Thursday, August 23, 2007

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!

10 comments:

WilliamE said...

Thanks for being eco friendly

louis r. velasquez said...

hi
i read your comments on safe painting.
i invite you to see my website
www.calcitesunoil.com

sincerely, louis

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great info. I am about to illustrate a book trying the walnut oils. I have always used linseed based, with turps, but now I feel it is time to do the "healthy", yet traditional approach.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on using walnut oil. I was at an exhibit last summer and one of the artists said he liked the walnut oil because of the lack of smell and because it gave the yellows a sort of lumanescense (they sure stood out). I had to move a half dozen drying oil canvases to my garage to dry last week as they were choking me with the fumes. I hope the walnut oil stops that smell.
Denver Norm

Jan Keeling said...

Laurel, this is very helpful information. I, too, use the Mattelson approach, using lots of brushes to accommodate the range of values, and I use walnut oil as well as I can. I have not had good luck using ONLY walnut oil for cleaning. For one thing, the oil gets filthy very quickly because I use a lot of dark paint. But more worrying, if I wash the brushes in the sink after cleaning with oil alone, I am afraid the oil will stop up the sink. So I suspend the brushes in the oil overnight, and occasionally use a solvent to get them really clean before washing in the sink.

Do you not worry about stopping up the sink when washing oily brushes in it? Thanks!

Laurel Alanna McBrine said...

Hi Jan,

Thanks for your comment.

Before washing, I squeeze as much oil as possible from the brush, so the amount that goes down the sink is minimal - probably way less than would enter the pipes after washing dishes following a meal.

Suspending the brushes in oil works well for a few days, and delays the inevitable and tedious washing up process. I have done this by punching X-shaped slits in a coffee can lid and poking the brush handles through the holes. I have also simply dipped a bunch of them in oil (after removing as much paint as possible) and wrapped them up with plastic wrap to keep the air out.

I agree that a swish in solvent on occasion can be a good idea because the oil will eventually, in time, gum up your brushes, but some people cannot tolerate any exposure to solvents so it is good to know that they are not absolutely necessary. Replacing brushes after awhile is a small price to pay for clean air and good health!

Kerosene is stinky but no more toxic than any other solvent and is apparently the best choice for cleaning brushes. I would use it rarely and outdoors in my garage, if at all.

Marvin has a good system, but I usually now use three brushes per size, one each for light, medium and dark tones, works best for me. I dip and wipe the brush a lot while working. Less brushes = less washing up :)

All the best with your painting!

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carolyn said...

this article really helps....I'm a fairly new painter and have been opting for watercolor (which I love but not the same...) because of the toxicity of oils and solvents. I am now feeling that I can go back to oils which makes me very happy. I see so many artists using oils but I'm in the dark about what mediums and cleaning agents to use.....thanks!

Laurel Alanna McBrine said...

Thanks Carolyn, I am very happy you found it useful!