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The Responsible Oil Painter

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Lead pigments and turpentine are just a few of the aspects of oil painting that can make an Artist cringe, and may be the reason why so many have avoided their use entirely. Oil paint is an old age tradition, and creates dreamy textured paintings without even trying to be Van Gogh. Just like with everything in Life, you aren’t going to know exactly how to work with them unless you put in some effort and research. Painting with and oil base can be daunting for some, but it is very easy to use this traditional method with minimal harm to Mother Earth.


I started my Art journey using oil paint and I absolutely fell in L O V E. I was mesmerized by the buttery feel under my paintbrush and the effortless blending that comes with a slow-drying paint. What I loved the most about working with oils - was the fact that I could use my paint on my palette for a few days without them drying out. I could take a break from my painting and rework an area the next day if I wasn’t feeling it, or I could blend in another shade before the paint dried on the canvas if the contrast was lacking. I definitely tried my best to do as much research as possible, because I had heard stories of artists experiencing health problems due to improper ventilation etc. The word turpentine scared the living crap out of me, and still to this day I vow to never touch that substance or expose my home to its toxic fumes. No matter how ventilated your space is, it still poses a harmful risk to yourself and the environment.


Oil Paint - What’s it Made of?


Knowing what your products are made of is the most important aspect of creating art sustainably. Oil paint is so rich in colour because it has such a high content of pigment, and it is imperative that you are aware of certain toxic pigments. I recommend though, treating ALL your paints as potentially harmful. Also - just because a tube of paint says it is ‘Non-Toxic’, it may be safe for humans, but it almost always is very much harmful for the environment. For example : Propylene glycol (found in acrylic paint) is considered safe in the food and cosmetic industry but it is extremely toxic to the aquatic environment, and just like my previous blog post… this is the reason we (the conscious artist's) do not dump our acrylic rinse water down the sink.


Oil Paint Components - pigment (colour) and vehicle (liquid component that holds pigment in suspension)


Unlike acrylic paint, which has one extra component, the binder... oil paint only consists of two major components to make a working mixture. The vehicle part of oil paint is generally made of highly refined vegetable oils such as : safflower, walnut or linseed (flax). The great thing about working with oil based paint as opposed to acrylic, is the fact that there are no chemicals that get released into the atmosphere as the paint dries. The paint is slowly hardened by a natural oxidation process, and the paint underneath the hard ‘shell’ dries much slower due to the fact that there is less oxygen under the first layer of dried paint. Be very mindful though, this is only true when you use oil paints on their own, and do not add any solvents or or extra mediums that contain petroleum. I have been using oil paints for years now, and have never had the need to add chemical solvents or mediums… walnut or safflower oil has been a blessing in my studio.


Solvents - Explained


Solvents for oil paint, are the equivalent to water for acrylic paint. When we work with acrylics we tend to dab our paintbrush in water to help thin out the paint. When we are talking about oil paint, solvents are added to temporarily change the way the oil paint flows, and is intended to completely evaporate as the paint dries. Most people think of turpentine when they think of solvent, and this frame of mind must be re-programmed. Whatever solvent you choose to use, always do your research and prepare your studio accordingly. It is best practice, as with all oils and solvents (even my personal recommendation below) to keep your solvent soiled rags and waste in a sealed metal container before disposing to avoid spontaneous combustion. Also, it is imperative to make sure to take your waste to an appropriate waste disposal site.


If you are not into using walnut or my other suggestions, my personal recommendation for a 100% non-toxic solvent : Eco-Solve made by Natural Earth Paint.


This product is made with processed soy bean oil and does not irritate the skin

  • Archival, professional artist-quality

  • Subtle, fruity liquorice scent

  • No harmful vapours

  • Soy based, vegan

  • Cruelty-free - not tested on animals

  • Excellent brush cleaner for all oil painting

  • Does not pollute soil or water

Toxic Pigments


Tubes of paint will have a label from The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and will tell you whether the paint product is harmful. Isn't it baffling, that even in this day and age corporations are still selling products that pose health and environmental damage?


Try not to let the word toxic scare you out of using certain types of paint though, as the only concerns with using these pigments is the possibility of accidental ingestion due to eating, drinking or smoking while working with these types of paints. If you are worried you are going to eat the paint… then you may have a completely off-topic issue on your hands! But all in all, if you are mindful and aware of your workspace and habits, you can safely and healthily paint using all the colours of the oil paint rainbow.


