Tuesday, May 3, 2011

New-fangled Water-Mixable Oils vs. Old, Reliable Traditional Oils

Last Time I listed the 4 qualities I was searching for in an "ideal" oil paint.
1. Paintability
That the paint itself will allow for the smooth, buttery application consistent with that of traditional oil paints.
2. Archivability
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. Dry-ability
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. Non-Toxic
That you can work solvent-free and in a non-toxic studio environment. (Here I am concerned mostly with the fumes. I don't plan to eat any of the materials.)
It turns out to be almost impossible to get all 4 qualities in a single oil paint. Water-mixables offer some promise and I have been very interested in seeing if they might be the solution to the question.
In the last post I mentioned many of the problems I had run into while using the water-mixables and why I was considering giving up on them.
But before I did, I felt like I needed to do one last experiment to make sure of my suspicions.
The Experiment:
I Painted 2 figures, both on the same panel of gesso-primed MDB. I painted the first in Water-Mixable Oils with just water and then painted the second in traditional oils with a Galkyd, OMS, Walnut oil blend as a medium. I timed myself; 90 minutes each, so it would be giving each method a fair shake. (Otherwise I would totally cheat and spend way longer on the water-mixables, because I am biased.) As I mentioned previsouly, The water-mixable paints are not fast-dry on their own. They dry faster than traditional oils, but still take longer than 24 hours to dry, especially if whites were used. So to solve this drying time issue for the water-mixables, I made my own quick-dry white by mixing 1 part Artisan Fast Dry Medium to 3 parts Holbein Duo Ceramic White (Which is a really nice white that is somewhere between a zinc and a titanium). This mixture gives great workability for about 6 or 7 hours and is usually touch dry in about 24.
(I decided on this fast-dry white mixture after watching Greg Manchess's demo from Massive Black where he mentions that since white gets mixed into most of his colors, he will use an alkyd white for his whites, and this keeps his paints workable but drying fast. If you haven't seen this video, go find it. It is extremely informative.)
Test Results:
#4. Toxicity
Water Mixable: Non-Toxic. no side-effects noted. PASS
Traditional Oil Mix: Toxic. Slight headache. Then grew fangs, claws and unsightly hair. Roamed countryside howling at moon. FAIL
#3. Drying Times
Both dry in 24 hours. BOTH PASS
#2. Archivability.
Both survived to day 2. So, ok, well so it's hard to tell how they will look 100 years from now just yet. But, they both allow for working thick over thin so that's a start. We'll give them the benefit of the doubt and let them both pass for now.
#1. Paintability
The Water-Mixables had to be wrangled with a lot to get them to work in a predictable manner. I found myself constantly stumbling over the paint as it seized up unpredictably, and then at other times became suddenly too fluid. It seemed like just an unnecessary amount of fighting to get the paint down. The final result feels bland and heavy-handed.
When switching over from them to the traditional paints it felt as though suddenly the paints themselves were making good decisions for me. There was no fighting. Everything was fluid and just worked.
To the best of my (admittedly limited) abilities, the water-mixable oils just lack the subtlety and workability that can be achieved with traditional paints and solvents.
Water-Mixables: FAIL
Tradtional Oils: PASS
Final Results:
Both land 3 out of 4.

I wanted to believe in water-mixable oils. And I still do. I come from a watercolor background, and love the idea of using only water as my thinner.

I think that water-mixables are a step in the right direction, but after my experiences with them, i don't think they are there quite yet.

Clearly the manufacturers have been listening to the community and are working to deliver a solution. That is really exciting and I hope to see them make more improvements as they are able to do more testing and get more feedback.

As with the last post, if you know of a mixture that you believe meets the 4 qualities on the list above, please post it in the comments.

The response in the comments last post was really great and thank you to everyone who contributed. There are a few products I am looking to try out from that list.


  1. Do you use something like this mask when painting with oils? http://www.gasmaskplus.info/wp-content/uploads/spray%20paint%20gas%20mask,_2.jpg . If yes, them you still have a problem, if no, you might want to try and see if the headache continues.

  2. I'm not sure about number 1 since I don't paint in oil and can't compare, but have you ever tried Open acrylics? They sure meet 2,3 and 4.

