How To Paint Safely with Oil Paints

 In beginner artists

We’ve had a lot of artists come in, interested learning how to paint with oils. We love oils, and we encourage you to explore new mediums. However we often see artists unaware of the health risks caused by oil paints. This article is not to discourage you from using oils, but to help you use them safely. We’ll go through what you need to know in order to begin working with oil paints.


Safety Tips For Working With Oil Paints

Avoid contact with your skin. Some colored pigments are heavy metals (cadmium red, cobalt blue, etc.) which are used in both acrylic and oil paints. The oily-ness of our skin is the natural barrier for water-based paints, but it doesn’t protect you from the oil-based pigments. That means the heavy metals can enter your bloodstream. Acrylic is water based, so it’s safer to work with. That’s why we recommend acrylic for beginners.

An artist's pair of painterly hands.

The best protection is using plastic gloves! Use disposable gloves because you don’t want to reuse them. Whenever you paint, always have a box of gloves near. This is especially important when you are in the studio with other artists. Always wash your hands well.

If you use turpentine, you only need a small amount, so a small cup clipped to your palette would suffice. You don’t need turpentine to clean your brush, you can simply wipe your brush with a rag. 

One of the things artists do to get rid of dirty turpentine is they pour it down the sink, and you should never do that. The poisonous solvent goes straight into the water supply. So how do you dispose of it when it gets dirty? You let it sit in a closed container, and the sediment will settle. Clean turpentine will remain at the top, which you can pour into a new container to reuse. To dispose of the remaining sediment, wipe it with a paper towel or a rag. Then let it dry by spreading the rag out. This is extremely important because a crumpled rag that’s saturated in solvent can self ignite and cause a fire! You will then need to dispose of it at a facility that accepts hazardous waste.

An art crtiqiue after the live model session.

You’ll also need space in order to let your paintings dry. Oils take months to dry, which means they also stay smelly for that long! The fumes of the oil paints can cause a headache, so store them away from where you eat or sleep. A great place would be your garage. 

Whenever you paint with oils or use turpentine, you’ll need to have adequate ventilation.

How about water soluble oils? Although some think they are safer, treat them just as you would regular oils. They are still oil paints – they contain the same toxic pigments, and they smell just as strong, the only difference is water-soluble oil paints can be cleaned with water.

That’s it! Paint, enjoy, and stay safe.

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