For a long time, I put aside oil painting because I don’t have a studio and I didn’t want to fill my small NYC apartment with toxic fumes. It’s one thing, to be in a studio for a few hours inhaling the stuff; it’s another thing, to live and sleep with it every day. Long-term effects of inhaling turpentine and mineral spirits include permanent brain damage, dementia, and psychosis.
Throughout my training, I was taught that solvents were necessary to prime surfaces, thin oil colors, wash brushes between colors, and varnish the finished painting. Basically needed for every aspect of oil painting. I used to think solvents were an occupational hazard oil painters had to accept.
Then on one lazy Sunday, I thought there must be some other way! I did some research into non-toxic forms of oil painting and it turns out there is a small community of oil painters out there that go solvent-free. <–very very exciting news! The method of thinning oil colors down with linseed oil was already all over the internet, but the question of how to prime a surface, create a neutral base layer, wash brushes, and varnish the finished painting with non-toxic materials was more challenging to figure out.
I found a lot of posts from non-toxic painters on forums about how they gave up on varnishing altogether because they couldn’t find any varnish that didn’t contain some sort of solvent. Varnishing is so so important though, and I did not want to give up on it. I kept looking for more information and finally discovered the magical powers of good ol’ all natural lavender oil! This amazing oil is able to completely replace the need for turpentine and mineral spirits. Problem. Solved!
I couldn’t find any cohesive resource online that taught you how to paint from beginning to end in a non-toxic, environmentally friendly way, so I thought I’d share my method so you can paint at home too!
This is my personal method, but you can adapt it to suit whatever you are trying to achieve.
- Use artist grade wood panels that are responsibly sourced.
- Seal the wood panel with acrylic medium GAC 100 – to prevent the wood from absorbing components of the oil paint that can cause discoloration over time; let dry; repeat 1 or 2 times.
- Use painters tape to protect the sides of your wood panel.
- Combine acrylic gesso and acrylic burnt umber to create a neutral base layer for your painting; let dry; repeat 1 or 2 more times.
- Use geneva oil colors, and learn to mix your own colors from a limited color palette (this saves money and cuts down on your use of toxic heavy metals found in more exotic oil colors). Or you can use traditional oil paints and thin it down with linseed oil and/or spike lavender oil. Look for “AP” on paint tubes (this indicates that it is non-toxic).
- To clean brushes, wipe excess paint off with any old rag you have laying around, then dip the brush in a mixture of clove and safflower oil or buy pre-made brush dip here; allow the brush to sit out on a horizontal surface. Your brushes will be protected from drying out for weeks! When you are ready to use, simply wipe off the oil and start painting. If you must wash your brushes for long term storage, wipe off as much paint as possible, then simply use eco-friendly dish liquid (like Seventh Generation) and water.
- When your painting is done and you’ve allowed it to dry for at least 8 weeks, use the only non-toxic varnish formula I was able to find: a mixture of damar crystals, walnut oil, and spike lavender oil; or simply buy it premade from art treehouse.
You can do all this without any ventilation. The oils either smell great or not at all. Spike Lavender Oil replaces traditional solvents, smells great, and is completely non-toxic. And get this–it’s actually a much stronger solvent than turpentine! Artists used to use this oil in the 1400s until the much cheaper turpentine became popular. It has been forgotten but is now readily available and cheap, so it’s definitely worth reviving.
I think people get intimidated by the thought of oil painting because they are unfamiliar with it. Schools have banned oil painting over concerns about the toxic solvents, so most people were never exposed to this form of painting growing up (sad!). It is such an amazing medium to work with. It allows one to work more slowly and thoughtfully. I hope the method I outlined here will allow more people to give it a try.
[image: a photo I took in Vietnam]