This guide shows you the difference between water mixable oil paint and regular oils. Discover the pros and cons of both to help you make an informed decision about which one to get. Also, find out how to use water mixable oil paint.
What is water mixable oil paint?
Water mixable oil paint (also referred to as ‘water soluble’ or ‘water-miscible’ oils) is an oil based paint that contains pigments (colour), and binder (linseed or safflower oil). It differs from regular oil paint in that it contains an emulsifying additive. This additive allows the oil binder and pigment to bond to water. The tiny particles of oil and pigment will become evenly dispersed in water when it is mixed in.
Regular oil paints are hydrophobic, so they won’t mix with water. This means that you will need to use a solvent such as turpentine, odourless mineral spirit or oil of spike lavender to thin your paint.
How are the two types of paint similar?
Before we talk about the differences between the two types of paint, I’ll first outline the similarities.
The pigments used in water mixable oil paint will generally be the same. However pigments used can vary brand to brand. Generally though, colours with the same names from the same brand will contain the same kinds of pigments, regardless of whether they are oil or water mixable oil. You can guarantee that there is no difference in the quality of water mixable oil pigments.
Another similarity is in the studio equipment you will use. You don’t need different brushes, surfaces, easels or palettes for water mixable paint. Plus the techniques you will use are exactly the same. You can create glazes, or use impasto to create different effects and the type of paint generally won’t affect your brushwork.
What’s the difference between regular oil and water mixable oil paint?
There are several differences between the two types of oil paint. There are differences in how the paint handles, how the dry paint appears on a surface, which mediums you can use and how you clean up.
The properties of water mixable oil paint
When deciding between water mixable oil paint and regular oils, it’s important to understand how it feels to paint with water soluble paint.
The handling properties of water mixable oils are slightly different when compared with regular oils. Straight from the tube, paint can feel thinner, stickier and more transparent than regular artist oils.
Just like acrylic paint and regular oils water mixable oil paint isn’t resoluble once dry. However, paint can be rewetted and altered while the initial paint film still contains water (it takes about 10-15 minutes for water to evaporate from the paint film depending on how hot and humid it is where you live).
When thinned with water, water mixable oil paint behaves a bit like watercolour or gouache. It feels runnier and more watery than regular oil paint.
You will still be able to achieve thick brush strokes if you wish. Paint from the tube, or with a thickening medium to achieve texture.
Drying time of water mixable oil paint
The drying time is much less than regular oils at around 1 day.
However this depends on how much the paint has been thinned, or whether a medium has been added. If you add a lot of water to the paint, it could dry in less than an hour. However, if you add a water mixable medium like linseed with the paint, you could increase the drying time.
The shorter drying time can work as an advantage for artists who prefer to work quickly and in layers. Or for those who don’t want to wait days for regular oil paint to dry.
As the paint is oil based, it doesn’t just dry, it cures. The water from the paint will evaporate quickly, leaving the oil to cure on the surface. This means that you will wait around a day for the paint to become touch dry and solid, but it could take a few months for the oil to oxidise with particles in the air to reach its final form. You won’t notice the oxidisation process happening, however. If you want to varnish your oil painting with a traditional varnish, you will have to wait until the oil has finished its curing process before applying varnish.
Use solvent with oils, water with water mixable oil paint
The way that you thin paint—either to make it runnier when applying to your canvas or to clean up differs between the two mediums.
One of the main concerns beginners have when considering taking up oil painting is that they will have to start using solvent in their home or working space. Without the correct ventilation, solvent fumes can get pretty heady and pose a health risk. Really, a painter should have two windows they can leave open to allow air to circulate in the room they paint when using solvent.
It is possible to paint solvent free with regular oils and there are non-toxic solvents you can buy too. However, if you’re still considering which type of oil paint to buy, it may seem like a more straightforward choice to start with water mixable oil paint.
With water mixable oil paint, you clean up and thin paint in much the same way as you would when painting with watercolour, acrylic or gouache. You simply add water. It makes it a much more accessible medium.
Those transitioning from painting with acrylic to painting with oils might find that their cleaning up and paint thinning process is much the same with water mixable oil paint.
With regular oil paint, you will need a lidded jar to safely contain the solvent or a brush washer. This prevents fumes from escaping. Solvent for washing brushes is kept separately from the solvent that is added to thin paint. The solvent is only mixed into paint in the first layers of a painting. Painters adhere to the fat over lean rule whereby layers become more oil rich with each consecutive later. This means that the ratio of oil to solvent will be higher in the later paint layers. Regular oil paints straight from the tube are easy to work with. They feel buttery and glide onto the canvas, so thinning the paint with solvent isn’t actually necessary.
The consistency of water mixable oil paint is a little different to regular oils. Some artists claim they don’t like working with them as much as it feels more sticky or gooey. Some brands will feel more buttery from the tube, however. Royal Talens Cobra water mixable oils are renowned for being close in texture to regular oils.
You can add a little water mixable medium to your paint to make it runnier, then add some water to make it a nice consistency. You will need to follow the fat over lean rule when using water mixable oil paint too. Lean paint is paint that has been thinned with water and fat paint has more oil in the mix. Lean paint (water-thinned) is great for creating underpaintings.
It’s possible to paint in very thin washes with oil paint. You can get it to a consistency of watercolour to use in the first layers of your painting. These layers will dry quickly though. It’s not good practice to use too much water in your paint mixture, however, as if the water content is too high, pigment and oil will be spread so thinly across your surface that it will form a brittle paint film. This can make for a painting that will not last long.
