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Question & answer resource for artists.
Answers are from the site author unless otherwise noted.

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Paints Page

When to Varnish
Cleaning Oil Paintings
Egg Tempera
Old Flemish Technique
What is Sinking-in?
Paint for Recreation
Palette for Mixing
Water-miscible Oil Paints
Oils Used in Painting
Alternative to Oils
Homemade Paint
Appeal of Encaustics
Milk Paint/Casein
Expense of Paints



What are these so-called water-miscible oil paints? Why does Talons say theirs dry faster than conventional oils? Why not just use regular oil paints and walnut oil for clean-up?

These are oil paints that while containg no sythetic, emulsifier or water can be fully diluted with water... once this added water evaporates the oil vehical "dries" slowly through oxidation as with conventional oil colors. I have used only the Grumbacher MAX myself and I find them incredible. Excellent quality and color plus I like the washes I get with MAX and water much more than what I used to get with oils and turp. I have found with MAX I can go up to one third oil, varnish, or conventional paint without losing the water miscibility. I have completely switched over to them since I have kids around.

I have sent away for free offers of the other brands but the samples never came, I was particularly interested in the Winsor & Newton Artisan water mixable mediums. Also, I saw in an ad today that Grumbacher has a MAX2 series of single price student grade water-miscible oils.

I suppose the companies are secretive on account of proprietal research and methods being involved. I believe the MAX is nontoxic as they claim and I personally doubt any dangers to the archival reliability. As I understand it the oil has simply been modified with alkali which if anything would improve its stability... Could it yellow someday? I don't know... but most moderate yellowing of oil (rather than of varnish) can be bleached out buy exposure to direct sunlight.

I too am very mystified by the claim of faster drying from Talons H2Oil. Since I believe the basis of these paints is alkali processing under heat maybe Talons uses particulars that increase the rate at which the paint oxidizes in use?

I know that in general alkalis yield a hydroxyl ion to fats, oils, and waxes and thus causes these non-water soluable substances to become water miscible or water soluable... this is the basis of casein paints and why baker's cocoa will float to the top of your chocolate milk unless you blend it first with boiling water whereas Nestles Kwik will dissolve in milk straight from the container. I'm not a chemist but I believe the alkali produces a physical change of uncurling in folded proteins, either freeing the compounds from their mutual attraction so they can be suspended in water for the case of miscibility, or, in the case of true soluability, exposing hydrophilic portions of the protein so that the substance can actually go in to chemical solution. Caustic alkili agents are simply so strong that they cause proteins such as those in human skin to liquify at room temperature by freeing proteins from the bonds that hold them in place structurally.

I have not seen any companies promoting the use of salad oil as a clean-up solvent. The difficulty I found with painting this way was that there was no way of thinning washes while adhering to the principal of "fat over lean" unless egg yolk was used to permit water thinned washes on the underpainting... Theoretically though this would rob the painting of the flexabilty that permits one to paint on canvas rather than a rigid support... I do have paintings now fifteen years old with "putrido" (egg/oil paint) underpaintings on canvas that have yet to display any inherent vice.

In any case the appeal to me of the MAX is that the paints themselves have essentially no odor out of the tube (I miss the smell of oil and turp but like I paint at home and don't want fumes around my kids) and most importantly for me, I have discovered the joy of being able to get watercolor and oil effects in smooth transitions using these beautiful water thinned washes. Grumbacher should pay me to be a prostletizer...I can't help but gush about their product, I even got my wife who is super conservative to switch over.

I started using sunflower and safflower and soapy water in place of solvent some years ago. Walnut is too expensive and has a reputation of going rancid. The reason for using "drying" oils instead of "non-drying" oils such as corn is so that in case of contamination of your paint the foreign oil will ultimately oxidize fully rather than remaining permanently gummy. The basis or this practice is that the heavy body painting oil is dissolved by the less viscous salad oil permitting the glycerin (an oily feeling substance which is chemically related to alcohol) in the soapy water to attach to the oil on one side of the molecule while bonding to the water on the other... this is also the basis of egg oil painting emulsions... certain egg proteins also have the property of bonding on one side to oils and on the other side to water.