    They dry really fast when spread thin (but blend better than regular acrylics) and a thick amount dries very slowly, if I spray water on them and put a lid on the palette they keep overnight (if I have a thick amount left.) And you could easily glaze over them in oil.

    I only bought 2 tubes to try and was pleasantly surprised.

    1. Acrylics are toxic as well, with all sorts of binders, plastics, and junk.

    2. Acrylics are toxic as well, with all sorts of binders, plastics, and junk.

  3. I wonder if you're giving the water-mixables a fair chance. I say this only because you mentioned your normal oils, "the paints themselves were making good decisions for me". That only comes from years of practice and understanding the medium.

    There's going to be a learning curve any time you make a change, but if you want to avoid the turps it seems like you can make the switch now if you want. I think if you only showed us the painting on the left we all could agree it's good. The paint quality might be a little different, but you're still a good painter.

    I'm not sure if anyone mentioned Roberto Parada last time http://www.robertoparada.com/bio.html ,but I think he uses oil in a safe way.

  4. An interesting thing to note, is that Windsor & Newton offers a water mixable Thinner, to replace water. It's also a LOT less toxic than regular turps, and has very little scent. What research I've done has led me to believe that the real benefit of water solubles is not using them to replace oil paints, but to offer a simpler alternative to turp and traditional mediums. I find that the water part is actually best for just cleaning the brushes, or thinning in small quantities.

    The texture of the paint using artisan Stand Oil and Thinner is a lot different than when using only water, because the water as you said makes the paint tacky and seize up very suddenly. The thinner doesn't do that.

    So I guess you could say that the artisan/water mixable oils are not exactly water based either, if you want an oil paint effect anyway.

  5. Another point for Water Mixzables:

    I've been using Water Mixables with regular linseed oil and it works quite fine for me (even though I do not get the results that I want - but that's a personal fail, not related to the medium).

    I bet it affects the drying times, but the flow of painting is completely different than using only water.

    Disclaimer: I have NO idea if they are meant to be used that way. I experimented and found it working for me but I recommend not using your most valuable brushes for this experiment...

    1. I dont know how I stumble on this blog. But your comment is exactly how I have been using the water mixable oils as well. Being self taught and a long time acrylic user I just got a small starter kit and I just assume indeed oil was part of the process. The water just is there to keep my brushes clean for the most part.

    2. I have just read your post about the using regular linseed oil with water mixable oils.I use a water mixable linseed oil with my water mixable oils,and it works very nicely.

  6. Have you tried using solvent-free methods with oils? I've heard that you can clean brushes with walnut oil and never use mineral spirits at all. A quick google search of "solvent-free oil painting" turns up a lot of information, and I'd love to see someone give it a rigorous test.

  7. yeah, it seems like using water with the water soluble oils is a bit like using water with acrylics, or turp with regular oils; it'll work, but it's not as smooth as using other mediums. With oils you mixed up a combo medium to use, seems to actually be giving it a fair shake you should be experimenting with the different mediums available for the water soluble.
    Did you still get headaches from odorless solvents? Could maybe the solution be to just make a better air moving solution for the studio, like a fan right by your work space (blowing away) and an open window (in summer)?
    Since I'm anonymous I'm going to make the jerky point that digital meets all your criteria (laying down paint you're "brush" is always fully loaded, though it doesn't bend like bristles) ;)
    good luck

  8. Maybe I'm missing something but why don't you just use watercolors if you love them. With a dry-brush technique you can get the same amount of detail and they meet your criteria...

  9. Watercolors are not even in the same universe as oils. Each wonderful but considerably different. I thought there was an earlier discussion of this and it was decided that the paint, for the most part, itself is not the toxic culprit but the stuff we use with it. I really don't think water was ever meant to be used as a medium for water oils just as a cleaner or maybe initial sketch thinner like turps.

  10. Since your oil paint dried in 24 hours my guess is that you are using Alkyds? They do give off some fumes so I can understand that, but if you are using regular oil paint there is really no need for thinner at all.

    I use walnut oil as my medium, and I never clean brushes (unless I run out of room). You can simply suspend the brush, bristles down, in some linseed or walnut oil and say goodbye to thinners and washing brushes forever.

