Non-toxic Oil Painting

Jul 10, 2023

When my son was a newborn, he had this terrible rash that covered most of his body. He would cry and fuss a lot. And he'd scream bloody murder whenever we gave him a bath. Fairly quickly we figured out he had sensitivities to things, but it was a long and arduous process to identify the multiple culprits.

Turns out, it wasn't just foods — it was also ingredients commonly found in household products ranging from body soaps (what was making him scream during bath time) to cleaning sprays to even the makeup I wore.

Thus began The Great Purge of 2014. Every mainstream product in my home was thrown out and any product that came in was obsessively vetted for gentle ingredients. Our family has been meticulous about ingredients ever since. Thankfully, many of my son's sensitivities have tamed since his infancy, but the experience taught me to be much more mindful as a consumer.

At the time, I often felt like I was the only one who cared about ingredient labels. Since then, the general consciousness seems to be catching up a bit to this mindfulness and there are many more consumers waking up to the fact that just because something is on the shelves at the store, doesn't mean it is safe.

As thrilled as I am that more people are making informed, conscious choices about the products they use, there's always an extreme version of things that can become unhealthy in its own right. Reaching a level of paranoia so strong that one ceases to investigate a product before demonizing it can be an unfortunate byproduct of consumer awareness.

Personally, I'm a fierce proponent of informed consent — one has the right to know what is in a product before consenting to use it. An important part of informed consent, however, is information. So when deciding which products to use when oil painting, it's important to have as much information as possible to make the best decision for your situation.

There are a lot of myths floating around about the toxicity of oil paints and the materials used for oil painting.

So… let’s bust some myths.

Myth: Oil paints are toxic.

Oil paints are made from pigment and an oil binder, typically linseed or walnut. That’s it. Whereas acrylic paints are made from pigments, water, and polymer binder (as well as other additives, depending on the brand). When comparing binder to binder, the acrylic polymer binder ranks nearer to toxic than linseed or walnut oil. But let’s look at the pigments used in both acrylic and oil paints.

While some pigments themselves are toxic, such as cadmium or cobalt, the route of toxicity is inhalation (especially when in powder form). So the moment the pigment is mixed with oil, the risk of toxicity is drastically reduced. Now, you obviously don’t want to go around sniffing cadmium paints or putting any kind of paint in your mouth. But the general fear of oil paints being super toxic materials — particularly in a well-ventilated area — is ill-informed.

Myth: You have to use toxic solvents to clean your brushes.

While it may have been true for a long time that the only paint thinners on the market were toxic, this simply isn’t the case anymore. Your geographical region may offer different brands than here in the United States, but low-toxic solvents are available.

Our favorites here at Milan Art Institute are SoyThin and EcoHouse.

SoyThin is a soy-based paint thinner that reduces vapors and toxicity; Eco-House is a citrus based thinner. Both products still contain ingredients you wouldn’t want to ingest or get in eyes, but they’re incredibly mild in vapor and toxicity in comparison to most common turpentines and solvents. The majority of our students use these milder products without any ill effects to their health.

Myth: You have to use solvents to clean your brushes.

Now that we’ve established that toxic solvents aren’t the only type in existence, let’s bust the myth that any solvent at all has to be used to clean oil paint out of paintbrushes.

While it’s certainly not a widely used technique, walnut oil is actually capable of getting paint out of your brushes! If you’re looking for a truly non-toxic “paint thinner,” consider the incredible properties of walnut oil — which thins paint from the brush just as well as other odorless solvents, but without removing the essential oils from the bristles.

Using walnut oil as a thinner does come with a slightly varied process from typical solvents (something you can read more about here), but if you’re willing to make those slight adjustments, you can enjoy solvent-free oil painting!

If you’re especially sensitive to the odor of commonly used paint thinners, or are particular about the ingredients you bring into your home, this may be your best way to go (unless you’re highly allergic to walnuts, in which case, I’m sorry).

Now it's time to paint!

So there you have it. Oil painting can be incredibly rewarding and doesn't have to include toxic materials. You CAN enjoy a nontoxic oil painting experience. Now that you're armed with information, you can find the materials best suited to your health needs.

Go forth and paint! The world needs your art.

Written by Julie Briggs

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