In the twentyfirst century it is really not necessary to use solvents to paint in oils. Many of us of a certain age were taught to paint using oil paint plus a medium consisting of an oil base - usually “stand” oil (a form of linseed oil) plus turpentine or other solvent. We also routinely cleaned our brushes in this medium or in a different container with just the solvent in it. This works, of course, but the problem is that we were constantly inhaling solvent fumes. One main characteristic of a solvent for oils is that it evaporates - leaving dry oil paint behind. But evaporating means that the solvent is coming out of the containers and off of the painted surface and into the air right in front of the painter’s face. This has made many of us sick.
There are three major issues with oil painting that solvents conveniently but toxically solve: adjusting the consitency of paint, speeding its drying time, and cleaning brushes and other paint covered surfaces. I personally have been painting in oils without the use of any solvents at all for the past 13 years and I’ve learned a lot of tricks and techniques over that time.
Paint and Painting
Oil paint as it comes out of the tube does not contain solvent. It is pigment mixed with one of a variety of oils. It is entirely possible to paint with just that, not using any mediums. But most people like to adjust the consistency of the paint and speed or retard its drying time. You can, of course, thin the paint with oil such as walnut oil, safflower oil, etc. But the drying time will be much longer because these oils do not evaporate and they dry very slowly. To address this problem, modern chemistry has come up with “alkyd” media. Alkyds are not solvents but they speed the drying time of oil paints and are mixed with other oils to form either liquid or gel media.
I use M Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium when I want to thin paint, and either Gamblin’s solvent free gel medium or Weber’s Res’n’Gel to mix with paint to get a nice buttery texture. The thicker paint is what I usually use, but I use the liquid medium for thinner under-painting layers. I also keep a container of walnut oil (M Graham makes a reasonably priced one) so that I can thin paint a bit more as I go when using brushes. The two gel media are similar but I find that Res’n’Gel speeds drying more than Gamblin, so which you use depends on how quickly you want your paint to dry.
Many people find this to be a big problem with oils, but it can be very simple. First, I use a lot of tools that can just be wiped off! Palette knives are great for this as are other paint shapers, scrapers, and even rollers. One hint here is that Viva (the old fashioned solft-like-cloth kind) is much much better for cleaning off oils and waxes than other paper towels. On surfaces that are harder to clean, you can use cheap vegetable oil (whatever is on sale at the supermarket) which will let you wipe off residual oil paint from just about anything. Baby wipes do a great job, too, but don’t use them on rubber roller surfaces. I don’t have personal experience with this, but I’ve been told that the mineral oil in baby wipes can eventually cause the rollers to become brittle, so I stick to vegetable oil for that.
I do use brushes in my work but I don’t completely clean them very often. Instead, when done painting for the day, I simply wipe off any large amount of paint on the bristles (one wipe will do) and then dip the brush into a mixture of saflower oil and clove oil (about 2% clove oil). You can purchase a mixture ready made from Geneval Paints, but it ships from Texas and I discovered that shipping charges to New England are very expensive, so I make my own instead. Either way, you just dip the brush and preferably store horizontally. The clove oil mix will keep them soft for weeks, and even condition the bristles. Next time you paint, you just wipe off the clove oil and off you go.
Mark Carder explains the use of brush dip in his YouTube video that you can find here https://youtu.be/S6ZtNkAM8cs and he shows how to make a simpe horizontal brush holder in this video https://youtu.be/sSpCCTBmF20
To clean my brushes while painting, I use different brushes for light/warm, dark/warm, light/cool, and dark/cool colors and I just wipe them with a (Viva) paper towel. I find that I don’t need the brushes to be much cleaner than that if I stick to those categories. And if I want to rinse out a brush while painting, I dip it into the walnut oil and then “pump” out unwanted color on my palette. I do not slosh it around in the walnut oil. Remember, the oil will not evaporate the way a solvent does, so you will end up with contaminated oil which is not so easy to dispose of in any eco-friendly way.
The only toxic component of paint itself is the pigment, and not all of those are particularly toxic. The worst offenders are the heavy metals: lead, cadmium and cobalt. These do not evaporate from the paint into the air, so there’s no danger of inhaling them. But they can get on your skin, into small cuts or abrasions, get onto other surfaces and eventually into your mouth. Once you ingest a heavy metal, it never leaves your body and they are - over time - carcinogenic. In large quantities they can affect you more quickly and drastically. So it’s a good idea to keep hands as clean as possible. I usually use exam gloves that I buy at a pharmacy. They are not very expensive and are not bulky at all. In summer, when it’s very warm I find the gloves too hot. My hands sweat and it can be uncomfortable. So then I use a barrier cream. Art supply stores have these products as do hardware stores. I usually use Art Guard. It almost majically sinks into my skin so my hands are not slimy, but when done painting, it’s easy to wash my hands very clean with soap and water.
I hope this helps you find less toxic ways to make art with oils. It’s a beautiful way to paint!