Water-Mixable Oils Explained

Have you heard about oil paint that mixes with water?

Water-Mixable Oils let you do real oil painting, free from the need for hydrocarbon solvents. Everything you love about oil paint is still there, but instead of turpentine and mineral spirits, you thin your paints and rinse brushes in water.

This may seem new, but the concept of water-miscible oil paint has been around for a long time. Renaissance artists used a form of an egg-oil emulsion called Tempera Grassa, a method of merging oils with water media as a way to impart flexibility to egg tempera on canvas. As artists transitioned to pure oil painting, techniques changed and varnishes and other oil mediums were added, for a long time making it impossible to use water as a thinner.

It took centuries before a breakthrough development created full-fledged, water soluble oil colors and mediums. The important difference is that the vegetable oil vehicle has been modified to dissolve in water. Paint made from the modified oil uses the same milling process as any other oil paint.

Just like other oils, water-mixable oil paint dries gradually, and the principle of fat-over-lean still applies, so initial layers should have less oil content than subsequent ones. Just the same as any oil painting, touch-dry artwork can receive Retouch Varnish initially, then after about six months a final varnish can be applied.

Water does impart some different qualities to paint, however, so water-mixable oils have some unique properties. Since water evaporates slower than hydrocarbon solvents, washes can take longer to dry. Also, the painting ground absorbs water, giving it a less thirsty, more gliding feel under the brush. Despite being water soluble, water-mixables are totally unrelated to acrylics, and they can’t intermix with acrylic paints or mediums at all.

No matter what solvent or medium you’re using, it's always important to avoid excessively thinning oil paint. Royal Talens recommends a 1 to 1 ratio of water to paint for the best results with their Cobra Oils, for example. Mediums and thinners specially made for water-miscibles help preserve paint film integrity and provide great handling and optical effects. You don’t have to give up your existing oil paints, because the two can be used together. Combining several parts of water-mixable oil paint with one part of traditional oil paint makes all your mixtures thin with water. Just remember that, as the amount of non-miscible oil paint increases, the less well mixtures will thin with water.

Water-mixable oil paints offer the expressive and descriptive power needed for the most challenging and ambitious projects, perfect for any location where hydrocarbon solvents are restricted or excluded. BreakThru Films selected Talens Cobra for their film The Peasants, which displays stunning, hand-painted animation that required 1,300 liters of oil paint… and not a drop of solvents!

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