Monday, December 12, 2016

Painting Without Solvents - More Tips for Oil Painters!


I recently received an email from a reader, asking a question about solvent-free oil painting:

* I have re-published the article referred to below, along with some of the previous comments that provide further information.
Hi Laurel,
I came across your article on oil painting without solvents which I need to start doing as I have developed a real allergic reaction to OMS type thinners. You mentioned that you use walnut oil as a medium for cleaning your brushes. Have you tried Safflower oil? or will that cause problems with my oil paintings. The reason I ask is the Walnut oil, which I use to thin my oils has become very expensive. Anyway, if you have had experience with that I would really appreciate any feed back about that as I don't want to give up painting with oils.
Thank you, LP
Here is my reply:
Thanks so much for your letter, LP. Hang in there, you definitely do not have to retire your oils! 
I am sorry to hear that you have developed an allergy to odorless mineral spirits (OMS). I do use it sometimes, usually outdoors, but tend to avoid it in favour of straight paint (often initially applied with a palette knife) or sometimes a medium that with only a little OMS.
You might want to give some thought to your method of painting. For instance, alla-prima painting is conducive to working without solvents. Once you have some paint on the support, there is no need for thinners. I often use a palette knife to put on the first layer; then, as long as it remains wet (usually a few days if using the right pigments - avoiding earth shades like umbers and ochres, for instance, that dry quickly) you can easily blend and work the paint without any solvents until it starts to tack up. I use a small container of walnut oil, dipping in without touching the sides of the container to avoid a mess and wiping off the brush between colors. If you like to let the work dry between layers, oiling out, as discussed in my article below is another option. Particularly when painting in layers, a solid support will age better (less cracking due to movement) than stretched canvas. 
Walnut oil is an excellent substitute for OMS and is much more archival, creating a stronger paint film. For cleaning brushes, I have used safflower oil, so your instincts are correct. In fact, as long as you wash the brushes thoroughly with soap and water afterward, you can use any vegetable oil. Since safflower is also a drying oil (along with walnut and linseed), if it does end up in your paint film, it will not prevent the painting from drying properly, so it is a safer choice than generic vegetable oil, yet still more affordable than walnut oil.   
Interestingly, I recently came upon some information that slightly contradicts some of my previous practices. Apparently, to preserve your brushes, some painters recommend soaking new brushes in mineral oil (baby oil) before using, as this will deposit non-drying oil in the ferrule and prevent paint from permanently stiffening and ruining brushes. We should be using only the ends of our brushes for painting, perhaps halfway up the bristles, but I know I often lose control and end up with a brush soaked in paint right up into the ferrule. Because of my messy habits, I am now thinking about using this method to preserve my brushes. I could then use any oil to remove most of the paint and wash with soap and water. I guess the only risk here is some of the non-drying oil preventing your painting drying! I think the risk is low if you clean the brushes thoroughly after rinsing in safflower oil. 
Another idea to save yourself a lot of time washing brushes every time you paint (in addition to suggestions in the article below) is to suspend them in oil. There are brush washers that have a wire coil to hang them from - just fill the bottom with walnut oil (after wiping them off thoroughly to get rid of most of the paint) and suspend them with just the bristles in the oil. When you are ready to paint again, wipe them off and get to work. With this method, you would not be using as much walnut oil, so could save some dollars that way. I hope that helps! Any further questions, please post a comment and I will get back to you here. 
Happy painting, LP - let me know how it goes!
An additional comment I have, is to use a 3-bucket, environmentally friendly method of brush cleaning if you are worried about your plumbing (and care about the environment) - that way, only microscopic amounts of oil (and toxic pigment) will go down the sink - you have more worries from your cooking pots!

*stock photo



Here is the original article with some of the comments:


PAINTING WITHOUT SOLVENTS

(As published in Curry's Artwise Newsletter, March 2007)


I spent many years painting with watercolors and acrylics because I was scared of solvents.I didn’t want to deal with something so toxic on a regular basis. This was a real shame, because I now paint almost exclusively with oils and I love the buttery texture, lack of color shift (the color, when dry, is exactly the same value as when you put it down, rather than darker as in the case of acrylics, or lighter when using watercolor) and ease of revising my work. Of course, you can always use water soluble oils, but as a professional portrait artist, I prefer traditional oils. It came as a revelation to learn that solvents were not necessary when painting with traditional oil paints, in fact, for archival reasons, it is actually preferable to not to use them at all in painting mediums. Another benefit from painting without the use of solvents is that there is no need for complicated ventilation systems and no worries about the fumes affecting the health of yourself and family members.

