Beginner Oil: Options for Oil Painters

McInerney Spring on the Towpath oil The vast array of materials and tools available to artists can make it difficult to determine which is best for rendering a certain subject. Even a traditional oil painter has a wealth of options and can choose from alkyds, water-soluble oils, and traditional oils. Each has its own benefits, which we outline here.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Traditional Oil Paints

Buselli The Copper Pot With Eggs and Fruit oil
The Copper Pot With Eggs and Fruit
by Ellen Buselli, 2007,
oil on linen, 10 x 14.
Private collection.

Traditional oil paints consist of ground pigments combined with a drying oil, such as linseed, walnut, or poppyseed oil. A “drying oil” is one that absorbs oxygen from the air, which causes it to dry and harden over time, forming a flexible and resistant surface. Each pigment requires a different amount of oil to reach the consistency needed for painting. The amount of oil absorbed by a pigment directly affects its drying time, which can be useful for an artist to know as he or she works in the studio on a painting over an extended period of time. When applying layers of oil paint most artists follow what is known as the “fat-over-lean” rule. 'Fat' oil paint contains more oil than pigment, which increases the length of time it takes to dry. 'Lean' oil paint is oil paint mixed with less oil, or with a solvent such a turpentine. When creating an underpainting, it is often advised to avoid using colors with high oil contents, because subsequent layers of paint may crack if the layers contain less oil than the previous layer. Many artists prime their canvas accordingly to make this easier. “I work on oil-primed linen, so the ‘fat to lean’ qualities of the ‘paint to surface’ are an integral part of the painting process,” says still-life painter Ellen Buselli.

When applied carefully and with a sound working method, oil paints can produce rich and jewellike color and can be used in various techniques. Paint can be applied wet-into-wet, in thin glazes, and in heavy impastos. Because oil paints take longer to dry, artists can achieve complex blending effects and easily rework sections of a painting over time. Additionally, wet oil paint dries to the same color, making color mixing and matching easier than working in other media such as gouache and acrylic. “Oils are much more forgiving,” says Buselli. “They are malleable, and working wet-into-wet creates fluidity to the brushstrokes. One can also paint an area to prepare it for further detail at a later time during a painting session. Although the oil will have had a chance to dry a bit, the area will still accept new paint and details beautifully, and the additions will appear seamlessly integrated.”

One of the drawbacks of painting with oil paints is the clean-up phase, which requires the use of paint thinner or turpentine, an organic solvent. Artists must take great care when cleaning with turpentine because its vapor can burn the skin and eyes and damage the lungs and respiratory system, as well as the central nervous system, when inhaled. It is also highly flammable. To avoid these dangers, one should wear gloves and make sure to keep all turpentine-soaked rags in a sealed, airtight container until it can be disposed of properly. To prevent respiratory problems, one should work in a well-ventilated area, and, if necessary, use an extractor fan to remove harmful fumes.

Water-soluble Oil Paints

Jones Til Tomorrow oil
Til Tomorrow
by Andrea Jones,
oil on panel, 8 x 10. Collection the artist.

Many artists find the dangers of oil-paint solvents to be cumbersome, and many people suffer from adverse reactions. Luckily, there are other alternatives for those seeking the vibrant, rich color produced by oil paints–without the dangers of solvents. Water-soluble (also called water-miscible or water-mixable) oil paint performs just the way regular oil paint does, but it is miscible with water instead of turpentine, and brushes can be cleaned with soap and water. This type of paint shares similar properties with traditional oil paint, including a buttery consistency and adherence to the fat-over-lean  rule. Although not every oil color is available in water-soluble form, there are at least 60 colors on the market, including all the earth colors.

Artist Ruth L. Beeve began working with water-soluble oil paints about seven years ago and has no regrets about her change. “After many years of using transparent watercolor, I started working with water-soluble oil,” the artist explains. “My husband was ill at the time, and I didn’t want to use solvents that might bother him. I had painted with solvent-based oil many years before and enjoyed them, but, given the circumstances, using water-soluble oil seemed like the best way for me to get back into working with a thicker, more opaque paint.”

