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Oh, man. Oil paint is so scary! It’s SO toxic and smelly and hard to clean up and takes FOREVER to dry, and did I mention how scary oil paint is?! It’s terrifying! Does that sound like you? Now, I know there are a lot of people who are curious about oil paint and would really love to have the versatility of working with this medium but have heard all of those scary myths about it. These are the very same myths that kept me from using oil paint for a very long time. But I’ve been painting with oil for a couple of years now, and today, I’m going to bust wide open the ten myths about oil paint that you might believe are true.
Myth #1 - Oil paint is very toxic
FALSE! But also kinda true. Let’s start with the false bit. Oil paint, just like acrylic paint, is made from two basic ingredients: pigment and binder. The pigments used in oil paint are the same pigments typically used in acrylic paint, and yes, some of them may be toxic. But they’re no more toxic in oil paint or any other kind of medium that uses those same pigments. The binder in oil paint is typically made of an oil that comes from vegetable matter, the most common ones being safflower and linseed oil, though you may also see poppy and walnut oil. The oils themselves are non-toxic. In fact, linseed oil is made from edible and delicious flax seeds.
And now for the true part. Historically, solvents such as turpentine and other mediums used for painting have been toxic and produce noxious fumes. But recently, companies like Gamblin are doing their best to change that. The mediums and solvents that they make are very low VOC and have very little to no smell. Gamblin even has a line of oil painting mediums that are non-toxic! That means that we have the ability to oil paint in an almost completely non-toxic way, save for the pigments! So the toxicity of oil paint should not be a concern that keeps you from trying this beautiful medium.
Myth #2 - Oil paint smells bad
FALSE! Oil paint itself has very little to no smell. Go into your pantry and grab a bottle of cooking oil of any kind. Open the bottle and smell it. You can kind of smell the oil. That’s really what oil paint smells like. The oil paint itself doesn’t have fumes or chemically smells. The smell typically associated with oil paint comes from mediums like turpentine and other toxic painting mediums. Even “odorless” mineral spirits have a bit of a smell that can permeate a room. But like I said, the Gamblin line of mediums, as well as many other lines today, have next to no smell, especially when used properly.
Myth #3 - Oil paint dries too slow
FALSE(ish). Now, I guess it depends on what your definition of “too slow” is. I’ve had oil paintings be completely dry to the touch in 24 hours, and I’ve had some be wet for upwards of a week or more. It really depends on how thick or how thin your application of oil paint is, the mediums that you’ve used, the temperature and humidity in your area, etc. But I think that if you allow yourself to work with the properties of a certain type of paint instead of struggling against it, you might find that you actually enjoy having that extended workability. For me, the drying time hasn’t been an issue. In fact, I deliberately use mediums that keep the paint wet for an extended time so that I have all of the working time I need! And yes, when I paint in acrylic, I still use my hairdryer because sometimes I’m too impatient to wait for acrylic paint to dry! There’s absolutely a learning curve to working with paint that doesn’t dry quickly, but learning the fun and exciting tricks and techniques that are only available when painting in oil will make it so much easier!
Myth #4 - There are way too many mediums, and it’s super confusing
True(ish). I hear you on this one! This is actually one of the main things that kept me from using oil paint for so long. The vast range of mediums is dizzying! Why do we need all of these mediums?! How do you know which oil painting medium to use!? But really, friends, it’s exactly the same as acrylic paint. Think about how many mediums are available for acrylic paint. What about watercolor paint? There are just as many mediums there as in oil paint! Let me make this as simple as possible: The oil painting mediums are only there to help you get the paint to do what you want it to do. That’s it. If you like the texture and workability of the paint straight out of the tube, use it straight out of the tube with no medium! You absolutely do not have to use an oil painting medium if you don’t want to! However, if you want your paint to dry faster or slower or if you want your paint to be more transparent or thicker or be smoother or have fewer brush marks or whatever it is you want it to do, there is a medium for that!
Myth #5 - You have to pre-mix all of your paints
FALSE! Ok, I honestly don’t know if this is one of the myths that keeps people from trying oil paint, but it was definitely a concern I had. I had always seen painters planning out all of their colors and mixing them on their palettes, and I just thought that seemed like so much work! I’m an artist who likes to fly by the seat of my pants. I was worried that I would mix the wrong color or decide I didn’t need that color after all. What was I going to do with all of those mixed paints if I didn’t use them?! It just seemed like a lot of work and potential waste. But no. You can absolutely mix on the fly if that’s your jam. It’s my jam, anyway.
Myth #6 - Cleaning up oil paint is complicated and smelly
FALSE*FALSE*FALSE!!! A HUGE FALSE here, friends! I have to be honest with you. I hear this one A LOT, like every time I bring up oil paint, and I have to tell you that I have absolutely no idea what people are doing or think is involved in oil paint cleanup. In my experience, cleaning up oil paint is just as easy as cleaning up acrylic paint. When I’m done painting for the day, I typically just walk away from my mess, and I make it part of my daily ritual to clean up my palette and brushes before I start painting each day. And it really only takes me a few minutes. It actually takes me LONGER to clean up my acrylic mess than it does to clean up my oil painting mess. Cleaning up after oil paint doesn’t require a jackhammer or gallons of turpentine and other toxic chemicals. I swear. Also, see Myth #2 regarding the smell of cleanup. Samesies.
