Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I love the smell of turpentine in the mornings.

The characteristic piney licorice aroma always conjures up fond memories of my art school days. As soon as you got to the second floor the bouquet of turpentine, linseed oil and charcoal told your senses that you had arrived in the painting studio and something creative was happening.

Nostalgia aside the main reason I have turps in my studio is that I still feel it to be the best diluent for the type of oil painting I do and wish to pursue. I like the “open time” speed of evaporation and how it works with a painting medium of oil and varnish. Being a stronger solvent, I tend to use less in my medium mixtures.

So let’s talk a bit about solvents especially turpentine and why there is so much conversations about it's use. Solvents are used to thin or dilute oil color in the making of painting mediums, and the cleaning of brushes. No matter what type of solvent you use, it should be used with care and exposure should be kept to a minimal. There are some ordinary, common sense precautions that you can take to reduce your risks.

Solvent Protocols

  1. Just because you do not smell it, do not assume it is safer.
  2. Just put a lid on it. Keeping solvents covered will reduce the amount of harmful vapors in the air. Cover all containers, bush jars, medium cups, and cap the bottle. Even if it is for a short period of time.
  3. While cleaning brushes use as little as possible, less solvent means less fumes. I use Odorless Mineral Spirits (OMS) to clean brushes and Distilled Turpentine in my painting mediums. Using a small metal brush washer with a lid or a small narrow mouth jar will work. Unless you’re painting with large brushes why have a coffee can of solvents open? I wipe the excess paint off my brushes before immersing and swishing them in my brush wash. Rinse, Repeat… If you can, use two small containers, one for “gunk” a dirty first rinse and a second cleaner rinse. You will be surprised how much cleaner your brushes stay. This keeps the solvent strength up longer because it is less diluted with paint residue.
  4. While painting, again use as little as possible. Avoid large “washes” of pigment with solvents, too much solvent will cause a poorly binded paint film that may not adhere to its support or to additional layers of paint. Over thinning can be avoided by the use of mediums in addition to solvents.
  5. Ventilation, set your studio up where you can open a window and get some type of cross draft going, if needed use a box fan to exchange the air in the room.
  6. If you use OMS or Turps, buy art quality solvents, they are more refined and usually less odorous.
  7. And finally do not bath in it, drink it or wear it like a cologne.
I had to add in number seven because I am just not sure what people are doing with solvents, especially turpentine that makes it a recurring topic of concern in art forums and blogs. I recognize that there are those individuals that are sensitive to turpentine, and there are manufacturers with alternative products that want to grab some part of the art materials market. But the truth I feel, that the issue is with protocol number four, the confusion of solvents with painting mediums.

Oil paint is essentially one or more pigments combined with a binder (the oil) and a diluent (such as turpentine). Using solvents alone to thin oil paint you run the risk of under binding your paint, leaving a dry matte finish that may not adhered to its support and additional layers of paint. You can paint using oil alone but it is a rather sticky surface to deal with in successive layers of paint. Even for the initial lay in of a painting, it best to use a combination of oil and solvent and use the smallest amount of medium at all stages of a paintings development. I think I will save the topic of mediums for later.

 "Don't be afraid to use pigment.  Avoid excessive
turpentine and varnish."
                                                                                                             Aldro T. Hibbard

Solvents for Oil Paints

Turpentine – Pure Gum Spirit Turpentine is distilled from the sap of pine trees, used in the production of oil paintings, as a diluent for oil paint, as a ingredient in painting mediums and as a diluent in varnishes.  Notice the use of the word diluent as in “thinning” meaning to make more fluid and brush more readily. Anything we add to paint is about changing it's viscosity to change its flow and handling. While (most importantly) without over thinning the mixture so that we maintain a paint film when the pigment goes through its chemical changes that we refer to as “Drying”.
Evaporates completely, excellent solvent for resins such as dammar.

Mineral Spirits - Odorless Mineral Spirits (OMS), White Spirits, are all a petroleum based product, used as a cleaner for tools and brushes. They have a slight to no odor but still contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and should be used with adequate ventilation. Odorless mineral spirits does not dissolve dammar varnish, so it will not dilute dammar varnish mediums. It is suitable for thinning oil colors and cleaning brushes, can be used in making and thinning painting mediums that contain stand and sun-thickened oils. However I would recommend artist grade OMS for making oil mediums such as Turpenoid from Weber, Sansodor from Winsor & Newton and Gamsol from Gamblin Colors are quality low odor solvents that evaporate slowly and increases blending time. 

If you decide to go with the hardware store solvents just be aware that paint thinner and mineral spirits are not the same thing.  Paint thinner is mineral spirits, but in a less refined form. It is usually washed or reclaimed solvent that may contains other types of solvents and additives which makes it a lot smellier and more volatile. Back in my sign painting and billboard days we avoided painter thinner altogether because it caused enamels and oils to become gummy and drag when brushing. I don’t even use it to clean brushes because of my experiences with it as a paint reducer in lettering enamels. Truly the last thing anyone would want in the paint film of an object of art.

