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 colours
There 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 soap
Clean 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 oils
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.
Learn to use paint straight from the tube
Learn 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 underpainting
Use 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 brands
Experiment with different oil paint brands as some are more fluid than others.
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.
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