When you first start out, oil painting can feel like more effort to get to grips with compared to acrylic painting or watercolour. There’s more to learn about the safety of oil painting materials. However, this shouldn’t put you off as it’s easy to learn how to clean and handle oil painting supplies safely.
Some materials available to oil painters can be toxic, or combustible. The more toxic substances aren’t necessary to include in your oil painting process. It’s important to be aware of which materials require more care in handling and how to take extra care when using these supplies, if you choose to use them.
Part of acquiring oil painting as a skill is learning how to use the materials in a safe manner. Like any skill it takes some effort to get right. However, once you’ve been painting for a while, maintaining your materials will feel intuitive.
Which oil painting supplies are hazardous?
Learn about the different materials you may come across when painting in oil, what they do and how to handle them to ensure you are being as safe as possible when painting.
The drying oil in oil paint is a non-toxic substance, but it’s flammable and combustible. Keep any open flame, like gas, matches or candles away from oil paint.
Linseed, safflower, walnut and poppy oil are the drying oils used as binders in oil paint. These oils dry by oxidation. As the molecules in the linseed oil combine with oxygen in the air, and the oil cures, it can rapidly heat, causing an exothermic reaction. This is why oil paint waste should be disposed of with the correct method.
Drying oil that is spread evenly on a surface, like a canvas, dries perfectly safely and you don’t need to worry about it heating.
If oil soaked rags are piled up in an open trash can, they could heat and there is a possibility it could start smoking and even cause a fire. Even if you have a paper towel with a little bit of oil on, I would still take caution to dispose of it properly.
How to dispose of oil paint waste
To dispose of paper towels that have linseed on them, keep them in an airtight tub filled with water. Then when it’s full, take it to your local hazardous waste facility, or call your local council to enquire about how to dispose of it.
Using a lint-free cloth to wipe excess paint over the course of the painting session is perhaps a more environmentally friendly cleaning option than using disposable towels. To clean an oil soaked cloth, just drop in warm soapy water (using dish soap is fine) to remove excess paint. Scrub it with a sponge or brush to remove the paint residue.
If you have a studio space, or a larger room for painting and have the budget to get something purpose-made, get a metal fire proof can. Make sure to keep it shut at all times. Take it to a hazardous waste facility to empty it. It’s not necessary to have one of these as any airtight container would work fine.
Handling drying oil is relatively simple and doesn’t require too many extra materials (just a sealed container). All you need to remember is to avoid putting oily paper towels in your regular bin and regularly clean any oil soaked cloths.
To make oil paint, pigment is dispersed through a drying oil binder. Some pigments like cobalt, lead and cadmium are toxic.
Cadmiums are carcinogenic and lead has been proven to cause adverse health effects. Most brands of paint have stopped selling cadmiums and lead white paint, they instead offer alternatives.
Brands of paint such as Gamblin, now offer ‘cadmium hues’. Cadmium hues are colours made to closely imitate the tone and properties of the original pigment by using a mixture of non-toxic pigments. If you want to avoid using toxic pigments all together, the imitation hues generally perform well. I would recommend Gamblin’s or Schmincke’s cadmium hues. Another positive about the cadmium hue colours is that they are significantly cheaper to buy compared to genuine cadmium.
Paint that has cadmium mixed into the binder won’t emit fumes. In other words, breathing in the air around a painting that contains cadmium or lead will not be harmful. However, if you mix your own oil colours (you buy pure pigment and mix it into oil) pigment has the potential to be toxic when inhaled.
The safety precautions you should take whilst oil painting is to wear gloves whilst painting and especially when cleaning materials to prevent paint coming into contact with skin. I would avoid eating around your painting and always wash your hands properly before making food. Most artists buy premixed tubes of paint, very few will mix their own. But if you make your own oil paint you’ll need to wear protective equipment and a mask to do so.
The final material that you should take care when using is solvent. Solvent can be used to thin paint and to clean from brushes.
Solvent fumes can potentially be harmful to health if breathed in over periods of time. They contain aromatic hydrocarbons that can get into your lungs and over time cause respiratory difficulties, among other ill health effects.
What are the benefits of using solvent in oil painting?
You might be wondering why artists continue to use solvent if they can have negative side effects. Not all solvents have the same level of toxicity. Some are safer to use than others.
There are some studio practices you can employ to allow solvent fumes to dissipate. Plus, the properties and uses of solvent can benefit artists’ processes, which makes them worth using. There isn’t another medium that works in the same way as solvent.
