Painter’s Toxicity: Part 2 – by David Molesky
Vincent Desiderio’s studio
Part 2: Assembling a solution – how not to poison yourself in the studio
Having come to a realization of the adverse health effects of solvents in the studio, I set to work to figure out how to improve my own studio situation and how to help my painter friends avoid poisoning themselves while pursuing their creative passion for painting.
Looking online, I could see from blogs and scientific papers that the aromatic ring compounds found in solvents are indeed irritants and become extremely dangerous over prolonged exposure.
Painting rags probably contribute the greatest toxic threat in the practice of oil painting. The rag’s structure makes for greater surface area for the solvents to become airborne. Not to mention these rags soaked with oil mediums are also fire hazards that can potentially self ignite and burn your studio down. Lucien Freud’s studio burnt down on two occasions because of oil-soaked rag combusting. If you are going to use rags with solvents in the studio, you should take a number of precautions – wear gloves and properly dispose of the rags into a designated sealed container. I use an old cookie tin that I keep near my painting supplies. If I use a rag while painting, I put it into one of my dog’s poop bags, pour water into it, squeeze out the excess, tie it off, and then take them out to garbage at the end of the day.
If you can avoid using solvents in your clean up process your brushes (and health) will last longer. One may ask, “Don’t I need solvent to get the paint out of the bristles?” No. But if you let your brush dry caked in paint, then you might need to allow them to sit in a solvent. Best to just stay on top of things and clean your brushes at the end of everyday. If you do this, warm water and a good brush soap will do the trick. I and many of my painter friends prefer Jack’s Oil Soap. If for some reason you have run out of time and need to leave before cleaning your brushes, drop them into a jar of oil or better yet a small roller pan. Allowing the brushes to lay on their side rather than sitting on their points will keep the bristles in better shape. Sometimes I add one drop of clove oil into the pan of walnut oil to slow down the drying time of the oil and to keep it from getting super thick. I have heard other people use safflower oil instead (but this worries me as then your brushes are saturated in a different kind of oil that does not dry as well.) When you come back in the morning you can take the brush out and wipe the excess oil off onto a rag (properly discard the rag used for this purpose.) When I do this, I often take the brush out and paint a mark on my glass table to identify what color was on the brush previously. Then I can designate the brush for use with colors in family to that. (If it’s dark then I obviously won’t use the brush to make marks lighter in color.)
As I mentioned in part 1, you are better off not using solvents in your medium, especially if you find yourself wiping your brush onto a rag. The rag will increase the surface area for the solvent to evaporate into the air and it will get absorbed into your skin if you are not using some barrier method like a glove.
Many people who use linseed oil use solvent as a medium during some part of their process, either diluting the paint a little at the onset of a painting to keep the first layers lean (low oil content) or as part of a medium mixture to cut the oil and help it spread. Vincent Desiderio has mentioned thinning the paint in his first layers. Odd Nerdrum’s go-to painting medium is a mixture containing 1 part cold-pressed linseed oil with 1 part odorless mineral spirits.
The reason people cut linseed oil with solvent in a medium is because the paint film made by linseed oil as it dries is incredibly tough. Contrary to belief it is not something that evaporates off that causes oil to dry (like with watercolor or acrylic), the oil goes through a chemical reaction with oxygen, it oxidizes causing the fatty acids to link together into long lipid chains. Walnut oil has a much paler complexion than linseed oil its dried film is less durable than linseed oil. In fact dried linseed oil is so durable that it is used as flooring – linoleum tiling. For me the film in walnut oil is strong enough as I don’t plan for people to walk on my painting.
The trend with drying oils is that the paler the oil the weaker the dried lipid film. Some oils have partially reacted with oxygen; sun thickened, stand oil, and boiled linseed oil. Each of these oils in the order listed are darker and have a quicker drying time than the one previous. On the other end of the spectrum the lighter oils have a weaker film and dry much slower – for example, clove, poppy, and safflower oils. Usually paint that comes from a tube has the right amount of oil to bind the color to a surface. You have to use caution when diluting this with turpentine because you might not only be foiling the paints ability to adhere to the surface but you are also poisoning yourself.
Some people use only a little bit of linseed or walnut oil as their medium if they need to thin the paint some to work over an underpainting. Jason Yarmosky uses this technique. He paints the underlayer with paint straight from the tube and then uses linseed oil on top of this layer. This method works only works for painting made in a few layers. It only affords you a spectrum of lean to fat from the absorbent ground (wet-sanded acrylic gesso in Jason’s case) overlaid with paint straight from the tube with progressively oilier layers on top. The benefit of this technique is that he has eliminated solvent from his practice. But if someone has a more indirect approach to oil painting and wishes to use an indeterminate amount of overpainted layers, then another approach will need to be employed to give greater variation to the oil layers such that each successive layer has a higher oil content than the layer preceding it.
In part 3, I will discuss techniques for expanding the range of oil content in your medium without having to use solvents through a discussion of my approach with Walnut oil.