My annual rant about non-toxic oil painting methods.

Don’t get me wrong, in case you thought I was against them…I am all about non-toxic studio practices.  In fact, someone recently clued me in to a way of cleaning my (very expensive) litho brayers so that I could give up mineral spirit based solvents once and for all. Huzzah!  In a word (or is it two?): Baby Oil.  That’s right, a small amount of baby oil on a rag or paper towel, after you have rolled off any excess inks onto newsprint, wipe with said rag till clean, changing the spots that you are wiping with and maybe adding a bit more oil to your rag, and finish up by wiping any excess oil off with a dry clean rag.  You don’t need to use a lot, or drown your roller in oil.  Huzzah!  No solvents.

The ranting part of this post is to correct the idea that oil paints in and of themselves are solvent based.  They are not.  The same cannot be said for oil based house paints and stains, but that is not my department.  I’m talking about artist grade oil paints.  They are made from pigment and linseed (or walnut) oil, period.

I tend to grind my teeth and start to yell when people refer to “water-based oils.”  They are NOT water BASED, they are water SOLUBLE .  BIG difference.  Water soluble oils have had something done to the oil that binds the pigment together, which allows you to thin and clean up with water, sorta.  I say sorta, because it really doesn’t work very well, and the texture of the several brands that I have tried, is, quite frankly, nasty.  You can get used to anything, I suppose, but why should you?  The pigment is the same and do you really want to wash that stuff into your drains/septic system?  I don’t.

Why not use good quality paint and use non toxic work and clean up methods?  (Duh…why didn’t I think of that?)  Remember that baby oil that you now have on hand to clean your brayers?  I keep a jar that I bought from the art supply store, which has a metal coil halfway up the depth of the jar, and I fill it to about 1/2 inch above the coil  with baby oil.  Gently brushing your brushes (which you have of course wiped off on you painting rag so there is very little paint on them) over the coil in the baby oil gets about 80-90% of the paint off your brushes.  For a final rinse, I have a jar of Soy Solve, a soy bean product sold in art stores, which I rinse the brushes until they are clean.  Every once in awhile I wash the brushes with brush soap and water.  Don’t use dish soap, it will dry them out.  A little flat container of masters brush soap will last a long time.  If you use great big brushes, it also comes in a pint (?) tub, which will also last a long time.

No open jars of turpentine or paint thinner.  Zippo, none, nada.  I get to use really good oil paints (my brand of choice is Vasari Oil Colors, made in small batches the old-fashioned way)  that are fun to work with.  Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose but that nagging headache from having solvents in your studio.

Crossing the Line // Oil onPanel //Anne Belov //all rights reserved



15 thoughts on “My annual rant about non-toxic oil painting methods.

  1. Hi, I use the cheapest cooking oil available at the grocery store to clean off the etching inks of the plates, clean brayers ,etc. Non-toxic and cheap. Works really, really well. Marianne

    • I don’t like to use veg. oil anymore, as I think it leaves a sticky build up. Also, I had to use a lot of it to clean my plates. With baby oil and soy solve, I use such a small amount, that I think the cost difference is negligible. I don’t know how I would clean off my (very expensive brayers is they developed a sticky residue on them.

  2. I used to have that conversation with people all the time when I worked at an art supply store. It’s much easier and cheaper to switch to a solvent-free system than it is to switch the paints/inks that one uses in the studio.

    • You should go for it. I would suggest a good quality set (limited colors) of some nice quality oils (and now you know how to work with them without solvent. Stay away from any medium that says “alkyd” or liquin. they tend to be very “vaporous”. Enjoy!

  3. I was under the impression that the non-toxic oil paints were safer because most oil paints contained lead. Is this incorrect? I was told not to use oil paints while pregnant because of this – I always would do it with an industrial-type “dust mask”. I was going to try some of the earth/clay based paints (which you also have to mix with oil) – happy for the info about baby oil – I lost a set of paintbrushes last pregnancy because my husband waited to long to clean them for me, and I didn’t want to be around the mineral oil, so I’m happy to be able to do it myself!

    • Other than Flake white and genuine naples yellow, very few, if any, artist paints contain lead. Water soluble oils are no safer (or dangerous) than traditionally made oils. They are all using the same pigments and oil binder. The only difference is that the so-called water soluble oils have something done to the oil so that it will mix with water. Unfortunately it makes the texture of the paint less than optimal.

  4. I just started using baby oil and I was impressed by how it just made the paint, even the old paint flow out of my brushes. I am not anywhere near your caliber, but painting is important to me. It does make me wonder though, what are we doing to our babies when we use baby oil on them?

    • Since I don’t have any babies hanging about, I don’t really know. I’m guessing it can’t be bad or we would have heard about it. I think it must be something in the oiliness of it that makes all the paint float out, rather than acting as a solvent. I’m so glad I learned that it is OK to use to clean my print rollers as well. I am happy to be completely solvent free.
      I hope you’ll keep painting no matter what level you are at. Being creative is so good for us.

  5. While baby oil maybe “eco-friendly” in its packaged form, don’t forget that it is a petroleum product. The acquisition and production of it are far from eco-friendly.

    • True, but it is far less toxic than other petroleum products. In order to protect my rollers and other equipment, there is only so far one can go down the less toxic spectrum. I paint almost every day, but I reuse the baby oil by filtering it into another jar to collect the part that is filled with washed out pigment.
      I would use vegetable oil, but that tends to collect in the brushes eventually and coat the rollers for printmaking. I am weighing keeping my tools in good shape for longer, versus the small amount of baby oil I use over the course of a year.
      It’s not perfect, but from the standpoint of fumes in the studio, it’s a win win for me.

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