Painting & drawing blog
A LOOK AT WATER-MIXABLE OIL PAINT
I resisted trying the new water-soluble oil paints for years. I think I thought that it couldn’t really be as good as ‘proper’ oil paint and being a bit of a traditionalist I didn’t have too much of a problem with having to dilute and wash them with linseed oil and spirits rather than water. I love the buttery texture of oils, the purity of the colour that doesn’t change when they dry, and the way they remain manipulable on the palette for long enough for you to make changes and work back into the paint. I was afraid that these characteristics which made me love and prefer oil paint to other types might be compromised.
However I can’t deny that oil painting is a messier business than working in watercolour or other water-soluble paint types and so the idea of an oil paint that could be cleaned with water was very intriguing! Just a simple wash with water would be needed for both brushes, easel and my hands after handling the paints instead of scrubbing away with spirits and turps. My clothes wouldn’t smell of white spirit. It would definitely make oil painting simpler. I decided to give them a try, so I bought some Winsor & Newton ‘Artisan’ paints
A quick note before we start: I’m referring to this type of paint as ‘water-mixable’ but you’ll also see come across it referred to interchangeably as ‘water miscible’ and ‘water soluble’. They all mean the same thing!
How they actually work
It’s well known that oil and water don’t mix, so I was surprised to learn that water-mixable oils actually still contain the exact same components as traditional oil paints. Like all tubes of oil they consist of a pigment suspended in an oil binder (usually linseed oil) to make the right consistency and to ‘set’ the paint as it dries by oxidization. Water-mixable oils don’t actually contain any water, or some strange new medium. Instead – and this is what is so clever about them – one end of the linseed oil molecule has been altered to make it able to bind loosely to water molecules and form a solution with water. It’s just the same linseed oil, but structurally altered at a molecular level.
Therefore unlike traditional oil paint these new paints can be mixed, and cleaned with water just like acrylics (a combination of pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion), watercolour (pigment mixed with a binder such as gum arabic, with glycerin), gouache (more or less exactly the same as watercolour, but with a white pigment such as chalk added to make it opaque) or tempera (pigment mixed with an egg yolk binder, or some modern size).
What are the advantages?
It is commonly suggested that the volatile solvent mediums used to dilute and clean oil paints are not good for us to either inhale or to absorb through the skin. I haven’t looked into these health claims in any detail (it would be interesting to research into the general health and life expectancy of oil painters!) but certainly the traditional turpentine – now largely replaced with ‘Artist’s White Spirit’ or ‘Artist’s Mineral Spirits’ – is pretty toxic. Even the Artist’s White Spirit that is substituted for turps these days gives me headaches if I haven’t ventilated the room well enough. Below I will look at the wide range of water-mixable, non-toxic solvents that are now available to be used alongside the water-mixable paints.
Winsor and Newton’s ‘Artisan’ range
In British art shops this is typically the only range of water-mixable paints that is stocked, with the exception of some specialist stores in central London. Other brands can be purchased online and I’ll cover these a little further down, but I decided to start with Winsor and Newton’s ‘Artisan’ paints which are widely available in most art stores as well as places like Hobbycraft. They come in a somewhat limited range of 40 different colours, which makes you think that they are perhaps aimed more at the amateur and hobby market than at professionals or very serious painters.
Winsor and Newton are a good brand and I often use their traditional Artists’ Oil Colours range. The prices of the Artisan range compare favourably, but the range of colours for the Artists’ Oil Colours is much greater with a choice of 119 hues. Not that I usually use anywhere near this many different tubes of paint – though I did miss having a ‘flesh-coloured’ tint which is a good base for painting Caucasian skin that you can then mix with other colours. It would be helpful if they introduced this tint.
I didn’t find too much to complain about with the Artisan colours. The consistency was fine and the colours were not bad at all. It was definitely a bit of a revelation to be able to clean the brushes and all my other equipment (and myself) so easily! I imagine that once I’d got used to it I would never look back and wonder how I went through all the hassle of cleaning up after normal oils.
These solvent-free paints and mediums would certainly also be preferable for anyone with small children around who might inhale the fumes, or who were pregnant or had solvent allergies. It would also be easier to work with the water-mixable oils if you were working outside; when painting landscapes for instance as you could clean your equipment much more easily.
There is also the ‘Cobra’ range made by the Dutch company Royal Talens. This is a very extensive range of 70 colours, again with various mediums also sold alongside them. They are more expensive than Artisan – in the UK at least – which suggests that they are probably higher quality. With art materials unlike many products in life, price is usually a reliable guide to quality as it indicates the types and quantity per tube of pigments used and the work that has gone into making them (how finely the pigments have been ground, for example).
In the US there are also other brands available including the Holbein Duo Aqua and Grumbacher Max ranges. The Holbein range is vast (100 colours) and very well regarded. However the only place I can find to buy these paints in the UK is online at Amazon. The Grumbacher Max range has 70 available colours: also pretty good.
