Painting solvent-free with traditional oils

Readers who have followed my blog for any length of time may know that I have been in pursuit of solvent-free painting methods for some time. My reasons are two-fold; it's better for my health and I simply don't like the mess of dealing with solvents on a regular basis.

So for the last 10 months or so, I have been painting pretty exclusively with Cobra water miscible oil paints by Royal Talens for my studio work, though I still used traditional oils outdoors for plein air painting. This worked fine, though I still struggled with certain aspects of my chosen materials. In the studio, while the Cobra paints worked really well and complemented my working methods, in other respects I missed the depth and richness that certain colors in my traditional oils  provided to me. On the flip side, I still really hated having to carry around solvents when plein air painting. Both the weight of the liquid and especially the mess of pouring and emptying the solvents really bothered me.

So, after listening to artist Leslie Saeta's excellent Artists Helping Artists podcast featuring an interview with Robert Gamblin, (of Gamblin Artist Colors) I took special note of their discussion surrounding Gamblin's relatively new line of solvent-free gels and mediums. I will admit I have known about these mediums for a while, and even have some of them in my studio. But in truth I haven't done much with them, because other than thinning my oils in the beginning stage and cleaning my brushes between strokes, I don't use painting mediums and so I really wasn't sure how they would benefit me.

But in this podcast, when I learned that you can actually use solvent free gel to clean your brushes during the painting session, well, that got my attention. I can use my beloved traditional oils without a can of messy solvents in my backpack? Now you're talking!

"At the Ready", Oil on linen, 16x20" ©Jennifer E. Young

"At the Ready", Oil on linen, 16x20" ©Jennifer E. Young

To experiment with the working properties of the method discussed, I executed the above painting in the studio. I did use a small amount of Gamsol in the beginning stages of my painting to adhere to the fat-over-lean principle of painting in oils. But I can carry this in a small container (a repurposed bottle no larger than an eyedropper that it once held my Argan face oil)  to squirt out a just little onto my palette for whatever small amount of thin washes I may need.  After that point, though, I paint with mostly just paint, maybe using the solvent free gel to get a little bit of slip in my stroke when needed, but mostly for cleaning off my brushes between strokes.

For clean-up on site, I wipe my brushes clean with the medium, maybe with one last squirt of Gamsol from my little bottle, before packing everything up . The final clean up takes place back in the studio. Different artists use different things to wash their brushes, from Murphy's Oil Soap to baby oil to plain old soap and water. I've used these too, but my favorite is Master's Brush Cleaner. This stuff comes in a tub and lasts forever. I can't even remember when I bought my current tub and I'm only about 1/3 of the way through. I just wet my brushes, swish them around in the tub, and the remaining paint is easily washed out under water. Something about this stuff seems to really get the oil residue off of the bristles and condition them at the same time. I don't know what's in that magic tub, and I'm not sure I want to know. But it seems pretty innocuous, though I always wear my gloves now when handling my art materials.

I'm really happy to be reunited with my traditional oil paints. I still like the water miscible oils, but it's hard to shake that first love, and now, it seems, I don't have to.

Pasture in Evening Light, and pros/cons of WM oil paints

This painting had quite a few interruptions, so it took a while to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. But now that it is done, I feel pretty satisfied. This is another painting reflecting on my trip to Floyd County, Virginia this past fall:

"Pasture in Evening Light", Oil on linen, 24x30" ©Jennifer E Young

"Pasture in Evening Light", Oil on linen, 24x30" ©Jennifer E Young

As with all of my recent studio paintings, this piece was done in water miscible oil paints. I haven't said much about these paints lately, but since I have been working with them for a while now I feel I have enough experience with them to comment.

The main reason I decided to experiment with these paints is because of health. I have become more sensitive to a lot of things, and I've suspected for a while that painting with solvents has been giving me problems; especially when painting indoors. While it is possible to paint in traditional oils solvent -free (in the past I have used walnut oil, and now Gamblin has some good solvent-free products) creating initial washes is a challenge without solvents. I am also currently renting a studio space and I am sensitive to any possible odors that the other business might sense. Plus, cleanup is so, so much easier using just water.

Water miscible oils behave a lot like traditional oils, though there are some exceptions/ differences. There was a bit of a learning curve in that not only did I have to learn the properties of the paints, but the colors differed, sometimes significantly, from my go-to traditional oils that I had become accustomed to working with for nearly 20 years. In many ways, however, I actually prefer the water miscible oils. Below I will attempt to outline some benefits and possible disadvantages. 

Pros:

  •  Simple easy clean up with water! (This is really, really hard to overstate!)
  •  Combined with a medium formulated for this type of paint, creates luscious, buttery brushwork similar to and perhaps even exceeding ( depending on the application method) traditional oils.
  • For myself, personally, I am finding that these paints retain their luster from wet to dry and I do not get the "sunken-in" effect that can sometimes happen with thinner passages in traditional oils. (As far as medium goes, the same rules apply as those for traditional paints; fat over lean, no more than around 20 % medium to paint, etc.)
  • Most brands offer a varnish formulated specifically for water miscible oils, but so far I have found varnishing unnecessary. This is pretty big as it eliminates a considerable step from the finish.
  •  Odorless
  •  No or low VOC's and off-gassing, which means a much lower risk of toxicity for the artist.

