .
I am learning oils but not keen on using mediums or solvents . If so does that mean I have to complete a painting in one go so it disregards the rule of fat over lean. What if I want to paint a 20”x 16” which is large for me . Also I usually do a session of painting one day then return say in a week can I still not use mediums . I find this rule so confusing and cannot find an answer.
Thank you for your time
Yes, you can! I've painted like this for years. I use water soluble oil paint (Cobra), but you can also use traditional oil paint, both without mediums or solvents. It is a matter of technique, understanding the medium, and understanding how to apply the paint. For instance, one technique would be to paint with painting knives. You would "block in" the painting using thin paint, then come back over that with slightly thicker paint for corrections and details, and then finally paint over that with even thicker paint ("thick over thin") for the final corrections and details–all done with knife and no thinners or solvents. You can do this in one painting session ("Alla Prima"), or several sessions by painting either "wet-into-wet" (if you came back to the painting the next day or so, or "wet-over-dry" if you waited several days for it to "tack up" or firm up enough to paint on top of it without making a mess. You can also do this with brush, with our without solvent. But if using brush it will take a lot more paint on your palette and you will need to really wipe the paint out between strokes and use a lot of brushes (separate them into "shadow family" and "light family" brush piles to avoid contaminating your clean color). Since I use water solubles, I can also paint with brush using water as my thinner. And there are many who paint with traditional oils, without solvents, using Walnut oil, etc., as their thinner and cleaner. I hope that helps.
Hi Sophie, great article! I mostly paint with Cobra's water mixable oils and use no toxic pigments or solvents. Just water. Can I still paint in my bedroom even with the windows closed?
Do I have to be concerned about ventilation?
I would double check what Talens says on their website/brochures but I think you should be fine. Do make sure you check the labels for any mediums you may use. Happy painting!
I've been painting indoors with Cobras, without ventilation or exhaust, for ten years now. As far as I can tell from my experience and from what I've read on the Royal Talens website there is no harmful off gassing or toxic fumes. I've never experienced any symptoms, which I often had when using traditional oils with odor free solvents.
So glad I stumbled onto your blog. I am interested in oil painting without using solvents, and had thought to make an underpainting layer using oil paint and linseed oil; but I see from your comments that it is better to use an acrylic base. So, thank you again.
An acrylic base or even better, just use oil paint. Glad to hear you enjoy the blog! Thanks for stopping by.
Hi thank you for writing this! One big barrier between me and oil painting has been the fear of toxicity so I appreciate articles like this. I have a few questions: 1)What is a safe method of disposing leftover paint on a disposable palette? 2)Can I wash my brushes in my bathroom sink? Thank you!
Hi Priya, thanks for commenting! If your paint is non toxic you can, I assume, just throw your palette away with the general rubbish. If it is not you might want to check your local government for guidelines. You can wash your brushes in your sink, if you use a non toxic cleaner like Master’s brush cleaner for example. Paint does not dissolve in water so do not put paint down your sink, but brush cleaning with brush soap should be fine.
Would I be able to use acrylics on your online course?
Hi Mary, yes you certainly can! Others are also using acrylics. You just have to keep in mind that not all advice and techniques apply to acrylics and that acrylics work a little differently than oils. But there is lots of overlap too!
Very interesting article however, I will point out that Linseed oil – all varieties – are a huge danger in the studio. If Linseed oil is on discarded rags they can self combust. I have learnt that it is best to 'wet' rags after wiping any solvent on them as this stops fires. You may already know this but felt it necessary to tell you just in case you didn't. I have opted for Sennelier Green Oil Thinner as they have the highest combustable rating over all others. Like you I rarely use solvents but I want to have a very fluid paint that my water based oil paints do not give. Thanks for this wonderful article. It is very useful. Lorraine
Hi Sophie, thank you for a very helpful post. I'm getting to know oils little by little and I quickly put away the turpentine and found linseed oil and soap as the best alternatives as you say. Nice to hear I'm not doing anything wrong!
Hi, how do you use Masters soap during painting sessions? I have been using a jar of safflower oil to clean the brushes while I paint but its not like solvent, so its harder to clean. And I just use more brushes instead. But I am curious if there is something out there that I can use that is not the oil method and not solvent.
Hi Alejandra! You don’t use Master’s soap during the painting session. This soap is more for when you finished painting and you need to clean your brushes, before putting them away. During painting, I just use lots of kitchen roll to wipe my brushes fairly clean. It is not very often I need a squeaky clean brush – perhaps only when I move from a very dark colour to white – after all, I am not painting cartoons – so I wipe until no paint comes off anymore and that is clean enough for me. Hope that helps!
