Working Out The Kinks of Water-Mixable Oils

Terra Bella CLashley Underpainting-I paint with both water-mixable oils and traditional oils, and I get a wide variety of responses when people discover this. Everything from rude negativity (“what crap is that?”) to nods from those in the know (“I use them too, aren’t they great!”). It’s rather funny, as most art supplies don’t have groupies or naysayers like this… The lovers and the haters of water-mixables.

You would think there would be a safe middle ground, but unfortunately, outright suspicion of water-mixable paints (oil and water shouldn’t mix, right?); or rejection of new science as bogus, can make artists retreat to tried-and-true materials. But technological advances have given us: lightfast pigments, more colors, and safer paint than ever before. The old masters would KILL to have our paint choices, I’m sure. So, let’s take another look at water-mixable paints with an open mind.

Water-mixable oils (also known as water-miscible or water-soluble) can be a great asset to oil painters if you know some secrets to get started. I’ve had more than one artist friend confess they tried them, but ‘tossed them all out’ wondering why anyone likes them at all. However, if used correctly, you will see why many artist’s are very excited about these paints.

Terra Bella Pond

What’s Not To Love?

Water-mixable oils sound great: artist-grade pigments, easy clean-up, no solvent needed. They also dry faster in general than traditional oils thus great for travel, or under-painting with ‘lean’ layers.

Looking Past the Label: A Little Science Lesson
Yes, they are ‘real’ oils, just like traditionally formulated ones. Water-mixable paints in the tube contain no water, only oil/binder, pigment, and additives such as resin or emulsifiers. The big factor for most people is understanding how this ‘oil and water’ idea even can work. However, there is solid science behind the paint which has been around since 1990. Different brands of paint use different elements to allow the oil and water to mix. Either a fatty acid molecule in the oil has been modified or removed to allow for binding with water, or an emulsifier has been added. Sometimes it’s a mix of factors. This is not necessarily a scary thing or ‘too new’ to use without question (like genetically altered food); oil and water have been mixed for centuries to make creamy things like mayonnaise, or tempera paint, with egg as an emulsifier. Also, we must remember that artists for centuries have been experimenting with new ways to paint. Someone invented oil painting in the 15th century after all… It was not always around.

Benefits Of Water-Mixables:
Better For Your Health, as there is no need for solvent. Simply use water as your ‘solvent’ to thin the water-mixable paints and for clean up. You can tone your canvas, wipe areas out, or create a ‘watercolor’ thin under painting. Solvents are not healthy as all have a warning label, including so-called ‘green’ ones. Newer OMS solvents (Odorless Mineral Spirits) such as Gamesol still gass off harmful vapors, you just can’t smell them, unlike turpentine which has a powerful smell. Allergies to solvent can develop suddenly or gradually over time. You may not even know you have a sensitivity (this can appear as headache or fatigue; or more severely as hives, light-headedness and shortness of breath). Interestingly, solvent as a paint medium/thinner has not been in use all that long in the history of oil painting… so perhaps we should be taking a look at the archival nature of solvent in oil painting as well? But that’s another blog post I think…

OldLashleyPaintingOPA-1Faster Dry Time. Water-mixables dry in about half the drying time of traditional oils. The paints actually have two dry times. For thin watery mixes (like a watercolor wash or canvas tone) the water evaporates rapidly and is mostly dry to the light touch in 5-10 minutes. You can still re-wet areas to wipe out or re-mix. At this stage it is possible to start more direct painting, or layering with thicker strokes. To let a thin tone or grisalle layer fully dry (via oxidation) wait at least until the next day. The thicker the paint application (the less water used), the more your dry times will increase. Paint that contains a lot of oil already such as Cadmiums can take longer to dry.

Clean Up Is Very Easy. Just use soap and water. Also great for travel.

