How to choose paints: Is Oil Painting Really That Toxic?

As an art teacher, I hear very frequently from my students, who is signing up for my art classes, that oil-painting is toxic and acrylic is a better choice. Having worked with both acrylic and oil for years, I can impartially compare them and affirm that oil has much more opportunities than any other medium. However, the question is still there: is it toxic or not.

I’ll try to be brief and straightforward and say what I usually answer to my clients.

Misconception 1: Oil paints have a lot of toxic chemicals

Yes, they do have chemicals, as other kinds of paints do, but those chemicals are not necessarily toxic. Basically, oil paints consist of pigments, oil, colour enhancers, and fillers. Let’s take a look at each of them.

There are no special poisonous pigments for oil paints. Saying that, I mean the same pigments are used in manufacturing of all kinds of paints. Whether it’s acrylic, watercolours, pastel or gouache ¬– pigments used are the same.

Oil used in paints is absolutely safe as it’s usually linseed oil. However, cooking oil and painting oil are differently processed (we’ll discuss this in the future), but generally there is nothing toxic in there. Do you eat oil? Yes? Why do you think then to smell it more toxic than to eat it?

Colour enhancers usually include Arabic gum, stand oil, dammar, or wax. Some of them can be used in other kinds if paints, like in watercolours or gouache.

What does make paints being toxic then? Some cheap fillers. In fair good paints manufacturers usually use barium sulphate as fillers, while in cheap paints there can be turpentine and some other toxic chemicals.

So, the solution is obvious: buy good paints, where pigment load is 50-85% and no fillers. Yes, these paints will be more expensive. However, you’ll enjoy better quality with no bad chemicals. Paints will be more concentrated, colours brighter, and smell better.

Misconception 2: Oil paints have cadmiums and cobalts, which are toxic

According to some studies, cadmiums and cobalts can cause cancer or birth defects. However, cadmiums and cobalts are kinds of pigments that can be used in acrylic, watercolour, pastels and any other paints too. If you’re afraid that they can be dangerous for you, choose paints with no cadmiums or cobalts, that’s it.

Misconception 3: Oil painting requires brush cleaning with chemicals, which is toxic

It’s not necessary to clean your brushes in turpentine or any other brush cleaners. For brush cleaning I use regular thin cooking oil and it works very well. Some our students wash hog-bristle and synthetic brushes with dishwashing detergent and dry them. That also works, if you’re not that lazy as I am. Is there anything toxic in cleaning brushes with cooking oil or in dishwashing detergent? I don’t think so.

Misconception 4: White colour used in oil paints is toxic

It’s used to be like that 40 years ago when artists used lead white. Nowadays, we use either zinc or titanium white. Zinc white is based on zinc oxide, which is also used in baby diaper rush remedies. Titanium white is based on titanium oxide and it’s the least toxic pigment as even food producers widely use it, for example in bleaching flour. If you eat titanium oxide, why is it more toxic to paint with it?

I believe I’ve covered the most common misconceptions about oil painting toxicity. So, oil painting may be toxic and may be not, if you choose right paints, right thinners and right cleaners. Enjoy non-toxic oil painting!

Elena Perelman,

RUSART Art Supplies Owner

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