Water-Mixable Oils

By Justin Gerard
The Problem
A year ago some friends of mine succeeded in making me terribly paranoid about the hazardous effects of using solvents or petroleum distillates in oil painting. Side effects would likely include excessive hair growth, pronounced fangs, frequent urges to howl at the moon and a hankering for red meat.
I took this all very seriously. (Some might say too seriously. What's a little extra fur here and there?) Since I didn't want to give up on oils altogether, I began looking into non-toxic alternatives.
As I did this I had 4 major criteria that I was looking for: 1. That the paint itself will allow for a smooth, buttery application consistent with that of traditional oil paints. 2. That the final product will be archivally sound. (It will allow for thick over thin, it won't lead to long-term cracking, the colors won't yellow unreasonably fast. etc.) 3. That if needed, a layer could be touch-dry, ready-to-paint-over in 24 hours. (While staying workable on palette and canvas for at least 8 hours.) 4. That I can work in a non-toxic studio environment. (Here I am concerned mostly with the fumes. I don't plan to eat any of the materials.) To find a paint medium that had all 4 proved to be a lot harder to find than I originally thought. Most products and mediums out there could give 3 of the 4, but very few could deliver all 4. I spent a lot of time talking with the manufacturers about it and most of them recommended I try water-mixable oils. Easy clean up, non-toxic, faster drying times. It sounds great.
So I tried these water-mixables on several paintings to see if they made the grade. In particular I worked with Winsor & Newton's Artisan range and Holbein's Duo range of paints and mediums. I started doing experiments with these a year ago and have done a lot off and on since then. After a great deal of testing, and several pages of notes I concluded that they failed the 4-point test because they cannot deliver on #1.
Here's why:
-When working with just water I found that the slick workability we associate with oil paints lasts for just a few minutes before the paint tacks up (when the water is either absorbed out or evaporates), at which time you have to re-wet the paint again. This makes the next stroke kind of unpredictable. If it is too wet, it may all unload immediately, saturating the paint, and muddying an area. If it is not wet enough, it tends to stick too much. It can be really frustrating and is why so many people have decided that the best place to store these products is directly in the trash. -I also found that the paint layer wouldn't dry for days. Especially if there were any whites in it. (Winsor and Newton uses Safflower oil in their Artisan whites. Safflower will keep the whites whiter over time, but it tends to be extremely slow drying.) -When working with the water-mixable Linseed Oil, (either alone or mixed with water) The paint is slick and a little more predictable, but it never dries. Fail on #3. And if it has to be heavy, and isn't any faster, I might as well just work with traditional oils and walnut oil. It would be just as safe and the clean-up wouldn't take much longer. -When working with the Fast Dry Mediums: Alone, they are impossible. They tack up within minutes and leave that area an unworkable syrup for at least the next 12 hours. They cannot be mixed well with water for some reason. (This shouldn't be surprising, since we are mixing oil and water after all.) They tend to foam up and turn into a mess. This leaves mixing the fast dry medium with the linseed oil mediums. Mixing these 2 together produces a reasonable working medium. However, it only marginally improved the overall application of paint. It wasn't as frustrating as just water, but it was still contrary. If I mixed it heavier on the fast dry side, it turned to syrup too fast. If I went too heavy on the Linseed oil side, it stayed workable for longer, but might remain an unworkable syrup for days after. There was no perfect mixture that I found suitable.
So my notes lead me to think that water-mixable oils are too much of a fight to justify switching over.
But I feel like I need to do one last experiment to make sure of my suspicions before just giving up on them altogether. I am still really pulling for them. So for the next post I will be conducting an experiment with two separate 90-minute portraits, one in water-mixable oils, one in traditional oils to see how the 2 compare.
In the meantime, I would like to get your feedback. If you have found a mixture that you think meets the 4-point test above post it in the comments. I'd love to hear about it.
Next Post: The New-fangled Water-Mixable Oils vs. The Old, Reliable Traditional Oils.

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