Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Defense of Oil Paint

Green Tea
12 x 16

More times than you'd believe, I've had people tell me that a friend, relative or acquaintance of theirs used to oil paint, but quit because it was too toxic. Now, I'm often told, they use acrylics instead.

I find this perception of oils bizarre. There is nothing about oils that is more toxic than acrylics or even watercolours and pastels. All of these mediums use the same pigments, just different binders. Oil pigments are bound with a drying oil such as linseed or walnut; acrylics are bound in acrylic ( a plastic); watercolours and pastels are generally bound in gum arabic. So a cadmium red oil is dangerous and so is a cad red watercolour, acrylic or pastel. It's the cadmium that is deadly, not the binder. This means that all painters, regardless of their medium, should avoid skin contact with their paints. I use nitrile-coated gloves when I work and I bark at my students when they put a brush end in their mouths.

What is toxic about oil painting, is the solvent that is often used for thinning oils and cleaning brushes. But it's entirely possible to be an oil painter and never use a solvent or to keep their use to a safe level. Many painters use only an oil such as linseed or walnut to dilute their paint enough to move it around on the canvas. And brush cleaning can be done entirely in soap and water, or by using a container of a cheap oil like canola to dunk the bristles into and swish the paint residue out, and then following that with mild soap and water. For those who want the swift clean up of solvent, it's possible to limit the amount of time that the solvent container is open so that its evaporation and indoor pollution are kept to a small amount. This may seem unacceptable to some, but they should remember that acrylics dry by evaporating ammonia-containing stabilizers and formaldehyde preservatives into the air. This is far from harmless.

So whenever I hear oils being bad mouthed, I make a point of defending them. Their reputation is undeserved and painters who steer clear of them out of fear are missing out on a wonderful experience. Spread the word!


Bobbi Dunlop said...

Excellent blog, Ingrid, very informative and I couldn't agree with you more.
I love your choice of palette on the last three posts - so inviting - and your brushwork is just as lively as always!

Ingrid Christensen said...

Thank you, Bobbi! I'm startled by my palette lately, actually. The look of my work has changed since I recently added my first pre-mixed green to my palette. It's taking some getting used to, but I do enjoy it.

Robert Bruce Young said...

Couldn't agree more. Linseed oil is named from the French "lin" for flax, as in the flax seed bread you can buy at the supermarket. And flax is really good for you. So as an oil painter, your binder is certainly healthier than the synthetic polymer emulsion that forms acrylic paints!

Ingrid Christensen said...

Thanks for that bit of information for my pro-oil campaign, Robert!

Melinda Walker said...

I dont like the smell of oils. And it isnt the turp it is the paints themselves. I have tried different brands and they all bother me. I wish it didnt bother me so much because I do like painting in oils but sadly oils are no longer my medium of choice.

Ingrid Christensen said...

Too bad! I guess I'm lucky to like the smell of linseed.