    An old coffee can with some holes in it works, or my preferred method just get a SoHo Brush Carousel.

    Of course for illustration you may need faster drying times, since walnut oil takes a little longer to dry.

  11. Something I discovered recently (actually after your last post on this) is that with acrylics at least you get *much* better results using a medium for thinning than water, much smoother and easier to control. I notice with the oil demos you used water for the water solubles but a specialist thinner for the oils (as opposed to turps or another generic solvent). It might be that this won't make much of a difference, but it does seem that if you're going to compare the two then an equal test would use medium for both paints rather than just one (of course, iirc you mentioned that the medium made the water soluble ones slower to dry, so it's possible that it would fail that test instead of the workability one, but it would still be a fairer comparison)

  12. Dude, I know you're trying really hard to like the Water-Mixable Oils...
    but they fact is, they just don't LOOK as good.

    Look at how much more luminous the washes of ochre and brown are in the oil painting. Whereas the thick brown areas on the WM piece are kind of icky.

    For me, aside from drying time, the real reason to use oils is the luminosity the achieve. Layers upon layers of color, that let light bounce THROUGH them, resulting in that 'glow'. You just can't replicate that in other mediums.

  13. Carlos,
    I haven't tried any of the masks yet. They seem like a good single person solution.
    I work in a really well-ventilated room and have an Austin Healthmate Jr. air filter running in there. This does cut down considerably on any adverse affects and is definitely a viable solution if there is no way other way to hit the 4.
    I still just wish there was some way to work without all the safety production and the potential that this might be hazardous to other family members.

    I have tried the OPEN acrylics. I found them to be really hard to work with. Unless you work extremely impasto heavy they do not begin to approach consistency and workability of oil.
    However, this is another great instance where I am excited to see the manufactures listening to the community and delivering some fascinating new materials. I hope they continue to improve this line.

    PETE and Mcahogarth,
    I actually spoke with Roberto about this very thing while working through all this. His solution is simply Walnut oil alone, and if you need it to dry faster, use more umbers. It's a really great solution to the non-toxic problem. (And he would know, he has done a ton of research on it.) However, it works best for alla prima work and is a little more difficult to employ in a painting where you are wanting to work in multiple layers.

    And Pete you are right that just a few paintings may not be a fair shake for the water-mixables. It may just take a long time to get used to their peculiarities.

    Anonymous and Cas,
    Good points. You will definitely see more watercolor and digital work from me in the future. I love those mediums. But at the same time I really want to find a solution to this problem because there are some effects that I just cannot seem to achieve any other way but oil.

    You are right on all counts.

  14. SolidSquid,
    That is a great point. It is a little unfair of me. And since the manufacturers generally don't recommend thinning too much with water. (This bothers me a bit, as they are actually named "water-mixable" which would lead you to believe that you should be able to mix and thin with just water..)

    However, the reason for my questionable use of the scientific method is that I simply can't find a workable medium for water-mixables that doesn't involve water. All the various water-mixable mediums either tack up too fast, or stay an unworkable syrup for too long.

    And my thought here is that if I have to use just a walnut oil medium anyway, then water-mixables provide no real benefit over traditional oils. They will dry at similar rates, both can be non-toxic, and both can be effectively cleaned up using only soap and water. Both will take a long time to dry and the only difference will be that the water-mixables are harder to manage.

    I think you are absolutely right. The traditional one just worked out better and between the 2 the actual paint-work felt like a no contest in favor of traditional with solvents. I just wish there was a better solution!

  15. Thank you so much for reviewing this!! I love the look of oils, and can manage them fairly well, but some of the chemicals make my lungs hurt. I think I will try the water-soluble oils...

  16. I use both M. Graham Walnut Oil w/Gamsol 60/40- 50/50 which I premix and then aliquot a my daily working portion into an eye-dropper bottle (cheap-health food stores). It really cuts down on the fumes, etc. I also use M. Graham Alkyd Walnut oil which I sometimes have to put a few drops oil or Gamsol to slow the drying. I clean my brushes w/ Walnut oil in a big paint can w/a Bob Ross Rack (Morgan Weistling's trick). You can put a drop of clove oil into your paints to keep them from drying on your palette for days but doesn't affect their dry time on the canvas (Jeff Watts trick- has to be pure clove oil). Of the Galkyd whites i really like M. Graham the best. Great post!

