I am a trained fine artist. My articles share what mediums such as ink, pencil, or paint can do for your artwork.
Must Oil Painting Be Difficult?
Oil painting is a wonderful medium that has been made more difficult than it needs to be. It really simply is pure pigments mixed with oil. With most paints (watercolor, acrylic, gouache, etc), the paint can be thinned with the medium it is based with. Acrylics are also thinned or extended with a variety of mediums all made with the base of acrylic polymer emulsion. The world of oil painting can be simplified and brought back to its nontoxic roots. Let me explain.
Today, many oil painters are using turpentine or mineral spirits to thin their paints. I'd be willing to bet you didn't know that oil paints can be thinned with oil. In fact, this was the only way Renaissance Artists used to work. Walnut oil goes back as far as the use of linseed oil in painting and that's at least 1000 years.
Artists still use turpentine and mineral spirits to thin their oil paints. They also mix their paint with a glaze (made up of damar varnish and turpentine). The varnish works beautifully as a topcoat, and also works perfectly well as a glaze. However, the smell is really rough on some people. Ask anybody who has painted in oils, odorless mineral spirits are not odorless. The smell of turpentine is enjoyable to some painters and noxious to others.
Painting With Walnut Oil
The reason for my switching to walnut oil-based paints is simple; I don't like to be bothered with cleaning my brushes with spirits, just one extra unpleasant step and one more thing to do. I simply wipe the excess paint onto a rag and dip the brush into a little walnut oil, work into the brush and wipe clean.
At the end of my painting session, I wash my paintbrushes with a bar of mild soap, rinse very thoroughly, then dip them in a little more (clean) walnut oil and blot the excess. That's it, it takes about ten minutes and I am ready to go for the next painting session. Any oil is flammable along with turpentine and mineral spirits. If your rag has pure oil paint on it, you can rinse thoroughly and hang to dry. Anything with solvents (turpentine, mineral spirits) on it needs to be rinsed thoroughly, then put in a metal container.
The painting pictured above is almost seven years old and still looks as bright and vibrant as the day I finished it. This is actually the way an oil painting should look. Not one drop of turpentine or mineral spirits has been used on this painting. Paintings should not have a tinge of yellow on them unless this is what the artist originally intended. Granted, it does take many years for a painting to yellow, but why take the chance?
How to Thin Oil Paint Without Turpentine
Glazes are easy with walnut oil-based paints. Simply add a little extra walnut oil to the paint and this will naturally thin down the paint to a sheer color. Walnut oil is lighter and is easier to work with than linseed oil, which is much thicker.
Walnut oils do not oxidize anywhere near as quickly as linseed oils. With oxidation comes a slight darkening of the paint film. Over time, this film becomes even darker. What is the point of finding those bright beautiful colors in your painting if they are only going to darken? Why not stack the odds in your favor and use walnut oil-based paints? You never know if you are going to be known as the next Monet!
Walnut Oils vs. Traditional Oils
If it is your desire to work simply and cleanly, walnut oil painting may be for you. If you prefer to continue to work in oils with solvents, by all means, do so. During the Renaissance, artists did not go around extracting turpentine from pine trees (which is where turpentine comes from). They were simply left with their imagination and their colors. When they combined them with different oils, the two they found worked well were walnut and linseed oils.
These Renaissance artists found that they preferred walnut oils. What they didn't know was that many years later, the paintings made with linseed oil darkened and cracked. To be fair, though the paintings might have cracked because the fat over lean rule was not followed: simply put, this means always keep the leaner layers underneath the thicker layers of paint.
If you are used to making a glaze with a combination of damar and turpentine, this can be used interchangeably with walnut oil paints. I have tried glazes with just walnut oil and they work beautifully. So, I forgo the turpentine in favor of the walnut oil for thinning. It's not that I think damar crystals and turpentine are a bad thing; they're not in and of themselves. After all, damar and turpentine both are extracted from trees but, the powder residue from the damar crystals can be hard on people with sensitivities or allergies.
A note of caution here, turpentine and the less harsh mineral spirits fumes are dangerous without proper ventilation. Make sure your windows are open while working, or do what I prefer, work with walnut oils. You won't regret it!
Eco House makes a thinner from food-grade ingredients which is not toxic. People seem to be quite happy with this and there are a couple of different grades of this thinner that can be used. The stronger version will dissolve damar varnish. This is another great alternative for oil painting artists.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Hey Iʻm terrified of my rags catching fire! I donʻt want to use any spirits or terp and would like to use only walnut oil as you suggested. What should I rinse my rags with to make sure they donʻt catch fire?
Answer: Rinse thoroughly with lots of water, then let dry in a well ventilated area. When dry, you can put them in a covered metal container as an added safety precaution
Question: I only want to use walnut oil, have you tried sun bleached walnut do they hold up against darkening and yellowing?
Answer: I have not tried sun bleached walnut oil or have heard of it. Walnut oil in general darkens much less than linseed oil because it does not oxidize as quickly. Good luck with your walnut oil paintings.