I use mustard oil in my salad dressings and they store in the frige without the oil ever separating from the vinegar.


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I'm curious to know how familiar you are of the early "mixed" techniques employed by the early Flemish painters. Did they use any egg tempera for the underpainting or hightening; and did they use any hard resins such as copal varnish?

The details are still a matter of scholarly debate but the general consensus is:

  1. They did a drawing in India ink wash on a glue/chalk gesso.
  2. Next a monochrome grissaille in egg tempera verdacio, terre verte, or raw umber or such.
  3. Then blocking in with "dead color" of pure egg tempera.
  4. Intermediate glazes in egg/oil emulsion containing "simple varnish" of turps with copal, damar or sandrac.
  5. Many glazes in egg/oils perhaps with olio resin such as Venice turps, glazing in oils (walnut, poppy, sunflower, safflower, or linseed) thinned with simple varnish getting progressivlt fatter untill the last glazes are in oil and varnish without egg.
  6. Final spots of high light were laid into the wet oil glaze with stiff pure egg tempera.

    The reasoning for this process is two-fold. First, the more aqueous the more opaque, the more oily the more transparent, and second, unless their are intermediate phases of lean to fat in combined tempera and oil painting the underlying egg will leach oil from the overlaying glazes compremizing their binding power and discoloring themselves.

    Two historical notes:

    • During this time the greens and blues generally available could only be painted in pure tempera in the early stages of the painting since they discolored in mixture with oil.
    • There are references to the use of oil dating far before the Flemish Masters....However, in these earlier times oil was seen more in terms of its durribility then as the oportunity for new technique... it was used to simulate enamels on metal or for exterior trade signs and architectual folleies whereas the tradition in fine art came not from the easle but from the wall and illuminated manuscripts, both of which are suited better by aquious media.

    If you are reading up on this stuff trust Laurie but do not trust Meroger.


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How long do I have to wait before I can apply permanent varnish to the painting? Also, if this is a long period of time...can I use some type of non-permanent varnish while the paint is drying so I can hang the picture during this time?

I'm sorry to say that the recommended wait before varnishing is six months. It is supposed to take that long for the paint to finish "off-gassing" and for the paint film to fully oxidize. If you are not overly concerned with absolute permanence than you could probably varnish after a few weeks given that few people any longer put a size and ground on the back side of the canvas as is recommended procedure for controlling environmental stresses from behind the picture. If the back of the canvas isn't sealed the paint may be able to adequately off-gas and oxidize though the canvas at the back but I don't really know that you could count on that in the case of an acrylic primed canvas.

I do not know of any short term varnish that would permit the paint to breath while you wait for the right time to apply the final varnish. I used to use retouch varnish to bring out sunken-in areas while I was painting but the authorities state that this my cause improper bonding of the paint layers so I stopped.

In the old days paintings were exposed to direct sunlight to bleach the oils and expedite drying prior to varnishing. The party before a gallery opening is called a vernissage because the artist used to go in and apply the varnish (vernis) when the paintings had already been hung and just before the public was admitted.

I recommend you just keep the painting well dusted and wait three to six months before varnishing.


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How do I clean an old oil painting?

By hiring a professional to do it. Cleaning by a conservator is suprisingly reasonable in cost and if that is beyond your means they can refer you to a recent graduate starting out in the buisness who might work cheaper. Cleaning a painting yourself i s a very bad idea and just not worth it... the best you can do yourself is keep the thing dry, dusted and in consistant temperature and humidity conditions. You can get a referal to local conservators in the U.S. by calling the American Institute for Co nservation of Historic and Artistic Works at (202) 452-9545 in Washington, D.C.


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How are egg tempera paints mixed and used?

Tempera is a simple combination of equal parts pure egg yolk (separate yolk from egg white and pour the yolk contents out of the yolk membrane) and dry pigment ground into a paste with plain water. I have used prepared watercolors in place of pure pigment with no adverse effect from the gum arabic and other substances added to the pigment in its manufacture.


