Walnut Oil Painting Without the Danger of Solvents
Must Oil Painting Be Difficult?
Oil painting is a wonderful medium which 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 it's non toxic 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 top coat, 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. 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 mild bar 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 rinsed thoroughly, then put in a metal container.
The painting 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?
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 the 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 the walnut oils 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 which can be used. The stronger version will dissolve damar varnish. This is another great alternative for the oil painting artist.
Questions & Answers
I’ve heard cleaning paint brushes with cooking oil or baby oil will clean as good as walnut oil. Any comments on this?
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.Helpful 3
I only want to use walnut oil, have you tried sun bleached walnut do they hold up against darkening and yellowing?
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.Helpful 3