I use paint straight from the tube and do not usually use a painting medium, other than a very small amount of cold pressed linseed oil or walnut oil if the paint is too stiff.Sometimes, when adding a second or third layer of paint, I will “oil out” the surface by adding a microscopically thin layer of oil before beginning to paint again. After sprinkling the oil over the area with a palette knife and rubbing it in with a rag, it is a good idea to use a small makeup sponge to remove any excess oil. Using the “oiling out” technique accomplishes the same thing as retouch varnish, without the solvents, by bringing back the original appearance of the piece, refreshing any dry or sunken areas and facilitates matching colors. It also helps the paint flow on more smoothly due to the wet surface.

While I am painting, I try to use a lot of brushes, keeping at least one brush for each value so I don’t have to rinse clean the brush in solvent as I paint. I have a brush holder, which is fairly easy to make, that holds 3 rows of 11 brushes (yes, you read that correctly, 33 brushes) but I don’t always use that many, sometimes making do with just one row of 11 brushes, for 9 values plus black and white. The system, inspired by one of my past instructors, Marvin Mattelson (who teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York City), involves using small, medium and large brushes in three rows. Being somewhat organizationally challenged, I usually get them mixed up, but it is fairly easy to just dip the brush in some walnut oil and wipe it off on a paper towel or rag if necessary. Although Marvin’s version of the brush holder is somewhat sophisticated, with several sizes of holes being drilled inside each other to fit various sizes of brush handles, a simpler version can easily be made by drilling holes large enough to fit your biggest brush handle in a foot long chunk of 2x4. Yes, you do have a lot of washing up at the end of the day, but because walnut oil is slow drying, it is possible to avoid the task for a day or two by dipping the brushes in oil and wrapping them in plastic. Before using them the next day, wipe the brushes clean, rinsing with walnut oil if necessary. Solvents are very drying to your brushes, so an added benefit to cleaning brushes with oil instead is that they will be kept in better condition. By the way, this method of delaying brush washing is best used when painting without lead based whites, which tend to dry quickly.

For final cleaning of the brushes, walnut oil can very successfully be substituted for mineral spirits, as the texture of this type of oil is thinner than other vegetable oils, which are usually too viscous to allow the pigment to fall to the bottom of your brush cleaner in a timely manner. M. Graham, a company that also makes very nice paints, supplies walnut oil specifically geared for artistic use, as opposed to putting it on your salad! Beware that using vegetable oils from the supermarket may compromise the integrity of your paintings, as most oils are non-drying and traces may remain in the brush after washing with soap and water.

To begin cleaning my brushes, I first dip them in the oil and then wipe them on a page from an old phone book (which is a great way to reuse and recycle, as it cuts down on the amount of paper towels used and ultimately trees as well) until most of the pigment comes out. Simply tear off the page when it becomes too full of paint. The next step is to rinse the brush in the oil in the same way you would use solvent. I have a fancy stainless brush cleaner, but I also use coffee tins with a tuna size tin, punched full of holes and turned upside down in the bottom (hammer holes in it using a big nail) on which I rub my brush to get out the last remnants of paint before washing with soap and water. When I feel that my bar of soap isn’t getting all the paint out (sometimes I neglect to clean the brushes promptly, making it more difficult to get them thoroughly clean) I use “The Master’s” soap instead of my usual bar, letting it stay in the bristles overnight if they are really gummed up, and that does the trick!

Finally, I am going to share with you a tip for cleaning brushes that was passed on to me by William Whitaker, a wonderful artist with decades of experience. This tip alone was worth the price of admission to his workshop at the Scottsdale Artist's School. After getting soap into the brush, grab the end of the bristles with your left hand and, while holding the brush handle with your right hand, wiggle the brush handle back and forth several times - doing this helps remove the stubborn paint that is close to the ferrule and will extend the life of your brushes.

Painting with the method I have outlined is better for your health and the environment. If you have always wanted to use traditional oils, but hesitated because of concerns about solvents, this is your chance to experience all the joy of painting with oils with none of the drawbacks!

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