Are you an artist and would like to know more about the solvents used in oil painting?
Are you confused by the many choices and types of solvents available for oil painting?
Have you ever been in an art store or shopping online for art supplies and been overwhelmed by the many manufacturers of solvents and their claims?
This blog will attempt to explain the many solvent choices and clear up any confusion you might have about this rather complex subject.
I will also give you my recommendations and tell you the solvents that I have come to favor in my nearly 20 years as a professional working artist.
Just to let you know, all of the product links in this article are affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy anything, but it doesn’t cost you any extra. Don’t worry, I’m always honest, open, impartial with my reviews – I only recommend the good stuff – but this affiliate income helps keep the site running.
Solvents Explained and Defined
Most solvents have common characteristics. They are liquids at room temperature. They are very volatile and produce vapors that can be inhaled or circulated by a ventilation system.
Most solvents are flammable liquids, and because of the wide range of potential ingredients in solvents, you should always check the label and/or material safety data sheet for a description of hazards.
More specifically, solvents can produce local or systemic (central nervous system) effects in people when vapors are inhaled or when liquids penetrate the skin. They are irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, and they may cause dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, or light-headedness.
Furthermore, in very high concentrations, inhalation of solvents can cause unconsciousness, convulsions and death.
Read my blog post about the 5 oil painting health risks to learn more about how to protect yourself from the dangers of solvents
Why Artists Need Solvents
Obviously, it is in the artist’s best interest to try to eliminate all of the adverse reactions in order to use solvents in oil painting.
Most importantly to us as oil painters, solvents dissolve oil, grease, and fats effectively. It is this property alone that propels oil painters to use solvents despite the other crude characteristics that we can certainly do without.
In fact, solvents created specifically for oil painting are made to zone in on compatibility with oil colors as the good quality of solvents, and reduce the less desirable and hazardous ones.
Although all solvents are basically harmful, there are certain solvents that do provide more of a service than a health hazard, and for this reason oil painters tend to use only a small variety of these oil soluble chemicals available.
The following is a list of solvents commonly used in oil painting, along with their own individual characteristics.
Each has its own benefits in regards to compatibility with oil paint, but each has its own drawbacks.
Top 6 solvents rated
Oil Paint Solvents - Quick Comparison Guide
|Rating||Solvent Brand Name|
|1. Excellent, my first choice. I have used Gamsol for years and it is my number one choice for my studio. It is superior both as a paint solvent and a cleaner.||Gamsol Ordorless Mineral Spirits by Gamblin BUY NOW ON AMAZON|
|2. Excellent. More environmentally friendly than other solvent choices. So if you are an environmentally conscious oil painter, you should certainly consider this solvent.||CitraSolv Citrus ThinnerBUY NOW ON AMAZON|
|3. Excellent. It has been my experience that Turpenoid is one of the most effective all around solvents for my own personal needs. It cleans my brushes well, I like the way it integrates with my oil color, and I feel safe around it.||Turpenoid BUY NOW ON AMAZON
|4. Excellent. Best choice for removing varnish.||Winsor & Newton Distilled TurpentineBUY NOW ON AMAZON|
|5. Poor. Only artist grade distilled gum turpentine is singled out for oil painting.||Gum TurpentineBUY NOW ON AMAZON
|6. Very Poor. Raw paint thinners which are not distilled are made for clean-up and dilution of commercial and house oil paints and not for fine art oil paints.||Raw Paint ThinnerBUY NOW ON AMAZON|
Rating: Excellent, my first choice
Invented because mineral spirits is such a versatile solvent in being more delicate to the skin, odorless mineral spirits allows for the effective qualities of plain mineral spirits, but eliminates some of the vapor hazards.
As such, odorless mineral spirits are a great choice for cleaning brushes as well as diluting oil color in painting.
Gamblin produces odorless mineral spirits which are better health choices because they emit lower toxic fumes and vapors.
Gamsol is Gamblin’s key product in this area. It has been scientifically formulated to perform well as both a solvent and cleaner, but at the same time being much safer, emitting less toxic fumes.
I have used Gamsol for years and it is my number one choice for my studio. It is superior both as a paint solvent and a cleaner.
Rating: Excellent. More environmentally friendly than other solvent choices.
A by-product of citrus peel liquer, citrus thinner is used as a substitute for mineral spirits as it effectively cleans brushes and dilutes oil paint well. However, it is not effective in breaking down damar resins.
It has a yellowish color and a slight citrus odor. It is free of petroleum distillates, mineral spirits and other synthetics, and is classified as an extra mild thinner.
The benefit over mineral spirits is that it tends to speed up the drying time of the oil paint when blended with it.
Citra Solv Thinner is also more environmentally friendly than other solvent choices. So if you are an environmentally conscious oil painter, you should certainly consider this solvent.
A very popular synthetic solvent classified as a petroleum hydrocarbon, Turpenoid was created as an alternative to mineral spirits and is odor free.
It can be substituted for turpentine or mineral spirits in all painting functions, but also is not effective in diluting damar.
It is also a practical clean up solvent.
It has been my experience that Turpenoid is one of the most effective all around solvents for my own personal needs. It cleans my brushes well, I like the way it integrates with my oil color, and I feel safe around it.
Moreover, damar resins (the only material insoluble in Turpenoid) are often avoided in oil painting today because of the yellowing tendency and brittle qualities. So, I find that I usually do not need to have turpentine on hand.
Rating: Excellent. Best choice for removing varnish
Distilled turpentine is a fast evaporating highly refined essential oil with strongest thinning and brush cleaning power of all artists grade solvents.
Best choice for removing varnish.
It is also less likely to deteriorate with age.
#5. Gum Turpentine
Turpentine, commonly found in hardware stores, is the most abrasive solvent used for artistic use. It has also been the most traditional material for diluting oil paints.
Turpentine is available in different forms, so only artist grade distilled gum turpentine is singled out for oil painting.
Turpentine is generally not a good solvent to use for cleaning brushes as it tends to be harsh on the bristles. It also tends to leave a gummy residue when used in oil painting because it contains impurities.
However, when working with damar resins found in some mediums and varnishes, turpentine is most effective.
Another drawback is that turpentine is caustic on the skin, causing irritation, and emits harmful vapors.
You must be very careful to use adequate ventilation when working with gum turpentine. I also recommend wearing protective gloves and goggles when using such a caustic solvent.
Rating: Very Poor
Paint thinners are simply synthetic variations of natural based solvents such as turpentine or mineral spirits.
They are more useful for cleanup and not recommended for working with oil paints as a medium.
Plain paint thinner, such as the types that are available in Home Depot or Lowes, are not recommended for fine art oil paints.
Raw paint thinners which are not distilled are made for clean-up and dilution of commercial and house oil paints and not for fine art oil paints.
Click here to learn more about the top artist oil paint brands I recommend.
Let us know your thoughts or experiences with solvents in the comments below.