Cons:

  •  As for appropriate painting surfaces, there are not as many options as there are for traditional oil paints. My understanding is that acrylic gesso grounds are best for water miscible oils. Oil grounds and shellac on wood may be more problematic.
  • Traditional bristle brushes tend to turn into soggy mops if too much water is present (I do limit the water, but I also use synthetic bristle brushes by Rosemary Brushes with my WM oils now. They behave like bristle brushes. They keep their shape well and have a great spring, but don't turn to mops. They are great for traditional oil paints too. (In short, they.are.awesome!!!)
  • Too much water can also cause the paint to become cloudy or sticky,
  • While these oils can be mixed/interchanged up to 25% with traditional oils, I have received little technical response regarding the interchangeability of the WM paints among other WM brands. Early indications recommended against this practice, given the different compounds used by different brands. I am still a little unclear about this, so out of caution I paint with Royal Talens Cobra  exclusively right now.  I like them very much and have been wary to  mix with a different brand like WN Artisan paints.
  • So far, there has been zero support from the manufacturer of these paints when I have written them about technical properties, though I have sent in at least three questions through their online channels requesting technical support. I like this paint overall, but. I find this highly unusual, especially in comparison to Gamblin whose support has always been stellar, and Winsor Newton's, whose is also very good.
  • Due to the fact that these paints will react to water while they are wet, they can be a problem in a sudden rain storm. Not that painting without cover in the rain is good for any painting, but it sometimes happens unexpectedly when painting en plein air.  For this reason, I still use traditional oils for plein air painting, either minimally using OMS or painting solvent free with safflower oil and the Gamblin solvent free gel. Plus, I still have quite a supply of traditional oils, so I will probably keep using them to some extent.  

Pro/Con:

Slightly longer dry time. This may prove to be a con if you are up against the deadline, but since I am using these for my larger studio paintings I love, love, love this aspect. My schedule has been fairly erratic this year and It is so much easier to go back into a larger painting and rework it than it is with traditional oils. Even after a couple of days, the edges can still be manipulated somewhat and I don't get that "lip" of built-up texture that I would have to sometimes have to scrape down with a traditional oil painting that I let sit too long. I'd say given the way I paint, it takes a good 5 days for the water soluble oils to dry to the touch, as compared to about 3 days for the traditional oils.

How about you? Have you tried water miscible oil paints? Which brands did you try and what did you think? 

 

First painting since the move!

After re-reading my post from yesterday I started to feel like a wimp, complaining about the heat and all. Then I tried it and realized that heat stroke does not improve your art one iota! All kidding aside, it was boiling lava hot outside on my patio. I only lasted about an hour before I decided I'd have to leave it until the next day, and pick up where I left off. And so I painted this piece over two sessions, noting the time of day and returning to wrap up at the same time this morning.

"A Taste of Summer" Water soluble oils on Linen, 12x12"   Jennifer E Young

"A Taste of Summer" Water soluble oils on Linen, 12x12"  Jennifer E Young

This little outdoor still-life setup includes the herbs and flowers I brought from my old place, as well as a big beautiful housewarming gift from our new neighbors (the pink and orange spray behind the basil). A  marriage of old and new,  I felt it was the perfect subject to kick off this new beginning.

I experimented with this painting using Cobra water-soluble oil paints by Royal Talens . I was inspired to try them when I started following the very talented painter Mark Hanson's discussions about them on Facebook and on his blog. I have friends who use water miscible oils, too, but having tried them before without success I haven't been compelled to try them again. But when Mark suggested that his migraine headaches may have gone away after switching to these oils, I took notice and decided to try this new (to me)  line of paints myself.

I have suffered from insomnia for years, and yet ever since we moved to the new house, I have only had two bad nights. That's pretty incredible! Coincidentally, with the exception of yesterday and today,  I have not painted since we've been here. Is it possible there is some other reason for my new-found improved sleep? Absolutely. But it's also possible the fumes were getting to me and I didn't even realize it. It has also bothered me for a while that I am eating as much organic and natural food as I can afford, I'm also inhaling volatile organic compounds on a daily basis in my work. And if we ultimately decide to set up my studio in our current attached garage, water soaked paper towels are going to be a lot safer than ones soaked with mineral spirits, odorless or not!

I first tried water-soluble oils several years ago. I believe they were Winsor & Newton's Artisan series. At the time I found the handling too gummy and tacky and not to my liking at all. I may not have given them a fair shake though, because in recent weeks I have read that you really should not thin your paints with water or it will produce that tacky, gummy effect and make the paints rather dull and cloudy looking. Instead, Mark advised not to rinse off your brushes too much with water, but to just wipe off the brushes as much as possible in between color mixture sinstead, and save the water for the final cleanup. If needed, use a water miscible oil painting medium created specifically for these paints rather than water to increase viscosity.

That advice made a world of difference and I found myself painting without fighting with my materials. There was a slight difference in the handling and a few old habits to overcome, but nothing so difficult as to put me off. I would say they did not flow as easily for me as my traditional oils, and the color intensity was a tad weaker, but not by a tremendous amount. On the other hand, they have absolutely no odor and seem like they would be great for travel.

From what I have read so far, the drying time may be a bit longer than what I'm used to. But that should not be an issue for ole' Pokey, here. I do hope they dry well and evenly, without any dull passages or great shifts in color or value. I will report back on this if I notice anything remarkable. I look forward to experimenting more with these paints. I really hope these will be my new go-to paints, and that I can ditch the OMS once and for all!