Oil paint is an ancient invention, simple in its composition compared to newer types of artist’s color. And, while some products that can be mixed with oils may need to be used with some care, almost all colors in the modern assortment can be safely used by anyone with no special safety concerns. Unfortunately, some artists still avoid painting in oils because they mistakenly assume it’s inherently bad for the environment, risky to use, or hard to learn. It’s time to separate the myths from the facts about oil paint.
Most colors of oil paint are labeled safe for all ages. Above all else, the package label is the first place to look on every art supply product you bring into the studio for information about safe use and disposal. Most colors in the modern oil paint assortment are so safe that they can carry the AP seal of the ACMI, indicating no toxic ingredients at any significant level, safe for all ages. That doesn’t mean they’re intended for kids, but they don’t present a health risk. The CL seal appears on other products where some precautions may be necessary. View more information about product health and safety here.
The binder in oil paint is plant-based vegetable oil. No matter what you may have heard, artists’ oil colors are made using vegetable oil as a vehicle and binder. This has been true from the very beginning. The earliest known oil paintings in caves in Afghanistan, dating back to the 7th century, used vegetable oil binders along with other natural gums and proteins. While the oils we use to make paint are processed and handled differently from food products, they all start out pretty much the same as nutritional and cooking oils. In fact, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote detailed instructions for processing walnuts in the studio to extract oil for painting. The most common plant-derived oil paint vehicle today, linseed oil, is a product of flax, a sustainably grown crop. In addition, safflower, walnut, and poppy oil may also be used.
Oil paint in the tube or on a canvas poses no combustion risk. Plant-derived oils, including vegetable oils for cooking, can oxidize and build up heat when distributed over an insulating material with large surface area, like piles of balled up rags. This is different from the flammability risk with solvent fumes. When an oxidizing vegetable oil is spread out over a large surface area on a material that holds heat, like rags or paper towels, it allows a lot of oil to oxidize at once, while holding heat. This creates a risky situation if heat builds up enough to further speed oxidation, eventually getting hot enough to catch fire. This risk only exists when enough material is present to store heat. Paint in tubes, on the palette, on canvas, or on a single rag laid flat to dry pose no such risk.
Oil painting can be done without traditional solvents. While it's true that artists often use solvents like turpentine and mineral spirits in oil painting, it's absolutely not a requirement. Alternative thinners and mediums have been developed for artists that still want to use oil paint without dealing with the special concerns associated with solvents. Water-mixable oil paints and solvent-free, vegetable oil mediums allow artists to do real oil painting as safely as water media, with materials that represent a responsible choice for the environment as well.
The smell of linseed oil is not harmful. Some vegetable oils have strong smells, just like some foods, but that doesn’t indicate that they are unsafe to work with. Some artists love the linseed oil aroma associated with painting, while others find it a bit much, but the smell of the oil in your paint won’t harm you unless you have a medical condition that puts you at risk.
Oil painting is easy to learn and fun! There are so many incredible paintings in oil that the medium can seem intimidating, but the basics of oil painting aren’t hard to learn. In fact, a lot of artists new to the medium enjoy the long open time, concentrated colors, and smooth blending oil paints have to offer. Many artists who have only ever used water media are instantly hooked the first time they try oils!