Safe Non Toxic Oil Painting
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6 practical tips on how to make oil painting safe for you and your entire family.
Plus, how to make oil painting clean-up easy!
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Tip #1: Reduce / Eliminate all solvents
This includes solvents you use to clean your brushes, solvents you use as painting mediums and any mediums that contain solvents.
But why should we reduce or eliminate solvents?
Exposure to solvents is one of the most common chemical health risks at home and especially at work places.
I’ve met many health conscious individuals who eat right and exercise every day and look amazing but they are still using toxic materials around their house.
Materials such as…
- PVC’s in plastics
- Flame retardant coatings
- BPA in canned foods
And something I just learned during the making of this video, there are chemicals called PFAS in non-stick cookware. We’re going to need to upgrade all our cookware.
These chemicals permeate your environment and the environment you inhabit in turn affects your health, just as much as diet and exercise.
If you live and work in a toxic environment, think Chernobyl, it doesn’t matter how well you eat or exercise, all of that will be undone by the toxins in your environment.
By cutting out solvents during oil painting you can remove at least one extra toxic item from your environment.
Speaking of the environment. Solvents are terrible for the earth in general.
I don’t think I have to go into much detail here. Pouring solvents down the drain or dumping rags soaked in toxic paint and solvents into your household trash will eventually lead to our natural places.
I live close to a beautiful bay here in the pacific northwest and I can’t imagine jumping into our local bay and coming out smelling like mineral spirits, bleach or pesticides? Yuk!
Get yourself a fire proof can to hold toxic materials, then when it’s full take it to your local disposal management and have them dispose of it properly.
Toxic Vapors are heavier than air
The biggest problem with solvents are the vapors they produce. Some of these vapors are heavier than air and collect lower to the ground.
When we’re painting we’re normally sitting or standing and the vapors are down below our waist and we can’t smell them. We’re not aware of a potential health risk.
If you have children, or pets, they are closer to the ground, completely submerged in the toxic vapors without you realizing it. It’s our children and pets that are more sensitive to these toxins.
I even read in several safety data sheets that vapors may also explode from smoking. Yikes!
I’m gonna pause right here and say that smoking is a much larger health issue than oil painting. If you are smoking, you may want to put some effort there first.
You may say. “I’ve painted with solvents for years and I’m fine.”
Well like most health risks around us they are chronic. Which means it takes a long time of repeated exposure to see the effects, and the effects are drastic.
Solvents affect your cognitive abilities and irritate your eyes.
Last time I checked you need your brain and your eyes most when painting… Or doing anything.
Solvents can also damage the liver, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, bone marrow and the nervous system.
They have narcotic effects, causing fatigue, dizziness and intoxication. High doses may even lead to unconsciousness and death.
Okay enough of the doom and gloom. Hopefully I’ve convinced you that solvents are really bad for your health and putting in some effort to remove them from your painting materials will be greatly beneficial.
Tip #2: Reduce / Replace toxic oil paints
Solvents are not the only thing in oil painting that can be a health risk, there are some paints that contain heavy metals.
Most notable would be Flake White which contains lead and all the Cadmium paints.
Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Green, etc.. The names say it all.
The majority of oil paints contain natural pigments like Burnt Umber which is made from Loam which is then combined with a medium like refined linseed oil before put into a tube.
Both are natural items that are completely harmless as long as you don’t eat them…
Do I really have to say this… Don’t eat your oil paints…
Regardless, check the back of all your paint tubes and make sure they don’t have any harmful additives just be extra sure.
If you like and use flake white. Gamblin makes a flake white replacement that I’ve used alongside flake white and its properties are very similar.
For Cadmium replacement I would suggest going to Gamblin’s website and looking at their whole line of colors and match something close to the cadmium’s and use that instead.
For example if I wanted to replace my cadmium yellow medium I would look and see that hansa yellow medium is a close match. There ya go, one less cadmium!
Utrecht also has a set of cadmium free oils that I may try in the future when I finish with the cadmium paints I currently have.
If you can’t find a non toxic color at Gamblin there are a bunch of other manufactures to choose from.
This makes it 100% possible to find enough non toxic oil paints out there, that will allow you to create every single color imaginable.
So that’s great for pigment alternatives but what about solvent alternatives?
Because solvents are the most potent problem.
Tip #3: Solvent alternatives
If your method of painting requires you to use solvents this is for you.
There are rankings of solvents from best to worst but I don’t see a need to bore you with all the numbers from Safety Data Sheets I’ve read for Mineral Spirits, Turpentine and others. We will go right to the best.
And that is, Gamsol by Gamblin. Arguably the best solvent on the market for oil painting.
Here is a quote from the gamblin website.
By the way, Gamblin isn’t sponsoring this video. I honestly like their products.
Even though Gamsol is a much safer alternative it still has an NFPA rating the same as odorless mineral spirits.
And in their safety data sheet they recommend storing and using it in a well ventilated room.
Which brings me to tip #4.
Tip #4: A well ventilated room
If you’ve read labels for solvents and mediums for oil painting you will see.
“use in a well ventilated room”
Which begs the questions. What is a well ventilated room?
Initially I thought it was all about the size of the room but after further research I learned that the size of the room plays only a small role in ventilation.