Question: I’ve heard cleaning paint brushes with cooking oil or baby oil will clean as good as walnut oil. Any comments on this?
Answer: Oil is oil and you can clean brushes with it, but, the processing of baby oil may have ingredients that can break down the ferrule of the brush later on. Cooking oil might be safer. Put a little oil on the brush to thin the paints then was w/very mild soap and water, then reshape the brush and dry horizontally.
Question: D you know of any tricks to make the paint dry more quickly when using walnut oil?
Answer: One of the best drying agents is Liquin by Windsor & Newton. These extend and thin the paint cutting drying time. They will impart slightly different textures to your oil painting, here is a link to a demonstration:https://youtu.be/XEg79XyiXcU
Use thin coats of paint when painting. This a simple way to cut drying time. Although walnut oil paint has a medium drying time compared to linseed oil paint and poppy oil has a slow drying time, my preference is still walnut oil.
Sunlight speeds drying time and is free. Do not use a blow drier, you don't want dust particles in your painting.
You can also thin paint with mineral spirits or turpentine. This will speed drying time because you are thinning the paint. Go to oil paint manufacturers' websites and review their videos.
Eugene on October 10, 2019:
Mike is correct in that the "fat over lean", also known as "thick over thin" principle actually refers to the oil content of the paint mixture not the viscosity. "Lean" or "thin" means lower oil content not more flowing paint, and "fat" or "thick" refers to oil content. Painting thicker viscosity over thinner viscosity paint is a separate and valid principle in itself, but this is often confused with the "fat over lean" principle which means oil content, not viscosity. Although adding walnut oil to paint will thin it in terms of viscosity, it will actually increase the percentage of oil (fat) in the mixture.
Rescue1 on May 06, 2018:
I've had respiratory problems and have been on a ventilator, and I've been incredibly leery of the toxicity of oil painting. I've been using watercolor and colored pencil, but I find that I'm not satisfied with where those mediums have led me. I'm very anxious to give this a try! Move over, color pencils...
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on January 06, 2018:
Hi Mike, I encourage you to prove to yourself that if you add walnut oil to walnut oil based paint this will thin out the paint. You would want to work fat over lean so start the painting with your paints thinned out and compare the properties of the thinned out paints by thinning one bit of oil paint with turpentine or mineral spirits and one bit of paint with walnut oil, you will see that for all three mediums used, the paint will be thinner than if you did not use any of these mediums with the oil paint out of the tube.
Mike Bothroyd on January 04, 2018:
I just read the last comment posted after reading your great article & think I should clarify something for you. From research carried out & from speaking with many people including art stores, suppliers & manufacturers when you add oil to paint you are indeed making it fatter...not leaner. (unless walnut oil is different for some reason) So you need to add progressively MORE oil to the paint with each successive layer. I think this is the opposite of what you are recommending ?
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on October 07, 2017:
Hello, you may be mixing up the oil being a fat with the fat over lean theory. Every paint whether oil, watercolor or acrylic or alkyds have a way to be thinned. Oil paint can be thinned a number of ways and walnut oil is one of them. When you add walnut oil to walnut oil paint, it thins down the paint, so you are not making it fat, you are actually thinning it out. Good luck and have fun and let me know how it works out:))
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on September 09, 2017:
I think I answered in the wrong place on hubpages so you may have not received my answer. Usually water and oil do not mix. I have never heard of Schmincke painting medium making oil paints water soluable. Are the water based paints you have water mixable oils or another type of medium. If they are water mixable oil paints then you can add oil paint mediums to these paints including Graham Walnut Oil
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on August 27, 2017:
To "New Oil "Painter"
I am not sure that the walnut paint you get in a grocery store is the same and will yield the same result. Even if walnut paint is used, the refinement is different. You can experiment, but walnut oil for paints is very thick compared to cooking grade walnut oil. I would be interested to know if it does indeed work. They are most likely pressed at different pressures to yield different viscosities. Good luck!
New Oil Painter on August 03, 2017:
Hello, how are you? Is it okay to use refined walnut oil from the grocery store? As far as I am aware, the refined does not rotten and you can use it to paint with. Hopefully I am right on this because I have no money for expensive walnut oil from a large company. Lol. Thank you for your time.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on June 07, 2017:
I did not know that the bottle of Schmincke painting medium you bought makes oil paints water soluable. I do know that the Graham Walnut Oil based paints can be freely mixed with traditional oil paints and the walnut oil paints can be cleaned up with soap and water because the walnut oil is light. I am going to do further research because I am not sure. The issue would be drying time and quality of paint film. I'll be glad to get back to you with an answer.
Carole on June 06, 2017:
Hi, I just found your website. My blessed day! My question is if it is possible to use Schmincke Oil with walnut oil based paints to make them water soluble. I have a lot of water soluble paints in which I would like to add the oils. I bought a large bottle of the Schmincke before I found out about the walnut oils. I know it makes regular oil paints water soluble. Thank you.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on November 06, 2015:
Hi there, I can't say I have ever tried this. As with anything that has to do with heat and chemicals, takes fire precautions. A way to avoid any potential fire hazards is to dissolve the damar crystals in spike lavender oil which has natural camphor and the lavender will dissolve the crystals in about five days. You can buy it directly from Blick's Art Supplies. Keep me posted on whichever method you choose.