Cleaning up with regular oil paint usually involves dipping the brush in solvent, swilling it around then wiping any residue on a paper towel. However, you can remove regular oil paint from your materials with brush soap. I have a guide about oil painting solvent free that goes through the cleaning process in detail here.
Water mixable oil paint can be removed from brushes with water, but using a brush soap will clean, condition and preserve bristles much better than water alone. I recommend the Master’s Brush Soap. Your brushes will remain in good as new condition for years using this.
What materials should you use with water mixable oil paint?
You can use regular canvas, oil paper, wooden panel and Gessobord with water mixable oil paint. Surfaces should be prepared for water mixable oils in the same way as they are prepared for oil painting—with a sealer and a few coats of gesso.
Any surface, brush, palette, palette knife or easel that you use with regular oils can be used with water soluble oils. You don’t have to use solvent with water mixable oils.
However, any medium that you mix into the paint, will be different. Mediums can transform the working properties of water soluble oils. They can change the texture, transparency, viscosity, drying time and finish of paint. You will need to select oil paint mediums that have been altered to bind with water. Winsor & Newton’s Artisan range contains a few different medium options that you can mix into water soluble paint. I’ve outlined some options below.
Mediums for water mixable oil paint
Artisan Linseed oil: you can increase the amount of oil in your paint to make it flow better, increase the transparency and sheen and increase the open working time.
Royal Talens quick drying medium: This increases flow, transparency and speeds up drying time.
Royal Talens Glazing Medium: This increases the flow, gloss, transparency of paint.
Royal Talens Painting Paste: this thickens paint. It’s a brilliant medium for working with the impasto technique.
Schmincke makes oil paint water mixable: Schmincke have created a medium that can turn your regular oil paints into water mixable oils.
Can you mix regular oil and water mixable oil?
The two types of paint are intermixable. You can paint with both oil and water mixable oil in different layers on the same painting. The two will also mix together.
When using both types of paint in different layers on the same painting, I recommend painting with water soluble oils for the first layers. This is because it dries faster and the oil content in individual tubes is less than in regular artists’ oils. This can actually be a great way to work, thinning water mixable oils with water to create a thin, fast drying film for an underpainting, that you can then layer your regular oils on top of.
When mixing the two types of paint together, if you want to maintain the water soluble properties, only add tiny amounts of regular oil to the mix. If you mix a large amount of regular oil with the paint, it will lose its water mixable properties. I would advise to keep the two types of paint separate.
How does the finish of water mixable oils differ from regular oils?
Water mixable oils dry more matte than regular oil paint. This is probably due to the emulsifying additive in the paint and the fact that by adding water you are reducing the oil content. The oil is what gives regular oil paint its satin-like finish. So the more water you add, the more matte it will dry.
Because it dries slightly more matte than regular oil, it can also make colours look more dull when dry. The oil in oil paint enhances the saturation of the pigment by creating a glossy film. You can prevent the colours from becoming matte, dry and dull by adding a glazing medium, or by varnishing your painting.
Can you varnish water mixable oil paint?
Brands such as Royal Talens, Winsor & Newton and Schmincke manufacture purpose made varnish for water mixable oils. When using these varnishes, you will have to wait for the oil paint to cure fully, which can take up to 6 months.
If you use Gamvar by Gamblin, you won’t have to wait this long. This varnish can be used with either water mixable oil paint or regular oil and it can be applied to the painting as soon as it is touch-dry. Read more about how to varnish.
What are the best brands of water mixable oil paint?
Daniel Smith’s range of water mixable oils has 43 different colours. 41 of these colours have an excellent lightfastness rating, meaning that the colour will remain stable for 100 years. They are creamy in texture and have a deep, saturated appearance similar to their regular oil range.
This brand uses high grade water soluble alkali refined linseed oil as a binder. The refining process prevents the oil from yellowing over time.
It’s recommended to use up to a 20% water ratio in your oil paint mixtures. Beyond that the paint film could become brittle.
Royal Talens Cobra
There are 70 colours available in this range, including labelled primaries so you can form a limited palette.
These oils are buttery and similar to regular oils in their handling properties. They have a longer drying time than other brands of water mixable oil paint at around 3-5 days.
Winsor & Newton Artisan Oils
Grumbacher Max Water Miscible oil paint
There are 59 colours in this range. They are great quality–they use high grade linseed and the pigments are finely ground. Due to the high pigment load colours appear high chroma and lightfast.
Daler Rowney Georgian Water Mixable Oils
Overall, which should you get?
In summary, artists find water mixable oil paint trickier to handle, but easier to clean and transport. Oil painters find the cleaning process easier, especially when painting outdoors.
Working with regular oils will give your paintings a more saturated sheen, whereas water mixable oil paint can appear dry and matte. Thinning paint in the early stages of an oil painting is easier with water mixable oil paint, as you don’t need to use solvent. Water mixable oils dry more quickly, which is better suited to artists who like to work by quickly layering paint. When it comes to choosing brands of paint and mediums, there is less choice for artists who use the water mixable variety of paint.
The cost of buying materials and the amount of materials you need to buy for each medium is pretty much the same.
Both oil and water-soluble oils are good to use, it just boils down to whatever suits you better.
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