Lead - it is unfortunate, but lead paint is still very much prevalent in today’s society. Even thought it has been deemed extremely harmful for humans and the environment, it is still sold all over the world. Very few countries have actually banned the use of lead, so be careful when purchasing paint products that they do not contain lead.


Cadmium, Chrome Yellow, Zinc Yellow - these inorganic pigments can cause lung cancer. Chromate pigments (chrome yellow, zinc yellow) can cause skin ulceration or skin allergies.

Lamp Black, Carbon Black - may contain impurities that can cause skin cancer.


***VERY IMPORTANT!***

Children under the age of 12 should never use or be around professional artist grade paints. They should only use art materials that are suitable and approved for their age.


List of Highly Toxic Paints (Known/Possible Carcinogens) :

  • Antimony white (antimony trioxide)

  • Barium yellow (barium chromate)

  • Burnt umber or raw umber (iron oxides, manganese silicates or dioxide)

  • Cadmium red or orange (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide)

  • Cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide)

  • Cadmium barium colors (cadmium colors and barium sulfate)

  • Cadmium barium yellow (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide, barium sulfate, zinc sulfide)

  • Chrome green (prussian blue, lead chromate)

  • Chrome orange (basic lead carbonate)

  • Chrome yellow (lead chromate)

  • Cobalt violet (cobalt arsenate or cobalt phosphate)

  • Cobalt yellow (potassium cobaltinitrate)

  • Lead or flake white (basic lead carbonate)

  • Lithol red (sodium, barium and calcium salts of soluble azo pigment)

  • Manganese violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)

  • Molybdate orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate, lead sulfate)

  • Naples yellow (lead antimonate)

  • Strontium yellow (strontium chromate)

  • Vermilion (mercuric sulfide)

  • Zinc sulfide

  • Zinc yellow (zinc chromate)

List of Moderately Toxic Pigments :

  • Alizarin crimson (lakes of 1,2-dihydroxyanthaquinone or insoluble

  • Anthraquinone pigment)

  • Carbon black (carbon)

  • Cerulean blue (cobalt stannate)

  • Cobalt blue (cobalt stannate)

  • Cobalt green (calcined cobalt, zinc and aluminum oxides)

  • Chromium oxide green (chromic oxide)

  • Manganese blue (barium manganate, barium sulfate)

  • Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide)

  • Toluidine red (insoluble azo pigment)

  • Toluidine yellow (insoluble azo pigment)

  • Viridian (hydrated chromic oxide)

  • Zinc white (zinc oxide)

Like I said above, please do not let this list scare you out of using oil paint!


This list is informative so you are aware, but you should not need to be worried if you do not eat, drink or smoke around your workspace and you dispose of your dried paints and solvents appropriately.


Van Gogh was revered as a brilliant, yet mad artistic genius. Ever wondered why he was refereed to as ‘mad’? Well back in the day, components of paint was not well-known, and many paints contained large amount of lead. Interestingly enough - Van Gogh was notorious for licking his paintbrushes, and had extremely similar symptoms to someone who has been exposed to lead, or lead poisoning. So lesson learned, don’t lick your paintbrushes!


Conclusion


So I’m sure you all are thinking something along the lines of - “why use oil paint in the first place if the paint itself and waste is potentially toxic?”. Well, if you have used oil paints before, you will understand how amazing this medium is to work with. There is something special about oil paint that I have never been able to replicate with acrylic paint, no matter how much buttery soft medium I add to my working mixture. If you are aware of the precautions, use non-toxic solvents, and dispose of your waste appropriately - you can be confident that you are not causing harm to the environment or your own health.


Oil paint is simple. Oil paint is traditional. Oil paint is timeless.


For those of you who are wanting to explore the world of oil paint, I urge you to take the leap and try them out! It is very easy to work with this type of paint and still be mindful of our impact on the environment.


So, now that you are aware of the negatives… you can focus on the positives by making wonderful works of art!


“The bells of mindfulness are calling out to us, trying to wake us up, reminding us to look deeply at our impact on the planet” - THICH NHAT HANH

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