Jones Puckett's After Dark oil
Puckett's After Dark
by Andrea Jones, 2007,
oil on panel.
Collection the artist.

Artist Andrea Jones began painting three years ago and has only used water-soluble oils. Jones finds that these paints suit her style and are more practical than traditional oils. “It makes more sense to me as a plein air painter, and it’s safer for the environment,” she says. However, one of the challenges the artist has faced is the much faster drying time of water-soluble paints. “I was told early on that they take the same time to dry as traditional oils, but I have not found this to be the case; my paintings are dry to the touch in one or two days,” the artist says. “If I am on site or it is a particularly windy or dry day, they can dry before I pack up. This can sometimes be a challenge if I want to tweak my painting back in the studio.” Despite this hurdle, Jones feels that there are more benefits to working with water-miscible oils, especially because they are more environmentally friendly than traditional oils. “I can discard my water on location or down the drain without hurting the environment, making clean-up both easy and practical.”

Water-soluble oils are also compatible with the mediums and traditional techniques of oil-painting methods; additionally, you can mix this paint with conventional oil paint and still use water as a solvent and for clean-up. Some artists choose to mix conventional oil with water-soluble oils to slow the drying time when they need to rework areas of a painting. When mixing water-soluble paint with traditional oil paint, it's important to keep the amount of oil color in the mixture to no more than 30 percent to ensure that the paint retains its water-soluble characteristics. When the amount of the water-miscible paint is less than 70 percent it is necessary to use a traditional solvent, such as turpentine.


Fehsenfeld Lindau, Germany alkyd
Lindau, Germany
by Becky Fehsenfeld, 2006,
alkyd, 24 x 36.

Alkyd paint mediums are relatively new but are quickly becoming very popular in oil painting. Alkyds have the same pigments as oils and use linseed oil as a binder. What makes them different is that the linseed-oil binder is synthetically modified and converted into a new substance that enables the paint film to dry quickly and evenly. Alkyds dry on the surface in less than 24 hours and are completely dry and ready to varnish in about two weeks– much quicker  than oils. Although alkyds are designed to handle just like oil paints (similar to water-miscible oils) the modifications of the traditional medium may take getting used to for someone who regularly works in oil. On a dry, warm day, alkyds dry even faster, and can take on a tacky feeling that some artists may not like. Other artists find this beneficial, as it allows them to quickly build up multiple layers of color. “I first started working with alkyds more than 20 years ago,” says artist Ross Merrill. “I decided to use them for a painting trip to the Southwest since they dry rapidly, making it easy to transport the paintings home. I simply put a sheet of wax paper between the paintings, taped them in a bundle, and put them in the suitcase.”

McInerney Spring on the Towpath oil
Spring on the Towpath
by Gene McInerney, 2004, oil on board,
12 x 14. Private collection.

“My first monochrome layers
can contain almost 50
percent alkyd, which allows
me to work on a dry painting
the next morning,” the artist
says. “Later on in the work,
I can control the drying time
by adjusting the amounts of
alkyd and oil with
each color.”

Other artists mix alkyds with traditional oil paint to speed the drying time and still retain the brilliance of traditional oil color. Artist Gene McInerney, who painted with acrylic for several years, found that oil and alkyd was perfect for him. “In the end, however you use it, acrylic still retains a somewhat plastic look,” Gene McInerney says. “The color just looks richer and more splendid in oil. When alkyd came along I realized that I could get the best of both worlds: the fast drying I needed to build thin layers quickly and the richness of oil. By working them both together I can get the exact combination of properties that I need.” When combining oil with alkyds, it is important to use the fat-over-lean rule. Because alkyd paints dry more quickly than traditional oils one should not use alkyd paints or medium solely on the upper layers of an oil painting because the painting will crack. “I sometimes switch to Gamblin oil paints for the final layer of a painting because they have greater brilliance than the alkyds,” says Merrill. “I also like to lay down a layer of Galkyd (Gamblin’s alkyd oil painting medium) and work into that. It assures that the fastest drying layer is on bottom.”

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.

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