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Water Soluble Oil Paints: Facts, Tips and Why I Use Them

We’ve all been taught that “oil and water do not mix.” However, we also know that rules are made to be broken in art, so it’s no surprise that water soluble oil paints are starting to appear much more frequently on the scene.

Yet the intelligent mind has to wonder, “How can oil pigments possibly be water soluble?”

The answer is actually simple: the oil medium has been modified just enough to make it possible to thin it with water. These oils aren’t water based, but you will no longer need turpentine or other dangerous solvents to clean up your paint and brushes.

There are still some painting purists who question whether or not these pigments are true oils, but I assure you they are. In fact, I have been successfully executing my paintings using water soluble oils with professional results for over 10 years.

I made a smooth transition to water soluble oils in my home studio so that my family and pets wouldn’t be exposed to toxic fumes. I’m convinced that with an open mind and a little time to experiment, you too would enjoy the benefits of water soluble oils.

Today I’m going to do my best to give you more information about this remarkable medium. I’m drawing from my own personal experience, along with a little help from the technically informative book, Painting with Water Soluble Oils, by Sean Dye.

Facts about water soluble oils:

1. Water soluble oils offer greater convenience and increased accessibility. People with allergies can use it, it’s easier to clean up if you have a home studio, and there are fewer health risks for students and schools. If you’ve been avoiding oils because of the toxic solvents, you don’t need to any longer.

2. Water soluble oils smell great, just like traditional oils!

3. Water soluble oils are real oils. They are water mixable, not water-based. These new oils were developed to be used with water in the place of turpentine, mineral spirits or other solvents!

4. Water soluble oils have been engineered to dry with limited yellowing.

5. Like traditional oils, water soluble oils must dry through oxidation (absorbing oxygen through the air). Once dry, they are just like any other oil painting and should be treated as such. Also like traditional oils, water soluble oil paintings cannot be reactivated with water once dry.

6. Several water-mixable mediums have been developed for water soluble oils: quick dry mediums (my favorite), stand oils, painting mediums, impasto mediums, linseed oils and alkyd mediums.

7. Traditional oil paints and mediums can be mixed in with water soluble oils in small amounts (up to 20%-30%) and the mixture will still retain its solubility in water.

8. The pigments in water soluble oils blend and mix extremely well. These are not “lesser-quality” oil paints.

9. When these oils are mixed with water, they may at times appear somewhat cloudy until the water evaporates. (Note: although I have read about this complaint, it has not been my experience.)

10. A loaded brush of traditional oils spreads much farther than a brush loaded with water soluble oils. This does not affect the look of the finished piece, only the actual painting process.

11. Water soluble oils are easier to clean up—just use water.

12. Those with limited or no experience with traditional oils will likely be able to adjust to water soluble oils more quickly.

13. Depending on how thickly you paint, water soluble oils will retain their elasticity and workability for up to 48 hours.

14. Water soluble oils lack some of the glossy appearance of traditional oils, but a final varnish is a quick way to fix this.

Tips for painting with water soluble oils:

Acrylic gesso should be used as the starting ground for water soluble paints to ensure proper adhesion. For studio works, I prefer to paint on hardboard or Masonite panels for a smooth and rigid support, but I do use canvas and linen at times.

Hog bristles are good for under-paintings, but don’t let them sit in the water or they’ll become mushy. I often use synthetic bristle brushes for large areas. For fine work synthetic watercolor brushes work well.

I have found that it is better not to mix water with traditional oil medium because using water makes the mediums sticky and the paint does not flow as easily. Once I start adding oil medium, I usually abandon the water except for brush cleaning between color or temperature changes.

Use water to thin the new oils for laying in washes. Build up the oily layers after the under painting is dry. Just like traditional oils, all oil paint should be applied fat over lean to prevent cracking. If your paints dry on the palette, a few drops of linseed oil should restore them to their original workable form.

Drying time is longer when a lot of white pigment or Naples Yellow is used.
The dark passages in water soluble oils sometimes ‘sink’ and lack the glossy appearance of a traditional oil painting. This is easily remedied by a final varnish.

Water soluble oil paints are perfect for travel, especially on airplanes. Many airlines restrict traditional and flammable solvents on commercial flights, but with these oils, you won’t need those anymore.

If you’re a plein air painter you can keep water soluble paints on the palette for long periods of time without the paint drying out. However, finished paintings dry more quickly than traditional oil paintings which make these new paints even more desirable for the plein air painter.

Last summer, I used water soluble oils during my plein air painting workshop in France. I painted on canvas sheets which made my studies of Provence light and easy to pack for travel. In the past, I have also used 300lb watercolor paper with two coats of gesso.

As far as brands go, I prefer Max Artists’ Oil Colors by Grumbacher and Artisan Water Mixable Oils by Windsor & Newton. The characteristics of these brands are consistent with their traditional oil color counterparts. They both use all of the traditional pigments in their lines including cadmiums and cobalts.

Holbein’s Duo Aqua Oil has a rather firm consistency which makes them ideal for painting with a palette knife straight from the tube. The Van Gosh H2Oils have a softer consistency that is similar to acrylic paint. They are perfect for detail work without the need for adding mediums. However, for palette knife work, impasto medium is recommended.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding and appreciation for the benefits of water soluble oils. From my experience, they are easier and less intimidating to use while still delivering the beautiful results of traditional oils. I encourage you to give them a try and let me know how they work for you.

For more tips and resources from Lori McNee, plese visit her blog, Fine Art Tips.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

Occasionally a painting needs something MORE to take it to the next level. The composition is ideal, the values may be correct, and yet the finished artwork just doesn't sing. Often, this has to do with color intensity.

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