Oil painting hacks: some handy hints

Painting in oils is little messier than painting with acrylics or watercolours as you can’t mix oil paint with water. What’s more both the paints and the mediums you use to clean and dilute them are on the expensive side and it’s easy to waste both if you aren’t careful. But oil painting is well worth the effort so here are a few ways I have found to make the experience easier, cleaner and less costly.

Cleaning soap and wipes for oil painting
Tear off palette and jar for keeping paint

1. Use detergent/washing up liquid to clean oil paint off yourself and your brushes

Remember that you don’t need to use harsh White Spirit to get oil paint off your hands. It isn’t good for them and washing up liquid (detergent) will work just as well! You could also buy these specially formulated, non-toxic wipes and soap (above) to do the job. You can also use a detergent solution to wash brushes at the end of the day, as long as you rinse them very well.

2. And before you immerse those brushes, remember to wipe them

You’ll find that using Artists’ White Spirit or Turpentine to dilute your colours and to clean your brushes in between colours, can get expensive (never use White Spirit from a DIY store – it will contain impurities that will damage the paint). The liquids you soak your brushes in will quickly get muddy and eventually will be too saturated with paint and no longer usable. To slow this process, wipe each brush on an old rag or piece of kitchen paper before you put it in the spirits to get off the worst excess of paint. Your jars of spirits will stay cleaner for longer.

3. Use a coffee filter to strain and re-use your Turps or Spirits

This is a way to make your spirits last much longer. When you come back to your painting ready to start work again, take a look at your jars of spirits. If you have left them overnight you will see that the paint sediment has sunk to the bottom, leaving clear liquid on top. It may be a little yellowy, but will be perfectly good for diluting any colour that isn’t very pale, or for cleaning brushes with. Gently tip the clear liquid on the top of the jar into another container – straining it through a coffee filter or piece of kitchen roll to refine it further. Clean off the paint sediment left on the bottom of your jar using kitchen roll and pour your reserved spirits back in.

4. Don’t squeeze too much paint out onto your palette initially

It’s easy to squeeze out too much paint and end up wasting it. Remember that strong colours like reds and blues tend to go an awful long way in a mixture – I’ve noticed that these are the colours I seem to waste most of. Put out a small blob of paint at first, and add more as and when you need to. They go further than you think so try to be restrained when putting them out onto your palette!

5. Use a ‘tear-off’ palette and save yourself having to scrape and clean of old, dried paint.

This won’t save you money, but it will make for a lot less cleaning. It’s a lot of work to thoroughly clean a wooden palette as inevitably some oil paint will have dried and stuck fast to it, so a paper tear-off palette is much more convenient. But to make each disposable page last longer, use your palette knife to scrape off any patches of muddy paint you don’t need any more, and give it a wipe with a piece of kitchen paper dipped in White Spirit. Otherwise you’ll find that you quickly run out of space on your palette and have to tear off another sheet very frequently. Paint will wipe off a tear-off palette much more easily than a wooden one because its surface is more slippery than wood grain.

6. ‘Clingfilm’ (or ‘Saran Wrap’) any colours you do want to keep on your palette in between painting sessions

Once you’ve scraped off any colour mixes that you don’t need any more, as above, cover any paint on your palette that you do want to keep with Clingfilm (Saran Wrap) making sure to keep air bubbles beneath to a minimum. This should keep it workable for the next day. Mixed paint won’t last as long as paint that’s straight out of the tube because more air has already been introduced, and very small amounts of paint won’t last long before drying out even with film over them. But larger ones will stay usuable for several days.

7. When you’ve mixed up a large amount of a paint colour and want to keep the leftovers overnight or longer, store the mixture in a miniature jar with water on top

You may have mixed up a reasonably large batch of one particular colour – for a background maybe, or just for a large area of the image. If you haven’t finished with it by the end of the day you may want to keep the mixed-up paint. But as air has already been introduced to it, it will soon start to oxidize and dry (oil paint doesn’t dry with evaporation of water, but when the oils that bind the pigment together meet with air and begin the oxidization process)

However there is a way of keeping it viable for weeks and weeks. Use a miniature jar, like the little jam jar above – the kind of thing you find in a hotel or on a plane (it helps if you are a bit of a hoarder!) If you don’t have one, just use the smallest jar you can find. Scrape your leftover paint into it. Then put a layer of water over the top. The water will not mix with the oil of course, but what it will do is to stop any air getting to the paint and starting the oxidization (drying) process. When you are ready to use the paint again,  just open the lid and tip the water off.

8. Keep dust off your painting

One annoying problem I’ve  experienced with painting in oils is that dust tends to settle on a painting that’s left out to dry overnight and sticks to the paint. Even a painting that’s almost vertical on an easel will attract some dust.

If you happen to have a large, thin flat box with a lid to put your painting in overnight and keep the dust off, then great. This shape and size of box can be hard to find however especially if your canvas is large. So instead, you could also buy one or two sheets of ‘foamboard’ or ‘foamcore’ from an art shop or from somewhere like Hobbycraft (it costs about £7 per 5mm thick sheet) and make yourself a flattish box just deep enough to contain a painting. Put the top on overnight and this will keep nearly all dust off your painting. Foamboard is ideal for such a purpose as it’s easy to cut with a steel rule and craft knife and it’s strong, but as light as a feather. Use PVA or wood glue to stick it together or just pin it with dressmakers’ pins. You could also just tape it together using some strong tape.

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