How you use them
Let’s run through how you use the water-mixable oils, but first we need to explain how normal oil paints are thinned. Traditional oils are usually cleaned with Artist’s White Spirit, and the same spirit is also used to thin the paint to the consistency you want to apply to the canvas. However if you add too much spirit, then the linseed oil in the tube which binds it to the pigment is diluted too much. The paint will become dull and matt and will also risk flaking off in future as there is insufficient oil in the mixture to bind and hold it together and keep it flexible as it slowly dries and becomes stable over a number of years.
When adding spirits to your paint, you therefore also add more linseed oil at the same time. This may be from a bottle of regular linseed oil, or a special Drying Linseed oil if you want to speed up drying. There are other mediums such as Stand Oil and Liquin Medium that can be used, providing different consistencies, drying times, and colour finish (linseed oil can be a bit yellowing, so Poppy Oil may be used for lighter colours). Some people may prefer only to mix their paints with such glossy, oily mediums and not to add any spirits at all for thinning. Usually you use a mixture of the two to obtain the finish that you want.
The water-soluble paints are treated exactly the same way, except that you need to loosen and dilute them with mediums specially prepared for this type of paint. In theory you could use regular linseed oil or other traditional mediums (you can even mix water-soluble paint with regular oil paint) but this isn’t advised. The different chemical makeup of the water-mixable oils means that drying times will be vastly different between the two types of paint. Different drying times means that there’s a risk of your painting eventually becoming unstable, as the incompatible paints may contract separately and causing cracking. So ideally when buying water-mixable paints you should also purchase the mediums and thinners specifically made for them.
Mediums, mixers and thinners
Winsor and Newton make a wide range of Artisan mediums to be used with Artisan paint. This includes a Fast Drying Medium, Linseed Oil, Stand Oil, ‘Thinner’, and even an Impasto Medium for painting really thickly. In other words all the typical mediums you might use with regular oil paint are available, but like the paints they are all water mixable so you can clean them with water too. Without a solvent base, they smell much better! All the usual rules on how to apply oil paint should be followed identically to traditional oil paint, including the famous ‘fat over lean’ rule (see my guide to oil painting techniques ,
The most important thing I learned about water-mixable oils is this: the ONLY thing you do with water is to clean your brushes (and equipment). You don’t add water to the oil paint to thin it. Of course if you are cleaning your brushes with water in between colours then a tiny bit of water will transfer to the paint from your brush, and this is fine, especially if you add an extra drop of oil to compensate.
However if you thin the paint simply with water not only will the oil binder become dangerously diluted making the dried paint dull, thinned and vulnerable to cracking, but the addition of water will turn your paints into an emulsion. This will change and lighten their colour so they look darker when dried to how they appear as you apply them, making it hard to judge your colours as you apply them.
To conclude then on my experiments with water-based oils: these paints certainly make oil painting easier, whether for the novice who isn’t used to oils and will find the whole process easier to clean up after, or the professional who wants to save some time, keep a cleaner workspace more easily and reduce their exposure to potentially harmful solvents. They don’t make the overall process of painting massively simpler however because for the reasons outlined above. You need to use a range of spirits and mediums with them just as you do with normal oil paints, rather than just thinning them with water as you would do watercolour, for example. But the smell of those spirits and mediums is much better and cleaning up after your painting session is definitely easier.
In terms of quality I didn’t like the Artisan paints quite as much as the traditional Winsor and Newton ‘Artists’ Oil Colour’ range or the ‘Michael Harding’ Oil Paints’ that I usually use. However I don’t think this is because they are a water-soluble brand but rather that they simply aren’t quite the quality offered by some ranges. They seemed to me to be closer in quality to the Winsor and Newton student-grade ‘Winton’ range, or the Daler-Rowney ‘Georgian Oil Colours’ (student-grade paints will use less expensive and less finely ground pigments and a smaller amount of the pigment overall in the mixture, as well as providing less lightfastness and coverage)
I suspect Winsor and Newton think that people who want to use water-mixable paint are less likely to be professionals or serious painters, and have made an affordable range with cheaper pigments to market at beginners. Feedback on painting forums online from people who’ve tried other ranges suggests that Lukas Berlin or Cobra ranges are better quality and compare extremely well with top-quality oils, so this is what I’ll be experimenting with next. Cobra paints claim to be of artists’ quality, with the highest degree of lightfastness, 100% retention of brushstroke, and no colour transition from wet to dry. The Lukas Berlin range also supposed to be professional quality, though perhaps not as good as Cobra (judging from the price – which is a pretty good guide). However for the oil-painting beginner I’d say that Artisan is an excellent range to start with and a very good introduction to working with oils.
Where to buy water-mixable oils
Artisan paints are easily available in most art or craft shops.
The other brands mentioned are available from these UK online Retailers:
lawrence.co.uk and greatart.co.uk sell Lukas Berlin Water-Mixible oils. The latter also sells Royal Talens’ Cobra oil paints, and so does pullingers.com which has has some good deals on box sets.