ARTCHEMICAL on November 04, 2015:
I have some damar crystals left over from my encaustic work. I was wondering if I can make a heated glaze medium with just walnut oil and damar crystals. No Turpentine. Just low heat to dissolve the crystals into the oil. I am going to experiment with it but was wondering if anyone had tried it first. My hesitation is that it will be too thick and tacky and hard to manipulate. But the trade off might be a nice thick, clear, luminous coat with no need for gum spirits.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on October 07, 2015:
Hello there, k chiappini - yes you can mix alkyds with the walnut oil, alkyds simply speed the drying time enormously which will allow you to work on the painting more often. As a bonus, if you are using the M. Graham alkyd medium it is a non-toxic medium. Happy painting to you and keep me posted on how your paintings turn out!
kchiappini on October 02, 2015:
Just wondering, can I use walnut oil and walnut alkyd in the same painting?
Gloria on January 06, 2015:
So glad to be able to see your paintings and read your thogthus in your new format, which I now have on my bookmark bar. Hope to return to your class when my life is more balanced; soon, I pray. In the meantime, thank you for the gifts you share in your blog. You are appreciated.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on March 03, 2013:
I am so glad, art should bring happiness among other emotions. If you do try this technique, good luck to you!
KittHill on February 25, 2013:
The colors are so vibrant. It cheers me up just looking at it.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on February 18, 2013:
Why thank-you for pinning this and if you have any other questions, feel free to email me. Good luck with your painting:)
2uesday on February 18, 2013:
Pinned this so that I can find it again, I was put off oil painting by the lingering smell of the turps. as it made me feel ill. This information for painters who use oils is worth knowing about.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on January 26, 2013:
Yes I do sell my work on etsy: http://www.etsy.com/people/CatLeafCreations?ref=si... and I also sell my work on fine art america and redbubble. Links: http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/claudia-smaletz... and http://www.redbubble.com/people/creativegirl2
Aldene Fredenburg from Southwestern New Hampshire on January 26, 2013:
Do you sell your art on Etsy or someplace else online?
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on January 25, 2013:
Ah, no reason to give up, try this method (actually the original oil painting method) and let me know how it works out. Thanks, and happy painting to you!
Aldene Fredenburg from Southwestern New Hampshire on January 24, 2013:
This is wonderful! I gave up on the notion of oil painting years ago because I had an adverse reaction to the solvents. The painting itself is beautiful.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on January 09, 2013:
Thank-you for commenting, it is a lovely paint to use and good luck in your painting.
Deltachord from United States on January 07, 2013:
Very informative article. I had not heard of walnut oil based paint. I use water based oil paint and thus got away from the turpentine etc.
I might try the walnut oil based paint. Thanks for sharing the information.
Mark from Alabama,USA on January 05, 2013:
Love your painting & hub Thanks for sharing it, Voted Up & Awesome
I am gonna buy me some walnut oil ASAP.
carol stanley from Arizona on August 04, 2012:
Loved the hub and learning new things. Thanks for sharing.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on August 02, 2012:
Hi there cokelley,
These paints are a pleasure to use and are of very high quality. I think you'll really enjoy them:) Thank-you for checking out my hub!
cokelley from Fredericksburg, VA on August 01, 2012:
I bought some walnut oil today and am going to dive right in! Thanks for the tips!
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on January 29, 2012:
You're welcome, and good luck with your painting:)
Keli on January 29, 2012:
Thank you for that, I will give that ago, I use zest-it but it takes my painting longer to dry.
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on January 28, 2012:
Thanks, and I appreciate your thoughts. I'll be sure to check out your hubs.:)
Evie Lopez from Sunny Florida on January 27, 2012:
Thanks for the tip on the walnut oil; I have used it in the past but I mostly stick to linseed oil diluted with Damar varnish and artist's turpentine. I will have to experiment more with walnut oil.
It's true that many of the old painter's did not use the fat over lean technique causing their paintings to crack over time. Another reason was because some of the old painters would not prepare their painting surfaces appropriately, one example was Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Super."
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and beautiful painting.
Art Girl 27 from East Coast USA on December 19, 2011:
Nice painting! Informative article.
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on December 19, 2011:
No time to paint lately but I love trying, Voted up, awesome and book marked
natures47friend from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand. on December 19, 2011:
Very interesting...you are a good artist too.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 19, 2011:
Your painting is beautiful. Question...when you say walnut oil, is this the same walnut oil that is edible? We have walnut oil in our pantry that is often used for salad dressings, etc. Or is it a different grade? Up, useful and interesting votes!
Lilly May Rose from Australia on December 19, 2011:
That is a beautiful piece of art. I've always been interested in oils but too scared to try them. Thanks for sharing all these great tips. I might give it a go one day!