Excellent For Layers/OK to Intermix With Other Oils. Because the paints dry quickly if you know you like to layer, you can start your artwork with water-mixable oil paints and then move into more full-paint layers, or on to traditional oils (since the dry time is more with traditional oils they are therefore ‘fatter’). You can inter-mix traditional and the water-mixables if you are painting directly. Once you cross over a 20% ratio (approximately) the water-mixable quality gets lost. You can intermix brands of water-mixable paints. Although manufactures say it’s safe to intermix these paints with other media (watercolor, acrylic, alkyd) I would be cautious here. I believe after researching this paint, that with too much mixed stuff it is hard to control the dry times of the paint layers. The only trouble I ever had with these paints was when I used Alkyd Titanium White and Quick Dry water-mixable gel medium for heavy applications of pastel whites (fine cracks developed after a few years, in a few studies done on panel).

Traditional oil paint still has it’s place, especially for those who like a long time to maneuver wet paint on the canvas. Currently my favorite way to work is to start with water-mixable in one or a few colors, and then switch to traditional oils for the longer dry time. I still paint without any solvent when using traditional oils and use a variety of techniques to get by. I freeze my brushes for the next paint session (used paint is still in the brush). If I need a clean brush I’ll dip it repeatedly in oil to free excess pigment.

Drawbacks Of Water-Mixables:
Avoiding Sticky Paint. If you are not careful with how you use the paints they can become sticky, which is very unpleasant to paint with. Avoid using the paints with a small amount of water, as they don’t thin very well with a few dots of water (to make it more viscous). Instead, a little water-mixable linseed oil or water-mixable medium will work wonders to make the paint more spreadable. Ironically, it’s fine to thin the paints with a lot of water (to make a puddle that looks like milk) to start your drawing or ‘block-in’ stage, grisalle layer, or to tone the canvas. Remember, that this watery layer should only be an under-painting. Layers that are too thin will not stand up to the ravages of time and are not archival. Some paint brands such as Cobra are inherently more creamy right from the tube, thus avoiding the sticky range for the most part.
Paints can freeze more quickly in winter conditions if you paint outside in the winter.
Rain Texture. Paints will not work well in the rain or mist (obviously), although rain can create some interesting texture effects, so this could be a good thing.
Paints can dry with a more matte finish, but a simple varnish layer, or working with a medium or a touch of oil will fix this.

Will These Paints Last?
Remember these are ‘real’ oils (not alkyd or acrylic) and we know oils last for centuries if they are painted on a proper surface with good techniques (‘fat-over-lean,’ etc.) and cared for. Studies so far show these paints to be very archivally sound. I will say that although current and past scientific studies were referenced frequently, (I did talk to a technician who worked in a lab), no manufacture provided me with actual papers or concrete published studies with hard data. So, I’d say more sharing can be done in this arena. On a personal note, I have a painting that was done with Max (Grumbacher) paints on canvas in 1998 that has a paint film in perfect condition with no cracks or color distortion (I keep it to remind me about my early oils). It’s been carted around the country in several moves and stored in less than ideal conditions in the back room or unheated garage.

Christine Lashley OPA Tree ArtBrand Comparison/Reviews of Water-Mixable Paints:
There are several major paint manufacturers of water-mixable oil paints: Grumbacher (Max – nice, great colors, but can be stiff), Holbien (Duo – very nice, a bit more expensive) and Winsor & Newton (Artisan – can be smelly, contains only ‘hue’ colors, and has somewhat less pigment load, also can remain sticky when dry), and Royal Talens (Cobra – newer brand, very nice buttery consistency, yet some colors are ‘off’ such as the too-pale cadmium yellows and a too-strident French Ultramarine). Newer brands have come on the market: such as Weber (sOil), Lukas (Berlin), Daniel Smith, and Reeves, I have not tried these. Each brand seems to have their quirks. I use a mix of MAX, Cobra, and Duo paints.

(For full disclosure I don’t work for any paint manufacture and currently do not have any contract with any company to promote their paints.)

As you can see there is more to explore with water-mixable paints, but they do offer a wealth of choices and opportunity for the artist of today. Perhaps in time these will be the new way to paint with oils, and we will scorn the old days of when people painted with that awful toxic solvent!

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  • Michael Shibley

    Very practical, informative and interesting article. Thanks, Christine.

    • Christine Lashley

      Thank you Michael, I’m glad you found it interesting!

