How to paint with water soluble oils?
My exposure to this marvel of modern technology came in the early 2000s, on a recommendation from a colleague. The concept of oil colors being mixable with water certainly went against everything we had known and I was keen to test them. Initially I purchased a few tubes from a single manufacturer and hadn’t really given them much though, until recently. My goal was to thoroughly test water soluble oils and see if I have a viable use for them in my artwork.
What are water soluble oils?
A breakthrough in color development does not come around that often. The last big one, could be argued, came with the invention of acrylic polymer pigments in the 1950s. The development of these non-solvent colors came amid mounting pressure from various institutions, concerned over the toxicity of oils and their various mediums.
With the introduction of water mixable paints in the late 1980s, manufacturers introduced a product that was as flexible as traditional oils while posing substantially less toxicity dangers. Although water soluble oils are thinnable with water, they should not be mistaken as anything but oil colors. When water evaporates the remaining oil still goes through various drying stages much like traditional oils do whereas acrylics and watercolors are completely dry after the water evaporates. And lastly, unlike watercolor or gouache, water soluble oils cannot be reactivated with water once dry.
How do water soluble stack up against the traditional oils?
You may find, if you chose to work with water mixable oils, that the texture varies across various manufacture brands. You may have to experiment to see what brand works best for your methods. I have found Grumbacher or Holbein to be closest in texture and performances to traditional oils. They also carry higher quality pigment then some of the other student grade brands. So are water mixable oils the best of both worlds? Lets see: (Cadmium orange was used for all examples)In the first exercise I wanted to see how the water mixable oils felt straight out of the tube vs my traditional Gamblin oils. On the left is the water soluble brand and it felt a tad bit stickier then my regular oils on the right. By adding a drop or two of oil, water mixable colors flowed with the brush virtually identically as my other colors.
For the second experiment I wanted to add some oil to compare transparency and consistency of brush marks. Both of the colors behaved similarly through the brush, but a noticeable difference could be seen in pigmentation. My traditional oils were much more opaque and could carry a brush mark further then water soluble oils could.
If you are interested in thick impasto work, you can rest knowing that water soluble oils performed as well as tradition oils did. The strokes and the vibrancy of both oils are similar when applied with a knife. For the water soluble oils I used a Winsor and Newton water mixable impasto medium.
And finally, I wanted to see the consistency of color when thinned with water on the left vs turpentine on the right. The brush mark is held better with traditional oils then with water soluble oils. Furthermore, when adding water to water mixable oils, the color became chalky and did not flow as well. Much like when thinning with oil, adding water to water soluble oils will render the color less opaque.
Will I switch to water soluble oils?
Water soluble oils have come a long way since their introduction of more then 25 years ago. They certainly incorporate the flexibility of traditional oils, the easy clean up with a less toxic painting environment. However they still lack in a number of different aspects, namely fluidity and paint quality. Furthermore, traditional oils can be used today in a far safer manner than in the past, with the advent of ventilation, safer oils and solvent free gels. If you do plan on trying water soluble oils, I can definitely recommend them as they are versatile, inexpensive and behave much like traditional oils in many aspects. I , however am sticking to my traditional oils.
Here are a few parting tips for using water soluble oils:
-Water soluble oils are perfect when traveling as many airlines may restrict transportation of traditional solvents.
-Do not use too much water, as it may get trapped between layers and cause cracking. It will also cause your color to be sticky.
-I recommend only using water as thinner for initial washes of underpainting. Try thinning with oil or other water soluble mediums offered for subsequent layers.
-Try using water soluble product line exclusively; ex water soluble linseed oil.
-Be careful not to use medium and water as this will cause your paint to be sticky.
One of the most important things an art student can learn is how to have proper brush control when making color strokes. Executing a brush stroke that resonates confidence takes many years of learning and constantly refining one’s abilities.
The first concern should be your posture whether sitting or standing, whichever you find most comfortable (note: Standing is always preferable over sitting as it will teach you to constantly move and evaluate your painting from afar). The brush should be an extension of your arm and not a utensil of some kind. When making brush strokes do so with your whole arm through one single fluid movement without too much flickering of the wrist. The brush should be held firmly as if you were holding a comb. Getting away from holding your brushes like pencils will seem daunting at first but with time will impart greater control and confident strokes.
Secondly, you cannot make brush strokes without applying enough paint. I see this time and again with students, where little pea sized dabs of paint are placed on their palette. They try to paint a full painting maximizing what they’ve limited themselves to. They do this by making excessive brush strokes on their painting back and forth with limited amount of paint on their brush. The key is to squeeze out more paint then you think is necessary and constantly reload your brush. Once you’ve arranged your color palette and pre mixed your values, here is a 2 step process in making sure your every brush stroke matters:
1. Unless you are vigilant about cleaning your brushes after every color application, you will find that after some time, your palette will lose its color vibrancy. Everything will become duller and grayer. This is inevitable since your brushes will retain some of the previous color in it, when you mix the next color batch. One way to avoid this as mentioned is to clean and clean; yet another more practical is to use multiple brushes for multiple colors.
However, if you are like me and don’t want a hassle of cleaning multiple brushes every day or after every stroke, applying color to your brush with a palette knife could be your solution.
The concept is pretty straight forward. Instead of mixing your color with your brush on your palette, do so with a knife and then transfer the oil paint on to your brush. You will find that you will be less wasteful and the color will retain its vibrancy better.
2. Once you’ve loaded your bush with paint, now is the time to apply it as mentioned earlier. Hold the brush straight out and make 1 to 3 strokes at most and then reload. Your brush should be at an angle so the paint flows on to your surface seamlessly. As you can see below, I’m holding the brush at an angle which will facilitate this easier.
What you want to try and avoid is holding the brush incorrectly (as illustrated below) and applying the paint perpendicularly to your canvas. Instead of transferring color from your brush to your canvas, what this will do is disturbed the below layers. If you’ve loaded your brush as indicated in step 1, some of it will transfer on to your surface but not as much as you’d like.
Making strong and calculated brush strokes is the cornerstone of any successful painting. Remember the two step process of loading color and applying at the perfect angle and you will find that your paintings are more alive.
Although the techniques are more applicable to my direct alla prima painting style, they can be useful for other painting methods. One must always strive to create visually refined paintings by applying and maintaining properly tested painting techniques from holding brushes to final application of paint strokes. Happy painting.