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Paint is so expensive...What do I do?

Paint with the primaries or use just white and a restricted palette of two hues that fall opposite each other on the color chart such as vermillion or burnt sienna and a phthalo blue, mixed they should give many de-saturated intermediaries and a neutral that can serve as black. Use the synthetics and the earth colors. Paint on hardware store masonite. Old fabric like bed sheets that are to weak to stretch can be laminated to masonite or plywood with hide glue. When I really had no money I painted with good quality childrens' poster paints and sealed the paintings with gloss polyurethane for a oil-like finish.


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Is there an alternative to oils aside from acrylics?

-- Gouache is an under-rated medium. It was much used by artists from the eighteenth century until the end of the 1940's. Now it is associated with commercial art, is somewhat over priced (although DaVinci, a manufacturer in California, sells large tubes at a great price and has a 1/2 introductory set of ten well chosen colors), and some companies use fugitive reds and violets (check the label for light-fastness rating). One of its virtues is that areas can still be blended with a watery brush even after they have already dried, however, one critism of guoache is dificulty in overpainting... this can be eliminated by adding just a touch of acrylic matte medium to the brush water used in thinning the paint.

-- Homemade Egg/oil and gum/oil paints are good alternatives and recipes are in Ralph Mayer's Artist's Handbook and Formulas for Painters by Robert Massey.

-- I was reading Thomas Sully's Hints to Young Painters and he says that Washington Alston told him that he painted Elijah in the Wilderness with his pigments simply ground into skim-milk, topped off with a copal varnish and touched up with some oil glazes. I have tried painting with powdered skim milk mixed with an equal volume of water and added to dry pigment... works nicely for sketching but isn't stictly waterproof (not that watercolors are). The ancients used to use fat-free cottage cheese for wall painting. Casein paint made from skim milk curds (non-fat cottage cheese) requires alkilization using ammonia which causes it to become watersoluable for painting (it makes a slimy sticky soupy vehical that is mixed half and half into dry pigment)... if the ammonia is then driven off with gentle heat the paint will be waterproof on drying.


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What is the best palette on which to mix my colors?

You want a smooth non-absorbent surface. Glass can be scraped clean of dried paint and color samples to be matched can be placed under it. The edges should be beveled or taped for safety and the glass should be the thickest you can get. I use the shiny side of plastic coated freezer paper (next to the aluminum foil in the supermarket) as a cheap disposable palette... it can be taped on a sheet of corrugated cardboard for use. Don't over mix your paints, use a brush rather than a knife when po ssible, mixtures can be deadened when the particles of one pigment end up coating the particles of other rather than intermingling with them equally.


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What is "sinking-in"?

Sinking-in is when a pigment sinks below the translucent surface of it's oil vehicle, this can be corrected by applying a gloss varnish that will render the surface of the oil as transparent as it was when it was wet. A related phenomena is over-mixing, if paints are over-mixed on the palette, esp. with a knife, one pigment can end up coating the particles of the other rather than simply intermingling with them. The old guys used to mix colors on the canvas rather than the palette as much as possible, look at those tiny palettes they are holding in their self-portraits, this is also because there used to be problems of chemical reactivity between pigments which we no longer have to worry about with our modern colors.


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What oils are used in oil painting?

-- Oil paints are ground mainly in linseed oil but sometimes in poppy, safflower, or sunflower oil. What is essential is that it be a so-called "drying oil" that oxidizes to a leathery film with exposure to air. Refined Linseed oil is commonly used in place of the more expensive cold-pressed linseed oil. Hardware store linseed oil should be avoid because of impurities and the fact that it is often boiled or "blown" which dramatically increases its tendency to yellow with time.

-- Stand oil is a honey-like oil produced by heating cold-pressed or refined linseed oil with air excluded by a layer of water sitting on the oil. This processes polymerizes the oil so that its molecules cross link but it is very dangerous to do on your own, so it is MUCH safer to buy it ready-made or make sun-thickened oil.