      • Michael Shibley

        It resolves for me the dllemma of when/how to use the watermixable paints and then making the switch to standard oil paints. I like the runny nature of the water mixables for doing the blocking out at the beginning. It feels more “watercolory” at that point before moving on to the regular oil paints. We have discussed this before but the article helped me understand the process better.

  • Magda

    Great, but I have some observations. It’s better to not mix them with water, as colors will fade. Winsor and Newton Artisan do have real pigments. Yes, they have hues, but also have the real thing, cadmium, cobalt, cerulean.

    • Christine Lashley

      Magda, thanks for your info and comment. I do think it is fine to thin with water. Watery paints can shift a bit in value like acrylic or gouache. Maybe you noticed that? The water evaporates out rather quickly from the paint layer and then become a ‘regular oil’ thus the two dry times I mentioned in the article (one for water, and one for the oxidation process). Thinned paint will be
      fine color-wise as it ages (except marginally lightfast colors like
      true Alizarin – which would be true of any media – watercolor, acrylic,
      etc.), but we know that oils over time get thinner and more brittle,
      thus the need to have thicker layers. I referenced many studies for this
      (including a current one with the National Gallery of Art) and no
      studies have found that adding water will fade the
      color. It does look like Winsor and Newton now have ‘real’ pigments. Manufactures are often changing things in their line. Thanks for noting that.

  • bernardvictor

    Very interesting article. I used to paint using W&N but did not find that they compared with regular oils, as they did not seem to have the same “feel”. However I am interested in trying some of the other makes. Have you any experience with using them thickly with knives in an impasto manner. I’d be interested in reading if you have any comments on using them this way.

    • Christine Lashley

      Hi, yes, water-mixables will work well with knives. Cobra or Duo might be your best bet for brand as they are very creamy right from the tube. Cobra is the most creamy. Max might be too stiff for your needs, although some of their colors are wonderful (“Thio Violet” – a Quin. Magenta – is fabulous). In general, it’s good to remember with these paints to start with very watery mixes to draw and block in, and then to switch to full-on paint (with no water added, but instead adding a drop or two of oil to increase flow). You might also try some Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel or other mediums depending on the texture you desire. Although Gamblin’s gel is an Alkyd (and not water-mixable), it’s been working well with the paints so far, and is different than the one I wrote about in the article (that had a strong smell and caused cracks after a few years in some of my studies). By adhering to the less than 20% rule you can make use of the gel with your paints and still clean up with just soap-and-water. I’ve just started experimenting with this gel and other mediums after I wrote the above post. Cobra makes some great mediums that are new to the market to complement their paints. I have not tried them all but plan to. Have fun, and thanks for your comment.

      • Christine Lashley

        I should also add that these paints might never feel 100% like traditional oils to some artists, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. They have many wonderful qualities. I have problems if I use any solvent, this is why I have been using and liking these water-mixable paints. It may take a little time for you to adjust. Remember, I still can use my traditional oils, I just don’t use any solvent.

        • mollymu

          Do you have an article on using the traditional oils without solvent . I am going to be painting in a 10×15 foot room so solvents aren’t going to work . Thanks

      • bernardvictor

        As I was just about to top up my oil paints I think I will give then a trial. Should be good for plein air painting.

  • Linda Hollett-Bazouzi

    Great article, Christine! I have used these oils for 10 years (several brands).
    Two notes:
    1) The manufacturers caution against using too much water, because it will weaken adhesion to the paint surface. For greater thinning they suggest the modified mediums (like their linseed oil) instead, and reserve the water (and soap) for clean-up. That being said, I’ve used it with quite a bit of water, and tested it later with little problem.
    2) Conservators are currently developing tests they can use to determine if an oil is traditional or water-soluble after it has dried. It seems that once dry, the chemical composition is the same—which makes sense, when you understand how the oils are modified. They are trying to see how, if any, it will impact THEIR work in the future. I want to say this is happening at the National Gallery, could be Tate or Getty, or a collaboration. I cannot find my notes.

