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.