Mineral Spirits vs. Turpentine

Q. In my years of painting I’ve tried just about every medium, and not long ago I read of a medium that combines one part stand oil and two parts mineral spirits. I’ve tried it and I like this combination a great deal, but would it make a difference if I used odorless turpentine instead of mineral spirits? What’s the “painting difference” between the two?
Barbara Nichols
Fort Lauderdale, FL

A. The combination of stand oil and mineral spirits is probably as good a medium as you can use with oil paints, although you should reserve its use for the upper layers of your painting to adhere to the time-tested “fat over lean” rule (applying thicker layers of paint over thinner layers). The “odorless” variety of turpentine isn’t as good a solvent as mineral spirits, but substituting pure gum spirits of turpentine wouldn’t be a problem.

The biggest difference between mineral spirits and turpentine, and one that might make you wary of the switch, is that the turpentines can be more harmful to use. They are distilled from the sap of various species of pine trees (the most familiar being the Long-Leaf Yellow Pine, although there’s a wide variety) and they can be quite toxic, depending on the species. I avoid using any sort of turpentine unless I’m dissolving a varnish resin that requires it or using a medium that contains a resin dissolved in gum turpentine, because in most other cases I find it unnecessary. Mineral spirits is a fine solvent, and it can even be used by itself to thin your oil paint in the early stages of a painting. Just be careful not to overuse mineral spirits as a thinner or you’ll end up with an underbound paint that won’t stick to your ground.

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Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of The Painter’s Handbook (Watson-Guptill).

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