    • Christine Lashley

      Hi Linda, yes the National Gallery in DC is currently doing a study and has original samples of MAX paints they are working with. They are still working with the data. Winsor and Newton did their own study. I agree with you that all very watery mixes (like a watercolor) should be overpainted and not exist on their own because they will be too thin to stand the test of time… this is the same principal that would apply to any mixes thinned with solvent. I do think that water-mixables + water are far superior to traditional oil + solvent for an underpainting as they are ready to paint over sooner! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Suellen Grove McCrary

    Thanks for this article! I’ve been concerned about the toxins in the air when toning and doing initial block-ins with paint thinned so heavily with solvents.
    I’ll give water soluble paints a try for this instead.

    • Christine Lashley

      Good luck, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

  • Terry Sauve

    I switched to the water mixable oil when I was pregnant with my son 10 years ago. What I miss most is using the natural hair/bristle brushes. I struggled for a while and then read that it is suggested to use synthetic brushes that don’t get soft in water. I also found that when I mixed in water they dried darker looking. Has anyone found a way to use them with real brushes? thanks!

    • Christine Lashley

      Yes, it is better to use synthetic brushes for the watery drawing/block-in stage. I like Silver Bristlon brushes. If you paint directly (with some oil) and use no water you should be able to use your natural hair bristle brushes.

  • Theresa Grillo Laird

    I’m not a fan of them Christine, though the adea of safer and greener is appealing. I don’t like the way they handle disappearing like water under the brush rather then the stroke going on forever like butter. I also found the Windsor and Newton ones to have weird flat chalky colors. I’ve never tried the duo or tried to use them just for the initial block in.

    • Christine Lashley

      Teresa, there is no need to give up traditional oils if you like them, just try a tube or two of these for any easy underpainting with no solvent. For travel these paints are great. Any chalky look can be varnished later for shine, or if you add the oil during painting that also adds shine (as will a medium). Play with your materials Teresa! It’s fun!

  • Lauren Peterson Art

    Thanks so much for this very informative article! I have wanted to try water mixable oils for awhile and spent time researching the different brands but never took the plunge. I have gone solvent-free as well and that is working fine but would love to try these at some point. I’m wondering if you would be willing to post your palette colors and brands. I would find that so helpful!

    • Christine Lashley

      Lauren, sure… my supplies are listed on my website. Click the ‘classes’ tab and a link will be at the top. MAX Ultramarine Blue and Thio Violet, and Cobra Transparent Oxide are my favorite three tubes for underpainting.

  • Bonnie Lee

    Solvent exposure has been an occupational hazard for me. I’ve been painting with lead based oil paint and turpentine, (sign paint) since 1982 and as a result have developed severe chemical sensitivities that ended my professional career. I also use to paint giant food advertisement pictorials as an outdoor billboard painter in the 80’s. I used only oil paints, turpentine and Smith’s cream.

    When water mixable oil paint came out I was THRILLED as I detest and loathe entirely acrylic paint. You are correct, some of the Winsor and Newton colors are too smelly for me to even paint with. I had to completely change my palette today because I had a reaction to the raw umber.

    Yes, as far as the feel goes there is some difference but you quickly adapt and get use to it especially if you are in a situation like I am where I don’t have the choice of using the solvent based ‘traditional’ oil paints.

    On that note, my opinion is that most artists need to get over themselves. Paint in a tube was NEW to artists at one time. Everything was new to artists at some point.

    People make art with anything that inspires them and that is the true beauty of it all.

    Crayons, spray paint, sticks, concrete, yarn, colored sand??? Just make SOME ART!!

    • Christine Lashley

      So glad you are continuing to have fun with your art…. good for you! I agree, artists need to continue to explore and find what works for them. We only have one body, so we must listen to it when it says ‘enough!’ with the smells and chemicals. If you want to, try walnut oil instead of linseed oil. M. Graham makes traditional oil paints that are odor-free and can mix with any of the water-mixables. This is my favorite combo to use for solvent-free painting, and a long time to work with ‘wet’ paint.

  • Jennifer Beaudet

    Great article! I use both, but for my thicker impasto and palette knife I like traditionals. I might try mixing the water miscible with a medium though. I started using them mainly for health reasons and the clean up is a bonus! I was diagnosed with hashimotos which has many of the same symptoms that you listed so it’s hard to say whether I was having a reaction to the oils or if it was because of my auto-immune diseases, probably a little of both. When I do use them though, I don’t mix with water, as I’ve found them to separate and get blotchy. I use walnut oil and gamsol. I’ll have to try what you’ve explained here, mixing more water. You’ve done such a nice job with your review.