  17. I agree with Justin and Dan on all counts and that Water mixable oils just aren't there... yet. Have you tried Liquin's Fine Detail alkyd medium? It blends beautifully, has a similar fluidity to walnut/linseed oil and dries within a day. I paint in thin layers and side-by-side with rich detail and this stuff flows beautifully and dries to a semi-gloss finish.

    I use a little squeeze bottle and apply drops to my palette daubs of paint to ensure that I don't end up with a partially dry painting. It doesn't smell as strongly or badly as Gamblin's Galkyd, nor is it as sticky. I've tried all of Gamblin's Galkyd mediums and WN's Liquin series and Liquin has my vote.

    As for Gamsol...well it's one of the finest and cleanest on the market to the point where there is no poison label on the can. I am very sensitive (migrainy) to smells and Gamsol and Liquin don't bother me in the slightest.

    Thanks for such a killer blog post. I've wanted to really give water-mixables a good vote but they just aren't there yet.

    -Jaime :D

  18. Water soluble oils are still quite new. The biggest question we have about them is whether they have the permanency of traditional oils. That is not something that can be answered right away. In the meantime, science should continue working with and tweaking these new oils.

    I prefer to stick with acrylic and gouache. I was able to paint the cover to my fourth comic with no problem using traditional water soluble paints.

  19. So glad to see someone doing a comparison on the paintability of the water based oil paints. I to have given them a fair shake ...and well...as they are better than acrylics..but totally not even close to their issues good and bad...I have found that by doing and using all of the methods possible to make for a healthier oil painting experience...I have returned whole heartedly back to oils. The results just work and feel so much more successful and lovely. P.S....Here is totally off topic but relavant...My insurance company finding out that I am an artist using oil paints informed me that if I was not using an "oily rag metal waste container", (Justrite 6 gal metal pop up lid is one good example), that if my waste rags were to ignite and cause a fire in my studio without this can...I would most likely NOT be covered by home insurance...WOW...so I just bought one today...These do not prevent fires of rags but contain it...so as to prevent the spread and inevitable total destruction of a possible fire...interesting and info that should be shared. (By the way i am in Canada...so this may or may not the same in the states...but for a $100.00 waste can I am not going to argue to save me much grief and issues with insurance. My insurance company now have an emailed copy of my receipt and photo of can and receipt of me holding in their possession to avoid he said she said they said issues in the event of fire.
    Protect yourself and your home and studio...okay...done now.

  20. I worked at Daniel Smith Art Supply a good while back, and I remember when the store was considering whether or not to carry water-based oil paints in their catalog. They passed on it because the medium was a surfactant (soap-like) substance and they didn't like the consistency and weren't sure of the archival quality.

    Are the paints still surfactant-based or did they find something new?

  21. "the medium was a surfactant (soap-like) substance"

    Thats all they is, coloured soap. High quality turpentine is a perfume additive. Toxic? Nope! Walnut oil is inferior to linseed oil. Alkyd's are made with soybean and/or tobacco oils. What's next, canola? Do they still add formaldehyde to acrylics? (wicked headache that)

    1. Actually, walnut oil is what the masters of old used in their paintings. Evidently, linseed and turpentine were used more recently as a cheaper, cost-saving mechanism. And Acrylics, yes, are made up of unhealthy ingredients.

    2. Actually, walnut oil is what the masters of old used in their paintings. Evidently, linseed and turpentine were used more recently as a cheaper, cost-saving mechanism. And Acrylics, yes, are made up of unhealthy ingredients.

  22. I picked up this book http://tinyurl.com/3e6vxv5 several months back because I had wanted to play with oils again after over 30 years of acrylics. Since I work in a basement studio with limited ventilation I'm naturally concerned about fumes and such. I found this book to such wealth of information on water mixable oils that I recently bought a decent selection of them to play with (though work has yet to afford me the time). The paintings in this book are wonderful as well and they are the main reason I decided to try the paint. This post is really timely and has definitely spurred me to find some time for experimentation. I'll let you know what I think.

