“I tried it once. The smell was bad and it gave me a headache.”
When I announced that I was setting aside my fountain pens and giving oil painting a try, I got a bunch of emails. Most had some version of the quote above contained within them. I understood why because that had been my assessment of oil painting as well. Everywhere I’d watched people do it, it seemed complicated and smelly.
I’m happy to report that oil painting is being done by lots of people without complication, without smell, and with no more toxicity than using watercolors. Doubt it? Read on.
The common view of oil painting is that artists use all sorts of mediums and solvents and that they mix these concoctions in a fog of “petroleum distillates” to achieve their goals. And, gosh darn it, that’s exactly how a lot of people use oil paints because that’s what they were taught. They rave about “odorless” solvents that solve the smell problem. These do minimize the actual smell but it does nothing to eliminate spending your days in a fog of “petroleum distillates.” And, to make matters worse, they use mediums like Liquin that smell to high heaven and cause many to become quite allergic. So…we’re right, this stuff is nasty… unless.
Did you know that turpentine wasn’t invented until the 1830s? For several hundred years painters who are quite famous painted up a storm with oils without EVER smelling “petroleum distillates” or worrying about buying ventilation systems for their studios. Seems, if museums are any indication, they did pretty well. How can that be?
Well, oil paint is nothing more than pigment and linseed (flax) oil. Yes, student-grade paints are also loaded with chalk because of their much lower pigment density but that’s it. Pigment and linseed oil. It might give you the runs but you can drink linseed oil – people cook put if on salads. And so, when Rembrandt wanted to paint, he mixed up his pigment with some linseed oil. If he wanted his paint thinner he’d add more linseed oil.
What changed? Well, the idea of mediums came along, that’s what. How do we make the paint dry slower/faster/glossier/etc. How do we get really thick, but flexible paint? For this sort of thing there needed to be a solvent to mix all this stuff together, and so standard fare within the ranks is to generate a “medium” or a series of mediums that contain odorless solvent, linseed oil (or poppy or safflower oil), and something like liquin that gets added along the way. No wonder we think it’s complicated.
But there are MANY oil painters that don’t do all that. Most seem to be professional artists who no longer follow The Beginners Guide to Oil Painting. They use paint, straight from the tube and small amounts of linseed oil to thin the paint if needed.
Using this simple approach, all you need to paint with oils is a few colors and some linseed oil. As long as you clean your brushes before the paint starts to harden, you can even clean up with soap and water. I’ve taken this approach one more step. I use water-mixable oil paints.
A long time ago I bought several tubes of Winsor & Newton water-mixable oils. At the time I was still scared off by the complicated stuff I saw oil painters doing and so the tubes languished. Then I watched Charlie Hunter, a pro artist in Vermont, stand in a field painting a gorgeous landscape. Charlie uses Cobra water-mixable oils, which seemed to be superior to my W&N so I bought a set for my new adventure. The 10 colors cost me $70 from Jackson Art Supplies. I use white, ultramarine, pyrrol red, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and permanent yellow light. On a couple occasions I’ve used black, but only when doing tonal sketches in white and black. And oh how I love these Cobra paints. They’re much smoother out of the tube than are the W&N paints, and I’ve used very little water-mixable linseed oil, so little, in fact, that I keep it in an eye-dropper bottle, using it a drop at a time. Using these materials there is NO smell. I know that’s the case because I live with a woman with a hyper-smeller, who can smell, seemingly in an instant, if I open some solvent in my basement shop.
The more I learn and use these water-mixable oils the more I recommend them. In addition to the things I’ve said thus far, if you want to apply a thin background wash, you can actually dilute them with water and apply them as you might watercolor. While some use water throughout the painting process, many others suggest that too much water in a thicker mix will cause problems. For a primatura, however, the water dries very quickly and so it’s not a problem.
According to Jeff Olson, the marketing rep for Royal Talens, the Cobra “artist” paints (they have a student grade) use exactly the same pigment/oil ratios as their regular artist-grade paints, which are also very creamy. I bought a couple tubes of Rembrandt because I wanted to try something else Jeff said. According to him, you can mix regular oil paint with water-mixable oil paint in a ratio up to 25:75 and still retain the properties of the water-mixable paints.
My workspace was created by placing a paper-covered board over a sawhorse and an old, antique radiator. My palette is an 11×14 sheet of glass that I painted neutral gray on the backside. I picked up a cheap easel, paper towels and a palette knife that I’m learning to use. If you look closely you’ll see the dropper bottle of water-mixable linseed oil. There’ also a bottle of water that I sometimes use to rinse out brushes.
Because I’m doing still lifes to learn the ins and outs of painting stuff with oils, I set up a stand (on top of my roll-about) and it serves ok for that purpose. What I really long for are better lighting choices. As you can see, this stuff is all pretty minimalist.
Since discovering Rosemary & Co. and their fantastic handmade brushes, I’ve used nothing else for my watercolors so it only made sense to buy their oil brushes as well. So many choices, so little understanding of what I’m doing. Mostly I followed advice from the “almost everyone” on YouTube who use their brushes. The best part about oils is that the brushes are LOT cheaper than my sable watercolor brushes.
One thing about oils is that with watercolors “best” has a common definition, with maybe a bit of an opinion difference that hinges on the “spring” vs “water-absorbancy” parameters. With oils, however, there’s a whole lot of “it depends” based upon what sort of oil painting you’re trying to do. But again, I’m learning.
As for the actual painting, I’ve leaned very hard on YouTube for answers. Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima book is considered the bible of oil painting and I’ve devoured it. I’m also a fan of Todd Casey’s Art of Still Life. Both of these books are academic quality books with price tags to match. I’ve stopped buying intro books on any art subject. These two books have more in them than any 50 of my other art books so I feel fairly well equipped in the book department, though that is disappointing because my favorite thing to do is buy art books (grin).
I hope you can see that my oil painting is smell and toxicity free and VERY simple. I should mention that I’m painting on 6×8 and 9×12 MDF panels covered with cheap gesso. I bought 2′ x 4′ sheets of MDF and cut them in 24, 6×8 or 10, 9×12 panels.