The Chemistry of Oil Painting

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I will admit that oil paints are not my primary go-to medium, but for many artists it is preferred. I like to work with acrylic paint because it is water soluble and generally don’t need to worry about paint fumes. There are many reasons, however, to choose oil paint as a media. Oil paints dry very slowly which allows the artist to manipulate the paint longer and remove areas of paint that they do not like. My interest is particularly peaked because of the ability to work on reflective images without snagging your brush in partially dried paint. I prefer to paint using layers which is why I have gravitated toward the faster drying time of acrylic, but oil paints can be layered as well. This method of layering is called indirect painting whereas direct painting is used to create images in a single application.

The chemicals used in oil paints and with the paint can be toxic, so it is important to understand what you are working with. Certain pigments and metals in the paint are more dangerous than others such as cadmium, lead, copper, and cobalt. There are many other toxic pigments that can be found in paint, but when used properly and safely there is nothing to worry about. Just like we would in a laboratory, it is important to use the appropriate protective gear for the chemicals we are using. Anyone that has had experience with painting knows that it takes a lot of time sitting in front of your piece before it is complete, so ventilation is a must. Wash your hands and don’t eat or drink when you are painting to avoid ingestion. If you plan to use powdered pigments, wear a face mask to avoid inhalation.

Other chemicals to be aware of are of the diluent and solvent arena. Turpentine is used as a paint thinner and also in the production of varnishes. In addition to the flammable and corrosive traits of turpentine, it is a carcinogen. Lucky for us, there are alternatives to using turpentine that I would highly recommend. Citrus thinner is made from citrus oil. It smells better and is not harmful like turpentine. Still, it is important to use it in a ventilated area. In addition, linseed oil and walnut oil can be used to thin oil paints. Now we get to my main concern with oil paints: drying time. Alkyd mediums such as Liquin by Winsor & Newton or Gamsol by Gamblin will speed up the time it takes for the oil paint to dry. Gamblin also makes alkyd oil paint that dries faster than traditional oil paints without the extra step.

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When used properly there is nothing to fear about using oil paints. Mixing the wrong things can lead to health issues, so understanding the chemicals you are working with is very important. There are plenty of mediums to use with oil paint just as there are with acrylic paint to get the texture, transparency, and definition that you are trying to achieve. Linseed oil and walnut oil will increase the flow of the paint and soften edges. Citrus thinner will result in a sharper edge, but can dry more chalky. Using equal parts of oil and citrus thinner will result in sharper edges without the chalky appearance. Now it is time to get painting.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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