I was given many old oil paint tubes from a friend moving to Europe. They were probably from the 1950's. Some have leaked out of the bottom of the tube but they are still pliable. I don't know if they are toxic because they don't have safety labels because they were made before it was necessary to label.
Do you think they are safe to use? I would avoid the cadmiums, colbalts and lead of course. Some of them are quite full. Some websites say that old paints are still good. Thanks for your information as I think it might be a mistake throwing them out.
Hard one to answer without knowing what’s in the paint or even what brand it is! I would imagine they are fine (let’s not forget that cadmium and cobalt paints are also fine to use, as long as you know what you’re using and you don’t, erm, eat it 😂). So they’re probably fine to use, but I must underline I cannot really advice without knowing more. Do some research, Google the brand name, perhaps even write to the manufacturer. Enjoy!
What about citrus solvents? Why not use these? Also what do you think of Dammar varnish – mixing resin into a citrus solvent?
When all things are considered we feel Pure Citrus Solvent is one of the Earth's best answers for safe solvents. The citrus smell allows users to know it's being used and doesn't secretly poison the user like NMP or ethylene glycol do. It's also 100% renewable from orange juice production waste (aka orange peels). It is counted as a voc because it evaporates. This evaporation is good because unlike zero voc solvents it doesn't extend dry time. Meanwhile, the tree remains, steadily absorbing CO2 out of the atmosphere. Pure Citrus Solvent is biodegradable. We do recommend responsible and sparing use and reuse of this natural solvent
Great article. I’m going to try using water soluble oil paints for my lean layers then switch to regular oils because there’s a larger variety of colors. I already use Dawn detergent and warm water for cleaning brushes.
Sounds good, good luck!
So, just to be clear, you don't dip your brush in walnut oil to clean it while painting when you are wanting to wipe it out between strokes when you are getting ready to reload and lay down more color? Instead you just wipe the brush with a clean, dry paper towel with no walnut oil? Is that right? And if yes, you are simply using walnut oil to clean your brushes at the end of a painting session? Is that right? Thank you in advance.
You can use walnut oil to clean your brushes, but I wouldn’t dip it in during painting as you might end up with way too much oil in your painting. I don’t use any oil; in fact I don’t use anything except just the paint from the tube. So yes, I just wipe my brush on some paper towelling during a painting session. At the end of a painting session I like to use Master’s Brush soap, but you can also use oil and then soap/water I suppose.
Thank you for the information. But one issue you did not address is, how does one clean their brushes during the painting session? If you are not using a solvent or thinner like a Gamsol, etc., how do you go about cleaning your brush after laying down strokes of paint before you reload to lay down more? Thank you in advance.
Hi, I clean my brushes with kitchen roll/towelling during a painting session. You will need to wipe it off very thoroughly, but it works! Of course it won’t be squeaky clean but that’s ok for me as I don’t need squeaky clean colours most of the time. If you are really going from white to black and back again with the same brush, I’d recommend using a brush for dark and a brush for light colours. Hope that helps!
Just wondering if your classes can also be paid in American dollars?
Hi, I am afraid I charge in UK pounds, but your bank, or Paypal, will usually automatically convert the fee into your own currency.
Excellent information. Thank you so very much! I’m wondering if a person can dump the linseed oil infused paint down the drain? Does it clog the drain? Also, do you know if Gambling Gamsol oil paint is non toxic? Do you know if their solvent free gel is non toxic? Thank you
Hi, good to hear your find the blog post useful. I would not put paint down the drain – it doesn’t pour for a start. Why put solids in a drain after all. So if the paints are not toxic I would but it in the bin. But your best bet is to check with your local council. As for gamsol and their solvent free gel – I think you better check their website and/or ask them, just to be sure. Happy painting!
Hi Sophie, thanks so much for your blog – super informative and lovely to see a positive alternative voice.
I started a painting with straight oil paints, but would now like to work over it. I am now struggling with the fat over lean thing – I'm not sure how fat straight oil paints are and if I do add consecutive layers, should I be adding small amounts of straight oil, like linseed, or can I use a medium such as 3 parts linseed to 7 parts Gamsol OMS.
I'm not sure if something containing any amount of mineral spirits is going to be quicker drying than straight oil paints (which are applied quite thickly).
Any thoughts would be very much appreciated.
Thank you very much.
You don’t need to keep fat-over-lean in mind so much when you are not adding anything to your oils. So when you want to work over your painting, you can just keep going with paint straight from the tube! The fat-over-lean rule is mostly for people to keep in mind that you should not add fast drying layers on top of slow drying layers. Since you’ve worked with ‘straight’ paint, you need to worry about it. Just keep going with straight paint!
I'm a painter and have started using oils and always wondered if you could paint without thinning agents, this article has been a great help.
