Water mixable, water miscible or water soluble? Whatever you want to call this unique oil paint, it is worth experimenting with. First developed in the 1980s, it is interchangeably called “water mixable,” “water miscible,” and “water soluble.” For the sake of consistency, we will refer to this special oil paint as “water mixable” throughout the following post, but you can call it what you want!
Oil Painting and Solvent Use
Oil painting has been around for centuries. Traditional oil paints first appeared in Europe in the 12th century and became very popular in the early 15th century. Oil paint is traditionally made with only linseed oil and pigment, and can be thinned with turpentine or mineral spirits, which are solvents. Unlike watercolors, acrylics and other water-based paints, which can be thinned with water, traditional oil paint must be thinned with solvents. The oil molecules in the paint can only be broken down by solvent chemicals; mixing traditional oils with water does not work because water and oil do not mix. Turpentine or odorless mineral spirits (also called white spirits) are the two solvents typically used to thin oil paint.
Turpentine is plant-based and typically derived from pine sap; it was a popular solvent for centuries because of its abundance and cheap cost. Odorless mineral spirits are now typically used for oil painting instead of turpentine because of their low toxicity. Both substances can be dangerous when handled improperly, but turpentine is very toxic and gives off noxious fumes—odorless mineral spirits do not. Many people are allergic to the odor of turpentine; it can cause a skin rash if touched and create breathing problems if inhaled. Mineral spirits are derived from petroleum and are used widely in paint manufacturing and as well as for industrial applications.
Gamblin’s Gamsol is a popular odorless mineral spirit for oil painters and there are many other brands to choose from as well. It is best to wear latex or other disposable gloves to protect your skin when handling oil paints and their solvents—even odorless mineral spirits. Oil painting must also be done in a well-ventilated area. Any solvents and rags used must be disposed of properly to protect yourself and the environment. Both turpentine and mineral spirits are flammable—rags and containers used with the solvents should be stored in a wide-mouthed airtight container and disposed of properly to reduce danger of fire and also to contain any fumes.
A New, Water Soluble Solution
While painting solvents are perfectly safe when handled correctly, oil painters interested in reducing their use of toxic chemicals may want to try water mixable, or water miscible oils. Water mixable oils offer the benefits of traditional oils, but without the toxicity of solvents. These paints were first developed in the late 1980s and were the biggest breakthrough in paint production since the invention of acrylic polymer paints in the 1950s.
The oil vehicle in water mixable oil paint has been chemically altered so that it is water soluble. Water and oil molecules naturally repel each other, but a chemical added to water mixable paint allows the water and oil molecules to mix. When working with mater mixable oils, you do not need to use turpentine or other toxic solvents to thin paint or clean brushes. Water mixable oils offer the advantages of traditional oils, without the disadvantages of solvents.
Who Should Use Water Mixable Oils?
Water mixable oils are great for both seasoned oil painters and those new to oil painting. One of the greatest benefits of this paint is the incredible ease of cleanup. The solvents used in traditional oil painting require a careful cleaning process, but water mixable oils can be cleaned simply with soap and water. Although oil paint solvents are not hazardous when handled properly, they can give off unpleasant fumes and irritate the skin.
Some artists choose to use water mixable oils to avoid potential skin or lung irritation and others choose this type of paint simply because cleaning up is so much easier. Many schools do not allow turpentine use in their art departments because of potential toxicity and cleanup issues. Because of these concerns, water mixable oils are gaining popularity on high school and college campuses. Some school districts prohibit even the use of mineral spirits because of the potential fire hazard caused by improper disposal of solvents.
Because of their flammability, solvents are prohibited on commercial flights, so water mixable oils are a great option for oil painters traveling internationally or for anyone who wants to travel knowing that cleanup will be a breeze. The transportability of water mixable oils also makes them a great option for plein air painting.
The Pros and Cons of Water Mixable Oils
Although it varies from brand to brand, you may find water mixable oil paint a little thicker and slightly less creamy straight out of the tube than traditional oil paint. However, if you add linseed oil to your paint you can achieve a creamier consistency, identical to traditional oils. Remember: water mixable oils are water soluble and not water-based—they are still formulated with linseed oil and pigments just like regular oil paints, but have been chemically modified to accept water molecules.
Depending on your painting process, another benefit of water mixable oils is that they dry more quickly than traditional oils. They also tend to dry darker than they appear when wet, which is important to take into consideration. Water mixable oils will stay workable on the palette and canvas for about 8 hours, but will be dry to the touch and ready to be painted over in 24 hours. The paint layers dry slowly by oxidation (coming into contact with air) just like traditional oils, so it still takes some time to dry.
One of the criticisms of water mixable oils is that they appear duller than traditional oil paints. They definitely have little more of a matte look after drying and do not have the same glossy finish of traditional oils, but a final varnish can be added to replicate this traditional look.
- Water mixable oils behave like traditional oil paints in almost every way.
- Because no solvents are necessary, you will avoid contact with irritating chemicals and fumes.
- Those who are sensitive or allergic to solvents can use water mixable oils without worry.
- Water mixable oil paints still contain linseed oil and have that great oil paint smell.
- For those who want a simple cleanup or want to travel or paint outdoors, water mixable oils are just easier to deal with.
- Water mixable oils are perfect for plein air painting because of their transportability and easy cleanup.
- Water mixable oils do not have the same glossy finish of traditional oils, but a final varnish can be added to replicate this look.
- Water mixables tend to dry darker than they appear when wet, which is important to take into consideration while working on a painting.
- Water mixable oils may not appear as opaque and vibrant as traditional oils when thinned with a lot of water.
- Too much oil can cause paint to be unstable and “alligator” and too much water or medium can cause water mixable paint to crack as it dries; similar issues can occur with traditional oils as well.
- When using water mixable oils, you should paint fat over lean, just like with traditional oils.
- Paint texture and viscosity can vary greatly across brands, but a couple of drops of oil can make thicker water mixable oils indistinguishable from traditional oil paints. If a paint is too sticky or thick straight out of the tube, just add a 1-2 drops of linseed oil at a time, until you achieve the consistency you desire.
- Water mixable oils work well for impasto and result in a nice thick texture when applied with a palette knife—just like traditional oils.
- You may also use water-mixable compatible mediums to thin the paint or change its viscosity.
- You can clean brushes with baby oil, water and dish detergent
Brands That Manufacture Water Mixable Oil Paint:
We carry the first three online, if you want to follow the links and explore your options right now!
- Winsor & Newton (Artisan Water Mixable Oil Color)
- HK Holbein (Duo Aqua Oil)
- Reeves (Reeves Water Mixable Oil)
- Martin/F. Weber Co. (wOil)
- Grumbacher (Max Artists’ Oil Colors)
- Daniel Smith (Daniel Smith Water Soluble Oil Colors)
- Royal Talens (Cobra)