Art Pulse,  In Your Store

Oil Painting 101

June on our Customer Engagement calendar is all about Oil Paints. Oil painting is one of the oldest practices that we art suppliers support. The history is rich, the practice requires patience, and the products require a little bit of skill to sell and explain properly. 

Your staff may not have studied traditional oil painting. They may only be familiar with the basics they’d see on a painting 101 class list, but nothing beyond. This article is focused on your people and how to educate them so they can effectively discuss and support this traditional customer base. 

What’s the Difference Between Acrylic and Oil Paint? 

Our favorite questions! Many of us have defaulted to the easy answer of: “Oil Paint dries slowly and Acrylic dries quickly (Acryl-quick!).” But that’s not the whole story. 

Acrylic Paint is an acrylic polymer emulsion, a plastic. It has been modified to be able to be cleaned up or diluted with water (Make sure to properly dispose of acrylic paint water). It also has a tremendous potential for additives and mediums. Acrylic can be water thin, or dense and pasty, it can be transparent or opaque. It can be sculpted, or made to look like a traditional oil painting. Acrylic paint tends to have just a touch of color shift as it dries, so it takes some knowledge of this as you utilize it, and thick layers of acrylic without special mediums can have a tendency to shrink a little bit. Yes, it dries fast, substantially faster than oils. For some that is a benefit and for others it is a detriment.Oil paint has tradition, it has been used since the 7th Century AD. It uses, for the most part, natural materials. Oil paint must be diluted with solvent or oil (See next section). There are mediums for oil paint that can change the viscosity and opacity, but to a lesser degree than with acrylic paint. Oil paint does not see the same color shift or shrinkage as acrylic, though a finished painting left in the dark may begin to yellow (this is reversible, just give it a little time in the light). Oil paint dries slowly, in some cases, very slowly. Mediums can speed this process, but many artists find the slower drying time optimal for working or re-working a painting.

Oil Painting is No Longer Toxic, or At Least it Doesn’t Have to Be 

Oil painting has a reputation of being dangerous or containing toxic elements. Solvents, like turpentine, have been heavily used for centuries. Raw pigments were mixed by hand before sophisticated manufacturing systems. Heavy metal pigments were more predominant and artists did not have the knowledge they now have to protect themselves through simple things like ventilated studios. Today’s chemicals are vastly improved, but still, caution and ventilation are required.

As technology and science advanced, products like mineral spirits hit the market as a much less flammable and a much less toxic alternative to turpentine. Now, a solvent-free studio is a possibility. Paint companies have developed beyond the use of hazardous solvents. You can cater to the more cautious artist (or apartment-dwelling painter) by leading them to a solvent free painting environment. Look at lines like Sennelier Green For Oil, Gamblin Solvent Free Gel and  CitraSolv amongst others. With products like these we can use all natural, solvent-free brush cleaners and painting mediums that do not impact the archival properties of the oil paints and are better for the environment. 

What about oil paint itself? In today’s world, the vast majority of oil paint is completely safe. Modern oils use a base of linseed, safflower or other drying oil that is a safe and natural oil. 

Some pigments within the paint have had a history of toxicity. Whether we are talking about lead, arsenic, mercury, manganese, cadmium or cobalt. With modern advances in pigments, we now have a vast array of safe alternatives to these colors. Hues, “cadmium-free” cadmiums, and “newer” pigments like pyrrol and quinacridone. One could achieve (with some debate) nearly all of the color mixtures one would need without having to utilize hazardous pigments. Simply advise artists to look for the ACMI “AP” (Approved Product) or “CL” (Cautionary Label) on the back of their painting materials.

The Materials Matter

Artists and creators of all levels and ages should invest in themselves and get the best materials that they can afford at the time. So many of us in the art materials industry have seen someone turned off to painting because they were battling the quality of their materials. If we’re lucky, these artists return and make the right investment only to discover that the experience was not their fault, the materials were to blame. 

It’s a fine line to walk when budgets are a concern. How do you have this conversation with your customers? 

  • The higher quality a material is, the more use we get out of it. In many cases a higher quality paint will have more pigment, and thus more coverage, so we won’t need to go out and buy another tube as often. 
  • A higher quality brush will snap back into shape easier and can be cleaned with more ease, so it may cost more initially than the hardware store chip brush, but it will last a lot longer too.
  • Because of the heavy concentration of pigment in most artist oil paint, many of them can be extended with mediums. This can extend high quality paint by as much as double, and is a great means to cut costs in the long run. It also allows you to choose mediums that exhibit the characteristics you are looking for and make the painting experience more enjoyable. For example, wax medium can extend the paint, increase the textural quality and give a more matte sheen, while a universal medium may extend the paint, reduce the texture, eliminate brush marks and increase gloss. There are dozens upon dozens of mediums and infinite combinations. 

Follow the Rules Unless You Don’t Have To

So many of us have seen a potential oil painter hear about fat over lean, mixing their own mediums and colors, preparing a surface properly, using only the finest Belgian Linen, etc. This can be good advice for someone who is an experienced painter looking to take their work or materials to the next level, or someone interested in the tradition of oil painting but it is equally important to tell someone starting out that painting is about experimentation. We shouldn’t scare someone off with all of the “rules”. They will find those for themselves as the time is right. Let’s all remember that museums are filled with artists who broke the rules.

Have Fun! 

Paint what you want. You don’t have to desire to be a master painter or train at your local atelier to pick up oil painting. It is an exciting medium with a long history and a wide range of styles that it has conformed to over the centuries, so don’t feel constrained, and experiment away!! 

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