Thanks a lot for very useful information regarding non toxic oil painting work!
I’ve been searching for eco-friendly way of painting as I pay attention to my health and the environment.
To clean my brushes I use all natural French “Savon Noir” which means black soap that is dark brownish liquide soap. It cleans very well, non toxic and cheap. I buy at my local supermarket. I used buy Master’s soap but it’s way too expensive for the quantity.
Hi Sophie! I am an art student doing A-level art and experimentation with different mediums is key to getting good marks. I've never used oil paint before and I desperately want to but after watching a few videos I became afraid of the health risks as well as the staggering costs of everything. I wanted to ask you for any oil paint recommendations that are very cheap. Usually the school pays for the resources but they are limited in terms of their budget, and I myself am very broke so what would you recommend? Also, how long would it take for the painting to dry if nothing else apart from the oil paint on the canvas was used? Thanks.
Hi Alisha, thank you for your message! I suppose the best student quality oils is Winsor & Newton’s Winton Oils. If you can stretch to their Artists’ range that would be great, or else Talens Rembrandt. Perhaps you can find a good deal somewhere. Drying time varies of course, depending on how thick the paint has been applied and how much medium or oil you have added. But if it was just paint, and no ‘impasto’ areas of paint, it would probably be touch dry in a week (or 2 if thicker) and dry enough for varnishing in about 4-8 months. You’ll get the hang of it once you start using it. Hope that helps.
Hi Sophie, thank you so much for this informative blog. I've been working on a large commission, 7 canvas's. 3 and a half are complete. But I'm starting to suffer with the fumes of the turpentine I use to thin the oil paint. I don't use oils to mix with, as I have made mistakes before and cracking has occurred, so have worries this will happen again.
The top half of my painting is more or less complete, do you think it would work if I finished the rest of the painting with the new water based oils paints? Do you know if the painting as a whole woulde be able to be varnished after with the same kind of varnish? Or would it have a different reaction?
Sorry, strange questions, I'm just ill from the turpentine and need to change something but have to complete the project.
Many thanks, claire.
Hi Claire, you can mix and match water based oils and normal oils very well. If you just use water based in the lower half of your painting I imagine there is a change it shows – keeping it so separate. Yes, you can use any acrylic varnish afterwards and apply it to the whole painting. I would recommend working without solvents if it makes you ill! I don’t work with solvents either, but I do use normal traditional oils. Good luck!
Hello great article, thanks! I might have missed it, but how do you clean your brushes when you need to from one color to the next? That has been the one problem I haven't been able to solve yet.
Hi, thanks for your comment! If I need to clean my brush during a painting session, I simply wipe it on some kitchen roll.
Very interesting. I've always been concerned about the fumes from my turps, but it never occurred to me to clean up with soap and water! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I will be making some non-toxic changes to my painting routine.
How do you oil out? I like to do it bc it brings up the paint color and gives the feel of wet into wet
Hi Kare, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are already doing it, but in a very small nutshell oiling out means applying a very, very thin layer of oil to your unfinished painting and then working your next layer of paint onto that. The oily layer will bring the colours back (from dried or sunken mattness) and your new layer of paint will glide onto the painting easier. Oiling out is not recommended, however, as it is easy to apply too much oil to a painting, causing familiar problems of yellowing, cracking, rippling etc. If you do this with each layer of paint, you end up adding a lot of oil to your painting.
If you were asking how I oil out; well, I don’t. I generally don’t use any mediums or solvents, only very rarely do I use a drop to make paint more fluid.
Hope that helps!
Hi Sophie. I have just come across you!
Good advice and comments throughout, thank you all. I’m fairly new to all this and am finding my nose “runs” whilst using traditional oil painting materials, probably mostly due to the mediums (should that be media?) and solvents! Is there a “safe” solvent for cleaning brushes during and after painting session that can safely be discarded down the drain? Come to that, the medium as well. Best to maximise being eco friendly! And I like the idea of using the same solvent mildly as medium at it does thin out paint.
Hi Tim! Thanks for stopping by. There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ solvent I think. But there are ‘safe’ mediums (Gamblin’s Solvent-Free Gel comes to mind) you could try. For brush cleaning I’d opt for oil+water/soap or use a brush soap like Master’s Soap. Thinning paint is difficult without solvents so your best best is to tweak your painting technique a little and perhaps find a thinner (more fluid) paint brand. Hope this helps!
Ya aware (or anyone else for that matter) around when
the use of solvent as an ingredient (to not just clean),
but as an actual ingredient in the paint?!!
That 2¢’d be useful. . .
I am not aware of any paint that contains solvent and don’t think it should be in paint either.