-- To make sun-thickened oil shake refined linseed oil with an equal volume of water and place in a glass baking pan no more than two inches deep and exposed to bright sun-light. The pan should be covered with a plane of glass to keep out any dust. After three weeks the oil should have thickened and the water can be poured off and the oil stored for use in a sealable bottle.


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I am looking for a good milk paint recipe...have any suggestions?

-- Milk paint is the name for simple casein... Try the Sinopia Link on the Links Page... All the recipes I have ever found assume you have commercially supplied dried casein but you can extract casein yourself from non-fat cottage cheese. Rinse the curds to remove soluable sugars and gum adulterants and dissolve the the otherwise insoluable curds in water with houshold ammonia (it takes15 or so minutes). This ammonia should then be driven off by placing the container of now syrupy casein/water in a tray of just boiled water (make sure not to inhale the ammonia vapor).

-- The ancients used to use a coarse paint of untreated skim milk or no-fat cottage cheese. The water resistance of such paint can be improved with a spray coating of a hardener such as alum (sold in the spice section of the grocery store) after it has dried. I have found equal volumes dried non-fat milk, water, and pigment to be a suitible alternative to guoache for sketches that are not to be painted over.

-- Casein was once a popular painting and sketching medium in America but can only be used on board or heavy paper rather than canvas because it makes for a brittle paint film. It also was used for the "dead colour" or color under-painting before being sealed with varnish and painted over or merely finished in oilcolors.


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What kind of paint should you use if you are only painting for fun?

-- Watercolors are cheap and require no serious studio set up but although it may be easier to be a novice watercolorist than a novice oil painter it is harder to be an accomplished watercolorist than an accomplished oil painter.

-- Beginners tend to get muddy with their oils but ultimately it is easier to move paint around and blend with oils... they do however require that you be able to wait days for paint to dry in many cases and you need good ventilation unless you use the Grumbacher MAX or other water-miscible oil colors that have done wonders for my quality of life.

-- Decent watercolors are very affordable, buying a set is cheaper then purchasing the colors individually, a set good set can run about like Niji, Pentel, or Sakura Koi can run under $15 dollars and I buy individual tubes of Windsor&Newton Cotman colors for $1.75 each. I strongly recommend painting with tube colors to start with, they are easier to handle and mix than the dry "pan" watercolors. Unless you paint on a relatively non-absorbent paper, however, watercolor painting doesn't much allow for corrections, you can prime your paper with dilute acrylic matte medium to make it easier to lift-off paint with tissues and Q-tips.

-- I can't recommend acrylics. I'll get flack for this but, having seen thousands of paintings, I've seen fewer than half a dozen examples of truly good painting made with acrylics. They dry too fast for blending unless retarders are used, they give pasty washes, and ultimately they are simply too plastic-like. I won't even paint on acrylic gesso grounds. The lesser of acrylic evils in my opinion is the FINITY line of acrylics which have a nice buttery consistancy.

-- A technique I've developed with some success for my beginning students is a combined watercolor/gouache method where the primary colors of gouache (also called opaque watercolors, body colors, or designer colours) are used with a fuller set of the more inexpensive transparent watercolors. For this technique to work, however, transparent and opaque passages must be integrated through-out the composition. The gouache palette is extended by mix and tinting with the watercolors. The water-soluble gum vehicle of gouache allows them to be re-wet and blended even after they have initially dried and layers can be isolated by doping the brush water with small amounts of acrylic medium to make the paint impervious to pick-up by subsequent layers of painting. The gouache can give al prima and light impasto effects and the watercolor can be used conventionally or as over-glaze. Be careful though, gouache is the only medium where impermanent colors are still commonly sold, check the light-fastness rating for the colors you buy.


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Encaustic? What is its technical/aesthetic appeal? How does one purchase it (what form) and how does one use it?

