This month, I found myself falling in love with oil painting. I have never identified as a painter. I was surprised to be enamored with the process when I started an oil painting course this semester. Maybe this is a curse; as I’ve heard the environmental impact of the medium is undeniably severe. Some internet perusing brought me to Artful Scientist, the blog of Miles Martin. Martin is an artist and scientific communicator based in San Diego. In 2019, Martin wrote of similar concerns about the medium, in his “Science of Painting” series. This post and one by artist Sophie Ploeg inform my current understanding of the issue.
The toxicity of oil painting is not a result of the oil paints themselves, for the most part. With the exception of Lead White and Cadmium pigments, oil paints are essentially non-toxic to people. The body of most oil paints are made with food-grade flaxseed oil, typically labeled as “linseed” oil when used in paint. Martin denotes that this ingredient “isn’t of great environmental concern.”
Turpentine and mineral spirits are commonly used to manipulate the texture, opacity and hue of oil colors. These bad boys are the villains of the story. To clean oil brushes, one must agitate the bristles with a solvent, like these. The paint comes off easily when I utilize the solvent sink at my university for this job. With the ocean in view from the painting studio window, it is hard not to consider where these chemicals end up after I am done. Unfortunately, even with proper disposal, mineral spirits are regularly seeping into the ground, and polluting the immediate watershed. These chemicals negatively affect marine life, which in turn harms the greater ecosystem.
Currently, I use Gamsol, a refined mineral spirits product. This product came as a part of the professor-recommended kit I purchased for the painting course. Gamblin, the producer of Gamsol, claims that their product is “the safest solvent that allows oil painters to utilize all traditional painting techniques without compromise.” And in an article from their website, Gamblin claims to be “a colorhouse that promises to be kind to artists and the environment.” The extent of their kindness is unknown to me, as I am still familiarizing myself with the impact of these materials on the natural world. Going forward, I plan to utilize solvent-free materials for application and cleansing purposes in my practice. Apparently, linseed and safflower oils can be used in place of such nasty solvents. After I run out of Gamsol, I plan to invest in some solvent-free oil painting solutions. That is- if I cannot shake this new love.