    On a side note, I had heard that it's easier for an acrylic painter looking for more working time to make the transition because there is no bias toward or previous experience with conventional oils to get in the way. Time will tell.

  23. Wikipedia states "Turpentine is an organic solvent. Its vapor can irritate the skin and eyes, damage the lungs and respiratory system, as well as the central nervous system when inhaled, and cause renal failure when ingested, among other things. Being combustible, it also poses a fire hazard."

  24. I love how the only concern with "toxicity" in this group refers to the fumes from the turps. You do know almost all the pigment in the paints is harmful to us and the environment in many ways, no?

  25. FWIW: The Berlin WSOs I've tried were smooth with decent handling, luminosity and covering power. They are said to resemble the Lukas 1862 oil line, including the added touch of beeswax.

    Adding water or drying mediums seem to make WSOs more sticky. I want to try a small amount of Graham Walnut Alkyd medium with them next. It's said to keep the paints smooth and bendable, but will tack-dry them in 24 hrs.

  26. I work on paper and absorbant canvas with watercolors. Does anyone know if the water based oils can be thinned and used as a thin wash/layer of particles like watercolor can do? I guess the question is, do the water based oils absorb into an absorbent surface, like paper? Thanks

  27. I've started using Cobra Water Soluables and I love them almost more than regular oils. I don't add water to them because I find they can cloud a little pluse they become more like a waterpaint imo. I use Liquin with them and the results are great. For glazes I use Liquin regular with a little Gamsol and never have a problem. Cobra also sells a water mixable painting medium that is very good as well. I've done paintings where I've started out with water soluables and then switched to regular oils for upper coats staying within the fat over lean rule...again never a problem. You really need to play around with water soluables to find what works for you and don't be afraid to incorporate mediums with them.

  28. Thanks for this honest review of the water-soluable oil paints. I've just started using them and couldn't figure out where the tackiness was coming from and if this was normal. Some colors even seem tackier than others? I'm going to try using the water-soluable thinner someone else suggested to see if that will hopefully help with this issue...Thanks!

  29. Years ago when studying art at a major university the professor said, "You know painting with oils will shorten your life". I use Lukas water-soluable oils with linseed oil. They work well and I don't have to deal with the obvious problems I had plein air painting with acrylics. They are not perfect but considering all the risks I am satisfied.

  30. Your article on Water-mixable paint is very objective and sensible. I have recently developed a Water-Mixable Walnut Oil Paint after 32 years of artist paint making. It has all the benefits that you were looking for. Have a look on my site for more details. www.hermansart.co.uk
    Herman Jansen van Vuuren
    United Kingdom

    1. try using a drop of dish washing soap (Palmolive) in the water you use for thinning. It works great for water based plastic model paint. I am trying it out and see how it works. So far, so good.


  31. I've been using water miscible oils for over a decade. Thinning with water doesn't give me good results. Washing the brushes only in water and soap doesn't get them clean easily. I use odorless mineral spirits (Gamsol) in very small amounts to thin with if I need more flow. I clean my brushes with it before I clean them with water and soap (just like I was taught to do with conventional oils four decades ago). My main complaint with water miscible oils is that I have to let them dry at least three days between layers or subsequent layers will dissolve and pick up initial layers. I have had little luck with alla prima for the same reason--subsequent layers pick up initial layers and turn the colors to mud if I don't let them dry thoroughly between painting sessions. The water miscible oils may be more transparent than traditional but I haven't done a side by side test. I like the transparency and use it just like I do watercolors for glazing techniques. I don't need to add oil to the water miscible oils to get the translucency for layer upon layer.

  32. Thanks for sharing such kind of nice and wonderful collection......Nice post Dude keep it up.
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  33. I started off with traditional oils and then tried water mixable (W&N). Over the last 4 years I have been using water mixable oils (W&N) on my painting journey with much success. I recently tried COBRA Water Mixable Oil with their Water Mixable Painting Medium and find it works great. Agree with AnonymousSeptember 27, 2012 at 6:28 PM.

  34. I use Daler Rowney water mixable oils. Because all you need is a container of water, various synthetic brushes, feather light wooden palette. Make it simple, and you will enjoy oil painting. You do not need to buy any extra mediums and solvents that stuff will harm your health.


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