Myth #7 - It’s hard to clean your brushes and keep them clean
FALSE! This one goes hand-in-hand with Myth #6. Cleaning oil painting brushes is a very simple process and doesn’t differ much from cleaning acrylic painting brushes. The main difference is that you can’t swish them in water. You either have to use solvent (which, as we’ve discussed, is really not the toxic and smelly beast that it used to be) or even non-toxic safflower oil. In fact, I think it’s easier to clean your brushes with oil paint because you don’t have to clean them constantly throughout the painting process like you do with acrylic paint. There’s typically a whole lot of brush washing going on when painting with acrylic, am I right? I usually won’t clean my oil painting brushes until I’m done painting for the day. And when your brushes need a good washing, just like with acrylic paint, you can wash your oil painting brushes in soap and water! In my online oil painting course, I’m going to cover every aspect of the cleanup process for you, and I think you’ll see that it’s not scary, it’s not involved, it’s not smelly and dangerous and horrible. It’s a simple, straightforward process, just like cleaning up after any other type of paint.
Myth #8 - You have to buy all new brushes
True(ish). As far as brush quality goes, you can really use any kind of brush you have and are comfortable with. All oil painters have their favorite brushes, but that doesn’t mean those are the “right” brushes that everyone should be using. I use everything from the soft brushes in my older line of paintbrushes, the stiffer brushes in my new line of paintbrushes, and random brushes I find lying around my studio. It is true, however, that once a brush has been used for oil paint, you really shouldn’t use it for acrylic again, and the reason for that is because water and acrylic paint just might not stick to the brush too well. But I’ve had people tell me that they just wash their oil painting brushes super well and have no problem using them for both. Me? No. I don’t take good enough care of my brushes to be able to use them for both, but if you feel like you can, go for it!
Myth #9 - Oil paint has too many scary rules to remember
True, but it’s really not as bad as it seems. The rules I’m referring to are “fat over lean,” “thick over thin,” and “fast over slow.” This is the #1 reason why I stayed far away from oil for so long. The thought of having to think of these rules at every step had me terrified! However, if you paint alla prima, which means to finish a painting all at once, or wet-on-wet, you really don’t even have to think about these rules. I know these rules sound totally scary, but I’m going to go over each rule in my workshop. We’ll break it down and talk about what each one means and the reason it’s a rule, but then we’ll also discuss why the rules don’t matter all that much when you’re painting alla prima. Another thing we’ll talk about is how you probably already follow at least a couple of these rules if you paint in acrylic, even if you don’t realize it. And it’s true that completely disregarding these rules when you’re not painting alla prima can lead to your paintings cracking down the line, but honestly, I feel that by the time most of us are creating paintings that are museum-worthy and should never crack, we will have already learned how to use the paint and it won’t be an issue.
Myth #10 - It’s too hard to make changes to an oil painting, and way too easy to make mud
FALSE! Cue Frau Farbissina: “ALL LIES!” It’s SO easy to make changes to an oil painting! There are miraculous things that you can do to make changes in oil paint that you just can’t do in acrylic paint. And if there’s something in your painting that’s just really not working, wipe it off! It’s really as simple as that. Can’t do that with an acrylic painting. Nope. You’d have to gesso over that one spot and then hope you can mix the right colors to blend into the surrounding area. That, and now that one spot is thicker and has a different texture. Talk about something that’s hard to make changes to. Oil paint is so versatile, and there are a million ways you can fix, alter, and adjust anything on your painting.
So there you have it. Ten oil painting myths: busted! I hope that now you feel more confident to jump in and give oil paint a try. I think if you give it a fair shot, you’ll be over the moon with it. If you really love painting, I think oil paint is a very pure painting experience that you would love. Maybe you’ve tried oil paint before and struggled, though. In that case, all you need is a little guidance, and I’m totally here for that.
If you’re interested in learning more about oil paint and how exactly to get started, you should check out my online oil painting course! This course contains 11+ hours of everything you need to know to get going! We’ll begin with how to choose the right brand of paint for your needs, and we’ll wrap it up with varnishing and cleaning up—and in between, we’ll hit every point on this list of myths in detail AND complete three paintings from start to finish! By the time you’re done with this oil painting course, you’ll be well on your way to being a pro!
Check out the School section on my website for more info or to sign up for my mailing list. My oil painting course will be released on April 1st and will have limited enrollment with a special early bird price. I’ll open enrollment back up after I work out a few kinks and bugs. Aren’t there always kinks and bugs?
If you still have questions or concerns about oil paint, drop me a comment below, and I’ll see if I can help you with it!