Although larger rooms are better, it’s the air that is moving through the room that is important.
Even if you are painting in a huge space but the air is stagnant, not moving, you may want to open a window and put a fan in that window.
Especially for smaller studios like mine if I wanted to use solvents I would definitely need to open a window and add a fan to be safe.
But in the middle of winter I don’t want to freeze while I’m painting, so the open window and fan is not an option.
Besides, we don’t want to be dependent on the weather to paint all the time. We’ve got enough stuff in our lives trying to steal our painting time as it is.
So if you must use solvents during painting go for the best, Gamsol and open a window and have the air moving.
Put a fan in the window
Careful not to freeze in winter!
But I still have a better alternative for you.
Let’s look at some amazing practical alternatives that not only make non toxic oil painting possible but it makes it even easier too.
Tip #5: Non-solvent alternatives
Again we are going to revisit Gambiln. I love the company because they are always looking for better ways to protect everyone and the planet.
They provide three different solvent free non toxic mediums. A solvent free gel, fluid medium and safflower oil for cleaning.
I use the Solvent-Free gel while painting because I like to keep my palette vertical and the gel sticks perfectly to my palette without running.
Plus the working properties are exactly the same as Neo Meglip which I used to use and love before the fumes and toxicity made me switch.
I’ve tried the Solvent-free fluid but I honestly don’t like it much.
It has a sticky consistency that I don’t prefer to mix with my oil paints but, it’s great for oiling out the painting after it has dried and you want to keep working.
And the third solvent free product they have allows me to make oil painting clean up super easy.
Which brings us to the 6th and final tip for non toxic oil painting.
Tip #6: You don't need to clean your brushes!
That’s right you don’t need to clean your brushes at all. At least not after every painting session.
Here is how.
I’ve been using Gamblin’s Safflower oil and this old cut up plastic container as a soak for my brushes. With this I’m able to leave them in this bath of oil for months without them drying.
I even use Safflower oil in my airtight brush washer. Which I’ve kept from when I used to use solvents as I don’t really need an airtight container with the safflower oil.
I do add a few drops of clove oil just to make sure that the safflower oil doesn’t dry and it smells even more pleasant.
Here is my exact process
- After every painting session I wipe off as much oil paint from the brush as I can in a paper towel.
- Swish it around in the brush washer a few times and get as much oil color out of the brush as possible.
- Then I add it to my oil bath bucket.
5 seconds and done. Super easy.
Next painting session
During the next oil painting session I use the side of the bucket to get as much safflower oil out of the brush then lightly squeeze the rest of the oil out of the brush before painting.
It’s important to try and get as much safflower oil out of your brushes before starting the next painting session.
Safflower oil dries, but it takes a whole lot longer than anything else and you don’t want patches of your oil painting to be wet for months.
I’ve literally had brushes in this bath for more than 6 months before washing them.
Before I used this method, back when I used solvents, the bristles on my brushes would get brittle quickly and fall apart much faster.
I was replacing brushes much too fast.
Now my brushes come out flexible and ready every single time I paint.
But there are times when I do clean my brushes.
How to clean your brushes without solvents
Hairs on a brush
Hairs on your head
And when it comes to cleaning brushes I always get this question.
How do you clean your brushes if you don’t have solvents?
To answer that question I’m going to use what I think is a very apt analogy.
You paint with sticks, and on the end of those sticks are hairs. These hairs will get oily when oil paint is added.
Now think about the hairs on your head. After an amount of time the hairs on your head will naturally get oily.
Would you step into a shower and pour solvents over your head to get out the oil?
You use soap, and it cleans your hairs just fine.
Your brushes are expensive and fragile much like the hair on your head.
Why would you ever use solvents when soap does the job just fine and with absolutely zero harmful effects?
That’s the answer. When I clean my brushes I use soap. I use Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver. It cleans and preserves my brushes as well as the safflower oil.
I got this huge tub of soap years ago. I use it maybe every 3 or 4 months and I expect it to last for decades.
The process of using a safflower oil bath makes cleaning my brushes easier as well. The only thing in the brush when I clean it is the safflower oil and a little paint residue. I can clean a whole stack of brushes in just a few minutes.
There you have it. 6 tips for non toxic, solvent free oil painting and cleanup to keep you and your whole family safe.
What about acrylic paints?
At this point you may be wondering if moving to acrylic is still an option.
Of course it is!
When I paint with acrylic, which isn’t often, I use a stay wet palette to try and keep my paints from drying out for as long as possible but after every single session I need to clean my brushes.
Cleaning brushes after every session is a drain on my painting time. I’d rather be painting than have to put aside time to clean up.
I find the non toxic oil painting method easier than painting with acrylic simply because the cleanup is almost nothing.
Okay, that’s it!
I gave you lots of reasons why solvents can be very harmful for you and your family, safer solvents if your painting methods must use them and some non toxic alternatives that lead to easier cleanup and more time at the easel.
If there was anything I didn’t cover here please let me know in the comments and don’t forget to like and subscribe. I plan on creating many more videos in the coming months full of practical tools to help you become a better, more prolific artist.
Until then keep showing up and doing your best one day at a time.