Oil and Water

Q. After a 20-year absence from painting, I was delighted to find that it’s possible to paint in oils that perform just as I remembered but clean up with water, but I have a few questions about them. Do I need a varnish with these water-based oils, and do I still need to wait for a six-month dry time? Also, should I be concerned about their long-term performance?
Cora S. Werley
Fort Worth, TX

A. These relatively new paints aren’t really water-based oil paints, but rather water-miscible oils. That means the binder, a linseed oil, has been modified to “accept” added water, making it possible to paint and clean up without using potentially harmful solvents such as gum turpentine or mineral spirits.

In practice, you can treat these paints like traditional oils because once the water content evaporates, oil paint is essentially what you end up with. Use supports and grounds intended for oil paints and follow the rule of “fat over lean,” whereby you save your thickest layers of paint for last.

In the early stages you may be tempted to thin the paints with water to the consistency and transparency of watercolor, as you might if you were using another thinner. But if you do this, you’ll probably make a first layer of paint that won’t stick well to the ground. Don’t overthin the first layer with a thinner alone—add some painting medium. All the marketed brands of water-miscible oils also have various painting mediums available for modifying the thickness and drying rate of the paints.

Generally, I’d advise you to wait from six months to a year for the drying paint film to completely cure before you varnish it, and I do recommend varnishing the finished painting. If you want to try a painting medium that induces the paints to dry faster, be sure to follow its instructions carefully.

Finally, some conservators I’ve spoken with express concern that additions to the paint’s binder that are required to keep the water and oil mixtures stable might reduce the life of the paint film, but I’m not aware of any independent studies about their long-term durability.

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Dianna Shyne has painted for 17 years. She was trained in Russian Impressionism, but enjoys many experimental and traditional forms of painting. She’s a signature member of the Northwest Watercolor Society, and works in watercolor, acrylic and oil. Her paintings have received many national awards and are included in the permanent collection of the Wiregrass Museum in Dothan, Alabama. She’s represented by the Mockingbird Gallery in Bend, Oregon. Shyne teaches private classes and workshops in her Seattle hometown and on the East Coast. Her paintings can be viewed at www.diannashyne.com.


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