  • Thank you, so much for this in-depth, from personal experience, article.
    I have never been bothered by working with oils, until very recently. Felt vaguely queasy, and couldn’t figure out ‘why’? Then I realized that after leaving the studio, the nausea would dissipate. So, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the culprit. ( unless I’ve become allergic to my own work !)
    I have invested in some acrylics . . . and never considered the water solubles. If the acrylics & me don’t jive – I know what to try next!

    • Christine Lashley

      Karen, thank you for your comment! You are right, it can be very hard to pinpoint the allergy issue. Best of luck with your materials search and finding what is good for you! Glad to have helped in any way…

  • sl

    Water-miscible oils are oil paints with their chemistry modified to mix with water, making them less toxic and safer than traditional oils and solvents. They do dry to a matte finish, but this can be overcome (if desired) with oiling out and varnish. But many artists I’ve encountered are ignorant about them or reluctant to try them, thinking that they are somehow akin to acrylics–they’re oil paint. I’ve even run into alleged “art teachers” (who have no business teaching) prevent students from using them.

    • MoLe

      been using them for years. Never thin with water. There are many different thinners, varnishes and linseed oils (especially for these water soluble oils). I use them for portraits. landscape etc. No difference to traditional oils. Best are Duo from Holbein.

  • Joy

    Yours is BY FAR THE BEST article that I’ve read on working with water mixable oils! I wonder if any kind of linseed oil will work with water mixable oils or if you really need to purchase the particular brand sold by the maker/manufacturer of the water mixable paint compan

    • Thank you! Yes you can use a tiny bit of oil of any kind. Water-mixable manufacturers now make many mediums to try as well. I use Gamblin solvent-free gel (traditional medium) and as long as you don’t cross the 20% threshhold you will be fine to retain the water-mixable properties.

  • Lon Reams

    Thank you for the information. I’ve been wanting to make the switch to water base oils for a while now but have been unsure if they hold up and behave like oils.

    I have M.S. and for the past few years, oils have made me horrible sick ever time I use them, so I’ve settled for trying to work in acrylics. (Which I don’t care for at all… drying times, etc )

    So reading this gives me hope that I can once again enjoy the freedom of working in oils!!

  • Thank you for a very well-informed description. This all makes more sense to me. As for my application, using glazes and wanting a longer drying time, I believe I’m better with traditional oils and perhaps liquin (I know, toxic!) 🙂

    • If the traditional methods work for you including solvents you are lucky that you have the option to do so. I just visited a friend’s studio to paint for a week and I was fine with the short exposure to solvent and mediums (no hives, headaches or dizziness). Just keeping yourself informed abut choices is good, you never know if you will start to react to the solvent. Happy painting!

  • Robert Kahler

    Can you use fast drying oil with water mixable oils?

    • Hi Robert, I’d stay away from quick dry mediums. The oils dry pretty fast themselves if you don’t use a lot of additional oil or Cadmium Red, which takes a while to dry. Try some of the Gamblin gel to speed drying… but not too much! Thanks for your comment.

  • Robert Kahler

    I meant to say fast dry medium

  • mollymu

    So any updates for water based oils ? I am looking to buy some and want to get the best I can . I am going to look into the Cobra brand you mentioned . Thanks

    • Not much to update… just that these oils continue to help those who need a solvent free workspace! Enjoy! I’d avoid mixing with alkyd white as that was the only time I had cracks form in the paint film. Otherwise using a small amount (5-10%) of Gamblin solvent-free gel works well with these paints to help with spread-ablility texture.

      • mollymu

        OK Thanks 🙂

  • Peach McComb

    Excellent article with lots of great information about water soluble oil paint. I work with it daily and love it!

  • katrina garner

    Loved this article! Do you use any sort of “finishing” product over your oils to create a uniform glossy or semi-glossy appearance to the painting?

    • Thank you! I use Krylon UV Archival varnish (spray) semi-gloss when paintings are dry.