I just came across your site and read through two of your posts about painting without mediums and solvent free, and all of the comments. This is great information!! Thank you for helping people see that it can be simple and be just as good!! I struggled for years not understanding all those over-complicated rules . I hated the idea of layers and waiting months for one layer to dry and coming back to do more. I am an emotional painter and I paint when it hits me and I can spend 12 straight hours on a painting (I have ) in one sitting … then not paint for a few weeks…. I hate the technical and chemistry type rules I would read and it always made me feel like I was not a real artist because this is not how Rembrandt did it or so and so… did it. I created many paintings that were just oil with no mediums and I’d do them in one sitting and I never thought my art work was “real”! People would compliment my work and I’d say “ well , yeah , but I didn’t do it right. It’s not a “real” oil painting . So the idea of selling my work was crazy because they weren’t “real” no one would want these fake paintings! Such a squashing mentality. It caused me to not paint for so long! I wish every artist out there would read these posts. I feel validated for the first time like my art is real and just as “right” as anyone else’s who painted in layer after layer over time. Art should be fun and expressive and “rules” should not be part of the vocabulary. I love “common sense” and “obviously” but let’s leave out “rules” lol. Thank you so much for these posts!!
On another note. I didn’t hear anyone mention “Gamblin” brand yet… this is a highly safe brand that prides itself on making non toxic products ! Check them out. I did a lot of research because I am overly sensitive and get sick easily from fumes and is another reason I held off painting because I didn’t want to use all those mediums.
I use Gamblin’s paint and solvent free products
They also make a varnish called “Gamvar” that allows the painting to breathe so you can actually apply it the minute your painting is dry to the touch!
They have the safest thinner out there called Gamsol. And I use it sparingly to thin paint if needed .
I think their products are top notch! So just wanted to throw that option out there for everyone .
Thanks again for these awesome encouraging posts!!
I am going back to my original way now !! Just paintbrush and paint!!!! And I’ll feel like a real artist again after reading your post.
Dear Laurel, thank you for your wonderful comment and I am sorry I am so dreadfully late with my reply! I love what you are writing, although in a way, it is also a little sad. I too stayed away from oils because I hated all the stories that sounded like oil painting was more like a science project than art. It is the main reason why I write on my blog and teach art – to kill those myths that keeps us from doing what we love! Isn’t it amazing that so many of us think our art is not ‘real’ because we didn’t use mediums or glazing techniques!? Thank you so much for writing and letting me know my articles have helped you. That’s what I do it for!
Yes, Gamblin is a great brand, although I haven’t tried their paints yet. But I use their varnish and they also have a good solvent free gel medium.
Go paint!! and Thank You. 🙂
Hi Sophie, Thank you so much for this article. I am a new mother and oil painter so have been trying to find non toxic options for a while, I am very keen to eliminate both solvents and mediums so this is so helpful!!
I have never tried to scrub on an under painting like you have without using a thinner so I will definitely give that a go!
After you have finished your under painting, do you then just paint one more layer using paint straight from the tube without added oil or medium? I am unsure how to paint fat over lean in the following layers without using mediums and added oils, is the answer just less layers?
Hi Brooke! It is perfectly doable to paint without any toxic materials. Yes, I usually paint everything, all layers without adding any oils. You don’t ‘have’ to apply fat over lean, as long as you don’t do it the other way round (applying lean over fat). So working with just paint from the tube is fine. If you do want to add some linseed oil then keep it minial, especially if you are going to add more layers – as you don’t want to seal in a not-yet-dry area with fast drying paint. But overall, don’t worry too much about it. Unless you use gallons of oil there is very little risk. Have fun!
Thanks so much for this post Sophie – I always thought that every consecutive layer had to have just a little more oil – but same on same is fine! That's great to know. Thank you.
Glad to hear this post was useful!
Thank You for your article about painting without solvents! Very Helpful.
You are welcome!
If you paint without solvents all together along with oil paints, will the drying time lessen? I read your other blog about how some mediums might add to the drying process…Ive been using cobalt drier along with mediums since I’ve learned but want to ditch the solvents. Just wondering if the paint will dry at all without drier?
HI, yes of course it will dry. I paint without medium, dryers or solvents all the time and my paintings dry very quickly (I paint quite thinly). If you are used to fast drying times it might be a bit slower now, but still most normal oil paintings will be touch dry in days. Why not give it a go. You don’t need to use all those additives! Good luck!
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?
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.
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!
Let me know how you like them! 🙂
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 🙂
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.
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.
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…
Wow…so happy to see your latest article of oil painting. Fans from Taiwan
Thanks so much!
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. 🙂
Hey, fellow safe painter! Great to hear from you. thanks.