Oil Paints

Oil paint in its simplest form is no more than pigment suspended in a drying oil. Some oils like linseed oil dry or harden into a film, depositing the pigment they carry as they do so. The oil used will have a profound effect on the quality of the paint, and of the finished painting. Alternatives to linseed oil might be poppy seed, hemp, walnut, safflower, sunflower, or soybean oils. In particular safflower and poppy seed oils are often used in white paint as they are paler than other oils and allow brighter clearer, whites. Many artists make some or all of their own paints, grinding pigment and oil together patiently until they achieve the consistency they want. Most of us have experimented with pigments and oils in this way, but I have to say it is time-consuming, and speaking for myself, I would have to say I can't really improve on good quality oil paints made by companies such as BlockX or Old Holland – to name but my favourite two of a large number of worthy names.

A selection of blockx paints
Blockx are a Belgian brand, that I discovered in 1986 and have used ever since.

So how do you choose a “favourite”? What is the best oil paint? Hmm … You choose a favourite by trial and error and continuing to try new products … but what is the best? My own answer to that is “… the paint I like best.” When you compare the results from two (or more) brands of oil paint and decide that you like one more than the other, you are on your way to a favourite. Equally, when you decide you like working with one brand more than another you are on your way to a favourite. There is one caveat on the use of different brands in the course of one painting. They often don’t mix as well as paints of the same brand. For example, I use a less expensive brand for underpainting than for my finishing touches. This is quite a common practice. However mixing the two brands – for example a cheapo red and an expensive blue doesn’t produce as clean a colour as the same mixture in either of the two brands.

Rembrandt's self portrait on copper
This is my choice - there are other perfectly good products out there. Try them out!

So you have chosen your paints and brushes – which I shall write about separately. Now you want to clean up – certainly the brushes, perhaps part of the work area, your fingers, and you wonder what you can use. You need a solvent. The first time I wanted to clean up I hadn’t thought about it at all, and found I had no regular solvent handy – so I used washing up liquid. It worked well enough. These days though I have a number of more effective solvents to suggest. Obviously the first and best known is turpentine. This is a spirit that is distilled from the resin of certain (mainly coniferous) trees. Natural (sometimes known as gum ) turpentine has a particularly strong smell, and cannot be considered in any way nice to work with. I use Portuguese gum turpentine sparingly, and only to thin paint a little. Another well-known solvent is white spirit, or mineral turpentine. It is very effective, but still very bad for your health. These days there are a number of odourless and non-toxic products on the market for oil painters. Of the various products I have tried “Weber Turpenoid Natural” and I was very pleased with it – especially as it is non-toxic and usable for teaching younger students. There is a risk in using industrial thinners and solvents; if they aren’t 100% volatile – that is, if they don’t evaporate completely, they may leave a film on your painting!

Water miscible oil paints have become a lot more popular in recent years than I expected when they first came onto the market. I don’t use them – for no other reason than I like the traditional oil paints and didn’t see a reason to change. Apparently you can treat water miscible oil paints exactly like traditional oils. If you want to know … try it out!

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