Solvent works by thinning oil paint. This means that when added to the paint mixture, the ratio of oil and pigment is reduced. Add solvent to paint to speed up drying time and if you are taking a layered approach to painting, to use in the first layers of an oil painting. Solvent dries by evaporation, so by adding it to the paint, it will dry from the canvas first, leaving a thinner layer of pigment dispersed in oil to cure and harden.
In oil painting, thin paint (i.e. paint with less quantity of oil, or thinned with solvent) should be layered beneath ‘fat paint’ this is what’s called the fat over lean rule. Fat paint is oil rich.
For example, a paint mixture with a drop of solvent should be layered beneath paint straight from the tube. Paint straight from the tube should be layered beneath paint that has been mixed with a drop of linseed oil. The fat over lean principle is maybe the most important rule in oil painting. Artists use solvent to easily abide by this rule and create a thin layer of fast drying paint that they can use as the first layer of their painting.
How to use solvent safely
When using solvent, you must have a space with at least two windows that you can keep open to allow air to circulate fully through the room.
Ventilation is key, but to prevent fumes from leaking into your studio space, use a brush washer instead of an open jar to hold solvent. The washer needs to be sealed shut over the course of the painting session—fumes can get heady if you are painting next to an open jar of solvent all day.
There are several different kinds of solvents that have slightly different properties and strengths.
Turpentine is made from pine resin. It’s the strongest and most toxic solvent. It performs well in its ability to thin paint, pigment is dispersed through turpentine uniformly, leaving a fast drying layer with even coverage and a satin-like sheen.
Due to the strength of turpentine, it can be used to thin traditional varnishes like damar resin. To use this solvent, ideally you need a large studio space with proper ventilation.
Oil of spike lavender
Oil of spike lavender has the strength of turpentine but is non-toxic when inhaled and is not carcinogenic.
The solvent is strong enough to dissolve varnishes like damar resin and has a sweet, pleasant aroma. Using this solvent is safer than turpentine or odourless mineral spirits. It’s slower drying than other solvents and has a satin finish.
Lavender solvent is more expensive to buy than turpentine and odourless mineral spirits, which is why it’s not more widely used. Chelsea Classical Studios make their own brush cleaner and mediums which include oil of spike lavender in the ingredients list.
Odourless mineral spirits
Artist grade odourless mineral spirit is a petroleum distillate that is also referred to as OMS or white spirit if you’re from the UK.
OMS is less effective at thinning paint. Pigment isn’t dispersed as evenly through the solvent as it is with oil of spike lavender or turpentine. The finish of paint thinned with OMS can appear dry, brittle and chalky if too much of the solvent has been incorporated into the paint mixture. Offset this by adding extra oil medium like linseed, walnut or poppy.
Gamblin have created a ‘studio safe’ odourless mineral spirit which has been refined to contain fewer aromatic hydrocarbons. This makes working with the solvent safer for health, but it’s important to note that their OMS still contains some aromatic hydrocarbons, so it’s essential to use the same studio safe practices as you would with any other solvent, like ventilating your space and keeping the solvent in a sealed brush washer.
Do you have to use solvent when oil painting?
Luckily, solvent isn’t essential to incorporate in the oil painting process. Mediums such as linseed oil can alter the properties of oil paints to make them runnier and more transparent.
To clean materials without solvent, get a brush soap like the Masters Brush Cleaner. To use the soap, dip a dirty brush in water, then swirl around the brush soap to loosen some of the paint. Make sure you wear gloves and continue to swirl the brush around in the soap. It helps to get a a silicone brush cleaner to remove stubborn paint.
Cleaning with brush soap is better for your brushes than using solvent. It works to condition and preserve brushes rather than just cleaning them. You may need to scrub a bit harder to remove paint, but it’s worth it to know that your brushes will kept in a better condition for longer. Get some more tips on how to look after oil painting brushes here.
Can you oil paint at home?
You can absolutely oil paint at home. Most artists start painting from their own house, or a home studio. You don’t need a lot of space to start painting. You can get set up with a tabletop easel in a corner of a room if you have a desk.
If you do have a small space to paint in that isn’t well ventilated, I would advise against using any kind of solvent. Opt instead to use alternative mediums like Liquin or linseed oil if you need to change the properties of tube paint (although this isn’t a requirement). Clean brushes with brush soap. Make sure to clean any lint free cloths or towels you’ve used to wipe paint on in warm soapy water. That’s really all there is to having a safe painting process.
Oil painting safety: Pin it!
Oil painting: Further reading
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