-- The technical appeal of encaustic is it's stability and permanence, its ability to retain brush strokes because of the speed with which it sets, and the ease with which it can be re-worked. Truly ancient encaustics survive but the medium is best known from so-called Fayum Portraits that were placed over mummy wrappings in Hellenistic Egypt. Unless subjected to severe heat and mechanical abrasion encaustic is extremely long-lived. The paint sets as soon as it comes off the brush and can be opaque or have a beautiful translucence or transparency that can be worked up in layers without the wait associated the drying or oxidization necessary to set other paint films. The paint can be scrapped-down or scratched into for pictorial effects and can be blended with direct heat from metal tools, heat lamps, and/or blasts of hot air. The finished work has a lustery, velvety, rich quality but can be buffed to a shine. So-called Dorlan's or wax medium is a saphonated wax paste that is creamy at room temperature and has none of the handling properties of true encaustic, it is used to achieve creamy impasto or a more matte quality in oil painting Some modern work to look at are the early white flag and number paintings of Jasper Johns.

-- Encaustic medium is a mixture of clarified bees wax and damar varnish with turpentine... this a dangerous mixture to make at home because of the danger of the vapors flash igniting. The paint can be purchased in plain and pre-pigmented blocks from good art supply stores (usually the make is R&F Encaustics but look on-line for Enkostikos). It is worked on a heated sheet of glass, metal, or often simply a muffin tin placed over a banquet hot plate rather than a special encaustic palette heater. Heated electric styluses, knives, and brass bristle brushes are available especially for encaustic painting and batique drawing tools can also be used for linear and gestural drawing. I used to just work regular oil colors into store-bought encaustic medium on a hot plate, and I know a guy who does great work simply mixing dry pigment into regular grocery store paraffin (although care must be taken not to heat paraffin to its flash point and the final painting is very brittle). For an historic look you might want to stick to using earth pigments such as Venetian red, yellow ocher, burnt sienna, raw umber, terre verte, and mars violet. I saw a microwave heated hot plate in a kitchen catalog that was supposed to retain a three minute heating for forty-five minutes afterward.


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Can I make my own paint?

-- The earth tones and modern synthetic organic pigments can often be bought dry by the pound for less then decent coffee. Getting a good mix of pigment with oil is a difficult process and usually requires the use of some stabilizers but there is no rea son not to try to grind your own oils.

-- Watercolors can be made by grinding pigment into a simple gum Arabic solution (sold in watercolor section of art store). Gouache is simply a more saturated mixture of pigment into gum Arabic with fine chalk added for opacity. No more than maybe 15% glycerin (drugstore skin product) maybe added as a drying-retarder to the water based media. The children's school glue called Muscilage is usually made from industrial grade gum arabic or a gum of seaweed origin and can be substituted despite the fact that it is quite brittle without the addition of glycerin. A gum made by adding a couple tablespoons of water to a cup of artificvial sweetener containing malto-dextrose can also be used... this type of paint is sold as distemper in the UK.

-- Most people who make their own paints are engaged in egg tempera or encaustic painting. A paste of pigment in water is mixed into egg yolks or pigment is ground into heated beeswax/damar varnish respectively. Egg tempera dries as soon as it is set down and can only be blended through hatch mark transitions and encaustic must be kept heated to remain fluid. Egg/oil emulsion tempera paint is easier to make than oil and easier to use then egg, Ralph Mayer writes about it in The Artists' Handbook as well as the gum/oil emulsion. Encaustic is a beautiful medium but requires the use of a hotplate to keep the paints liquid. Encaustics usually are based on a medium formed by adding damar varnish to hot wax, doing this at home is a serious fire hazard so commercially prepared medium is advisable. The damar lends some hardness to the soft wax. I have painted encaustic by blending regular artists' oil colors into encaustic medium on a heated palette.

-- Many artist including Vuillard used collé or distemper, the mixing of dry pigment into heated hide glue or edible gelatin, the temperatures needed to keep gelatin fluid are lower than that for encaustic so the glue can be kept warm in a container floated in a pot of hot water rather than on a hot plate.


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©Daniel Wasserman



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