The answer is YES, oils are toxic. So are watercolours and so are most ‘proper’ art materials. If they weren’t you could use them as food colouring! Kindergarten paints are non-toxic i.e. edible. In oils it is the pigments which are toxic as well as the mediums and cleaning solvents.
Most pigments in all sorts of paint are toxic to a greater or lesser degree, which is why you should never lick your paintbrush.
That white stuff – above – is mildly toxic – it is calcium carbonate – i.e. chalk. Oil paints consists of pigments suspended in oil and pigments vary. Some pigments are more expensive than others and that’s why ‘artist’s’ colours vary in price. The cost doesn’t reflect the lightfastness or the quality, just the ingredients. Student colours approximate the hue and are made using cheaper ingredients.
e.g. Vermilion is made of mercury, and is highly toxic and very costly. However, we usually use Cadmium Red instead because it is lightfast, beautiful, cheaper and less toxic. Cadmium sulfide is not very toxic. In the student colours red is called Cadmium Red Hue which is less archival and won’t stay bright forever! Ochres and earth colours are generally not toxic. Flake White is the evil white which caused so many deaths in the 19thC because of its lead content. I use Titanium White and Transparent White which is Titanium based. Apparently titanium dioxide is used in toothpaste!
Even though water-mixable oils sound completely safe, they aren’t really because toxicity depends on the pigments used.
Some people are allergic to mediums. I have a friend who is highly allergic to latex and masking fluid, which is used in watercolours could be fatal.
There are many mediums on the market, for thinning paint, thickening it or for special effects. To be absolutely non-toxic, thin with linseed oil even though it takes a long time to dry, and thicken with whitening (powdered chalk).
You can speed up the drying process with something called Liquin by W&N or a similar product. You can thicken and speed drying at the same time with impasto paste.
I have begun making my own medium using 50:50 Gamblin Gamsol (USA) and Gamblin Galkyd. I use 1 tsp of each, in a dipper and stir gently. You have to replace it each session, otherwise it thickens and dries in the dipper. This will dilute the paint and hasten the drying. (Don’t ever thin paint with solvents or you dilute the oils and end up with unbound powdery lack-lustre particles of pigment.)
Cleaning: This is the area of the greatest toxicity because of the fumes, so it is wise to minimise this. If you are allergic to solvents stay with linseed oil and be prepared to go through more paintbrushes. (Of course, the solvents are possibly no worse than oven cleaners, bleach and various kitchen and bathroom cleaners.)
I teach and so I am as cautious as possible.
Start with baby wipes to clean the palette and wipe the brushes and your hands.
Rub your hands in baby oil to dissolve the oil paints and wipe them with kitchen towels.
I wear gloves for cleaning brushes, but this is to keep my hands feeling nice.
Three basic solvents:
(never use thinners or cheap turpentine as this is bad for your brushes as well as for you)
- Decorator’s Turpentine: This is the ‘smell of an artist’s studio. My students don’t use it at my home and I only use it sparingly when they have left for a final brush clean-up. The fumes can permeate the entire house!
- Sansodor: This is a W&N solvent which has less of an odor than turps.
- Gamblin Gamsol (USA): This is an odorless solvent and it is comparably low in toxicity.
Nothing is ever simple!
I feel that the beauty of the viscosity of oils makes the limited contact with solvents worth it. However, safety in the home should never be taken lightly and it’s very important to be aware of your allergies. If you have breathing problems of any sort check with your doctor or use acrylics. (sob!)
Lin Teaches oil painting in Oxfordshire. her next 4-week courses begin on 12th April and 7th June. View www.linkerrdesign.co.uk/oilpainting/