How Not to Be Afraid of Painting in Oils

Blog-New-painting-2-March-webNew painting in progress (oil/board, detail)

As an artist and teacher I often hear from other artists who would like to try painting in oils but are afraid to. Artists’ oil paint gets a bad rap. Maybe it’s an idea we have about the name.”Oil paint” is used on woodwork and baseboards, except many paint manufacturers have phased it out because it contains VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency warns may have adverse health effects. “Oil paint” is on airline banned-substance lists because of its extreme flammability. “Oil paint” needs to be thinned and cleaned with poisonous solvents and it’s an all-round baddy.

Or maybe it’s an idea we have about tradition. Oil paint is for masters only and therefore impossible for artists who aren’t masters, which is almost everybody. It’s slow to dry, which means you have to wait between the application of layers. It has too many rules.

The thing is, none of this is true. Or it doesn’t have to be. If you’re an artist who has been afraid of trying this beautiful medium, read on.

First, let’s deal with the name. From now on, you can forget about “oil paints”. The term you want is “artists oil colours”. “Oil paints” are solvent-borne, with fillers, liquid, and possibly other additives. They have a “flash point” (temperature at which they catch fire) of under 60C/140F, which is low. They usually come in tins and are liquid. And you’re right, airlines don’t want them.

Artists’ oil colours, on the other hand, are made of pigment in vegetable oil. It’s true that that some pigments may be toxic if ingested in large quantities, and oily rags and paper should always be disposed of safely. Just as in the rest of life. But as far as the oil goes, Winsor & Newton uses linseed oil and/or safflower oil. Gamblin uses linseed oil. M. Graham uses walnut oil, Holbein linseed or poppy, Sennelier safflower, and so on. You may still be able to find oil colours with some turpentine in them, but you don’t need to buy them.

And thinning and cleaning? The good news is that you don’t really need to thin oil paints at all. I never do. Years ago I used a combination of varnish and linseed and turpentine as a medium, then I became concerned about solvent buildup in the air and in my lungs so I just stopped. I’ve never been able to see any difference in the way the colour goes on.

But if you work in washes or glazing and pure oil colour is too thick, try Gamblin Gamsol, a mild artist thinner that is biodegradable, has a very slow evaporation rate, and has all aromatic compounds refined out of it. Or you can thin your paint with an alkyd medium such as Galkyd, Solvent-Free Gel, or Cold Wax Medium, all by Gamblin. Gamblin takes studio safety very seriously. (And no, this isn’t a paid advertisement. It’s just me helping out!)

For cleaning, again, you don’t need solvents. Plain cooking oil and paper towel will take a lot of the paint out. Then use Masters Brush Cleaner, Mona Lisa Pink Soap, or SavvySoap, and water. Or for bigger cleaning jobs, try Eco-House Extra Mild Citrus Thinner. It combines the solving action of natural orange peel oil in food quality with highly purified mineral oils. One of my long-time go-tos.

As for the tradition, traditions are made to be added to, changed, ignored. I use oil colours on thinly loaded brushes and no thinners at all. I brush on the paint and then brush it on again. I never wait for drying between layers; I just keep going. Edges can be brushed away, wet colours added on top of each other, and if all else fails, the slower drying time of oil colours lets me wipe off any un-fixable disasters as many as several days later.

Artists’ oil colours can be so rich and intense, or delicate and precise, and they can be applied with every stroke an experiment. I love the paint’s fluidity, the way it forgives my messes, the way it has no more need for rules than I do.

Or you do. Enjoy.

But if you still have questions, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll answer as best I can.

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7 Responses to How Not to Be Afraid of Painting in Oils

  1. pam March 10, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    Wow. What I didn’t know. Though I was always struck by the fresh, non-painty non-smell of your house and studio. This is demystifying and outright interesting. Thanks for all the information and offer for more.
    And the painting? The slow unfolding of the image is tantalizing.

    • Laureen March 10, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

      It was another, more senior artist one day many years ago who called my attention to the air of my studio being thick with nasty fumes. So I’m glad to pass the information along. And oil paint is such a beautiful material. I’d love to see more people move away from the dark mythology around it.

      (Thanks for finding this interesting 🙂 Am glad it doesn’t seem like jargon or tech-speak.)

  2. June McClintick March 10, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    This is an incredibly timely post, as I have recently switched from acrylics to oils, and have had some issues with fumes, etc. You have introduced a whole new range of products (extenders, cleaners) and now I am less concerned about toxicity, and will conduct further research accordingly. Do you have a resource book you can recommend? Thank you!

    • Laureen March 10, 2016 at 5:28 pm #

      Glad it’s useful. I paint in what would be the dining room of a normal person’s house and have no problems, so I hope it works for you too. I don’t have a resource book to recommend, but the Gamblin website has great information – there’s a good page at Also, Opus Art Supplies has a page at that might be helpful. If you do Internet research, just be aware that anyone can say anything. I found one website where the writer recommended using turpentine instead of odorless solvents on the grounds that you’d be able to smell turpentine before it did any damage! Turpentine is one of the most toxic of solvents and though your nose quickly gets used to a scent and doesn’t notice it any more, your lungs and liver and kidneys won’t have the same response!

      • June McClintick March 15, 2016 at 7:03 pm #


  3. Eve Barbeau March 13, 2016 at 7:26 am #

    Thank you so nigh for this, Laureen. I’ve always loved the look of oil colours. They’re so rich and nuancey . I use them with hot wax (encaustic) and more about more often with cold wax.

    • Laureen March 13, 2016 at 12:06 pm #

      Nuancey is a beautiful word for what this material can do. I’d be afraid of the hot wax! Good thing there are many different artists to use our mediums in many different ways 🙂