Oil of Spike LavenderA colorless or yellowish aromatic oil extracted from the European broad-leaved lavender, or aspic (Lavendula Spica). It is used as a diluting in oil paints and in the making of painting mediums. It's use historically dates back to the 15th century. I have had no experience with this solvent but have read about it many times and I'm curious.

Citrus Based Solvents – Are an alternative to mineral spirits and odorless mineral spirits.
They are listed as made from food-grade citrus peel oil and can used to clean brushes and dilutes oil paint. It is considered a non-toxic, non-flammable solvent. My experience with this product was brief, it's reaction as a solvent was very weak but mainly I disliked the orange smell so much I decided I'd much rather become a Turp Huffing Zombie.

Solvent FreeIt is possible to eliminate turpentine and paint thinner from the studio all together. You can dilute and manipulate oil paints viscosity with oil alone as a medium, Linseed, Poppy or Walnut Oil work well. Oil paint can be used just as it is, no additives and depending on your painting style this may be the perfect solution.  I recommend if you’re a beginner with oils just keep it very simple and work with paints only and the bare minimum of solvents and mediums to start. After all, we are oil painter’s not medium painters?

Oiling BrushesAfter art school, I happened into a career painting pictorials for the outdoor industry, mural sized images on billboards. We worked in oil colors (I loved the artist oils of Dana-colors, produced and developed by Charles Dana a scenic and mural artist) and bulletin colors, a high quality sign enamel.

 As I went through training in their studios I was surprised to learn the method of producing these images was with tradition artist oils and techniques, on large panels and later vinyl canvas of 14 feet tall by 48 feet long.  It was traditional painting and illustration at a industrial scale, portraits ten feet tall and landscapes forty eight feet long, where you often found yourself literally standing inside of a maze of abstract patterns, passages of colors and splashes of paint. We mixed oil colors by the quart and gallon and used high quality hogs hair brushes, I especially liked Scharff finches and Corona sign cutters. Many of more delicate lettering brushes, grey squirrel quills and sable flats would run up to a small fortune.

Bulletin Pictorial oil and enamel paint on metal panels 14x48 feet © Jim Serrett
Advertiser United Colors of Benetton USA 

I produced literally thousands of pieces of advertising art this way and never cleaned a single brush. The method was to give them a good rinse in OMS and then oil the brushes, lay them flat in trays or roller pans containing oil. We used several different oils, mineral oil, castor oil, olive oil, baby oil, just about any light-bodied oils would work as long as it would rinse out entirely with your solvent. I used non-detergent motor oil for years without any ill effect, these days there are so many strong detergents and other additives put in oil I have to hunt for one I can use. Traditionally sign-writers stored brushes in lard oil which had a tendency to attract pests. The idea is that once you rinsed out your dirty brush you would stoke it through the oil then shape and lay then down in the pan covering only the bristles with oil until next needed. It is still the best way I have found to preserve brushes, walnut or mineral oil are probably the best option today, and there are a few niche commercial products like Xcaliber and Sapphire Brush Oil which are actually formulated for this use.

Medicinal Elixir A brief History of TurpentineTurpentine has been used by artist in oil painting for nearly 700 years. What most people do not know is that turpentine has been used medicinally since ancient times, as both topical and sometimes internal remedies. Some very fraudulent and others quite genuine such as Vicks Vapor Rub still contain turpentine in their formula. The majority of these products from the turn of the century fall into the category of “Snake Oil” concoctions, tonics, elixirs, liniments and salves all of which claim some restorative, rejuvenating power or cure-all often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. Most were combinations of grain alcohol, turpentine, and kerosene with sugar, molasses or honey used to mask the taste. A product called “Turpo” sold as a cold remedy advertised, “ Snuff a little Turpo up the nostril several times a day and the flu germ will have little chance of getting a lodging and breeding place.”

One of my favorite is Hamlin's Wizard Oil Medical Elixir.
Hamlin's Wizard Oil was an American patent medicine sold as a cure-all under the slogan "There is no Sore it will Not Heal, No Pain it will not Subdue." Taken internally it was used as treatment for intestinal parasites because of its alleged antiseptic and diuretic properties, and a general cure-all. It was made of 50%-70% alcohol containing camphor, ammonia, chloroform, sassafras, cloves, and turpentine, and was said to be usable both internally and topically. So to run down the history of turpentine, it has been used as chest rub, inhaler for nasal and throat ailments, as a treatment for head and body lice, whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, sore throat, dyspepsia, a topical for abrasions and wounds, taken internally in all forms and formulas professing all sorts of benefits. 

Oh, how times have changed.
Come on, who doesn't want Wizard Oil in the studio?

I will reiterate, all solvents have inherent risks, use reasonable precautions and avoid unreasonable fear. Studio safety is about good habits and methods.

 Explore - Question - Learn - Enjoy, Jim

I have several links for this topic, anyone interested in oil painting and its methods should spend some time looking at the resources at Winsor Newton, and  Gamblin. Artist Colors.

These are quick links to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the major solvents we have been talking about.