Water-mixable oil paints – should we use them? That’s a question I get frequently. In this video, I discuss some important differences between water-mixable oils (WMO’s), traditional oils, and acrylic paints. If you prefer to read, the full transcript is below.

Water-Mixable Oils vs Traditional Oils vs Acrylics

Final Thoughts on Water-Mixable Oils

When it comes to water-mixable oil paints, the thing I am most concerned about is that they do not dry with as hard a shell as traditional oil paints do. As you learned in the video about acrylic paints, that softer shell can cause some serious problems in the long run.

With all the limitations of WMO’s compared with traditional oil paints why not just use traditional oil paints?

Solvents like Turpentine are the toxic part of oil painting. Since we don’t need to use solvents, we really don’t need to be concerned about the health issues of traditional oils vs water-mixable oils vs acrylics.

In the end, just go with whatever will help you get out and paint as often as possible.

If you would like to see the full list of the art supplies I use read the blog post PROFESSIONAL OIL PAINTER’S SUPPLIES LIST – TOXIN FREE

Because of the incredible amount of comments on YouTube, Facebook, and this blog post, I thought it might be helpful to add this answer I gave to Lena in the Master Oil Painting Tips and Techniques Facebook group:

From Lena – “I use water soluble oils and don’t see myself investing in traditional oils. I have chemical and traditional allergies, I paint at home, and I’ve got pets. No random vlogger will persuade me to disregard my serious reasons for choosing a modern and healthier solution to painting with the richness of oil.”

Me – “I agree Lena, you shouldn’t jump ship because of some random artist. There are too many opinions out there that are based on nothing but personal experience and myth that are not accurate. If you love using WMO’s then keep at it. If you are interested in some of the recent research being done here is a snippet from a Magnetic Resonance test I read on Academia.edu (it’s not a free site unfortunately – I pay for access): “We have shown that complementary NMR and GCMS measurements can provide insight into the curing of paint films as measured by both chemical and physical properties. The research was relatively straightforward and required the greatest time investment on data collection. Comparing these two measurements shows that the addition of an emulsifier to oil paint reduces the rate of curing relative to a paint without emulsifier, and results in a less cross-linked paint film.” The research was titled “Physical and chemical properties of traditional and water-mixable oil paints assessed using single-sided NMR”. They stated that the emulsifier used to make oil paint mix with water does not allow complete cross linking and restricts the formation of the hard shell that traditional oil paints form which makes the WMO’s susceptible to future water and solvent damage. Even traditional oil paints that are not varnished are experiencing problems with effective curing due to humidity, impurities and toxins in the environment. Also, traditional oils that are manufactured with magnesium carbonate and other fillers eventually experience water and solvent sensitivity. Art is a very personal experience – I don’t want to talk anyone into or out of what they enjoy about art. I do believe however that the more accurate information we have the better choices we can make.”

Water Mixable Oils vs Traditional Oil Paints vs Acrylic Paints – Transcript

[00:00:00] OK, water-mixable oils. Should you use them or shouldn’t you? So we’re going to talk about that today and get into a little bit of the science behind it. Not a whole lot. If you want more science, I’ll talk about that in-depth sometime. But should you use water-mixable oils or not? Hmmm. It’s quite a question. Let’s delve into it.

[00:00:31] All right, so this going to be a little different because it’s just about art materials. But in our member online workshop that we do once a month, it’s kind of a question and answer we do with a Zoom room situation where we can talk back and forth and see each other. And we were talking about water-mixable oils. So the question was how good are water-mixable oils and should we use them?

[00:00:59] I would say that. So my recommendation is no. Let me describe why. And it’s a little bit different from what you might read online a bit because it’s difficult to find much information about things like this. And I’m certainly not an expert by any means, but I do have some strong opinions about it. So the reason…I’ve been using oil paints, oh, let’s see I first started using oils in 1985. Before that I was using watercolors and pastels. So I love oil paints. So I do have a little bit of a bias there. In fact, the moment I started using them, that was pretty well it for me. I just thought wow, this is it.

[00:01:49] But there are some really strong reasons besides just our own personal inclinations as to what we might prefer, to using oil paints. So a lot of people are getting into these water-mixable oils, (you’ll see it listed as a WMO or something like that) because basically the main reason is they think that it’s healthier and they think it’s so much easier to clean up. So, first of all, before we get into the science behind some of this, let me get into those two situations.

[00:02:24] So I use Turpenoid Naturals to clean my brushes and I forgot to grab that. Let me see. This right here. This is Turpenoid Naturals. I’ve been using it since the early 90s, maybe around ninety-three, four or five somewhere in there. I can’t even remember when I first started using it. When I first got it, I thought, oh great, it can also be used as a solvent and it’s non-toxic. So this is not Turpenoid, as in the mineral spirits. This is Turpenoid natural. Here there’s a big difference between the two. There is no solvent or there’s no evaporative action to this. So it doesn’t leak into the air. There are no toxic fumes, nothing from it. It’s completely harmless. You don’t get to drink it, but it is harmless, as far as getting it on your hands, there are no fumes to breathe. Anything like that. So this is what I use exclusively to clean my brushes. I don’t use soap and water or anything like that because this is so much better for my brushes than soap and water. I used to use soap and water and it did terrible things to my brushes, so I don’t use it anymore. And this stuff is all you need. It works great, but that’s for another time too. So you don’t need to use…That stuff makes for a fairly easy cleanup. There are other things you can do to clean up besides having to resort to soap and water. Even on the palette, they say it’s easy to clean up. That’s really not a good reason to use water-mixable oils. Because I’ll teach sometime how to clean up pretty quickly and easily just using that (Turpenoid Naturals).

[00:04:13] And if the paint dries on your palette because you get behind like I do, or you just don’t want to clean brushes and the palette after having painted outdoors for a few days, as happened to me many, many, many times, that stuff will dissolve old oil paint. So it’s just fantastic. So that kind of makes that a little bit moot. And if you need more on that, just email me or say in the comments you’d like to have more information about how to clean with the Turpenoid  Naturals because it’s fantastic stuff. Now it’s more expensive than just getting water out of the sink. But it’s a whole lot better overall for our brushes and for our paints, for everything that we’re doing.

[00:05:00] When it comes to the solvents, we don’t have to use solvents to do oil painting.

[00:05:07] And other than that, the pigments that are used in oil paints, it doesn’t matter if you’re using water-soluble oils, oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache, pastels, the pigment, which is where we get the color from, it’s the same. There might be a little bit of differences in how fine or not fine the particles are. But it’s really the same pigment that’s used in all of these materials that have color in them.

[00:05:38] So the pigment is all the same. That’s not gonna make it any healthier, or less healthy by using water-soluble oils. The other thing is that with.

[00:05:53] Okay, let me get this to get my mind straight on this. So the so what it comes down to, what’s the difference between them is what’s binding that pigment so that it’s not just a powder and it will actually stick to whatever it is we’re painting on whether it’s a canvas or a panel or something else. So the binder is what’s important. And in oil paint, the binder is oil and in watercolor, it’s gum arabic and with acrylic, it’s an acrylic emulsion or a plastic. So you’ll hear a lot of artists talking about how the Smithsonian is working on a lot of information about conserving these modern pigments like water-soluble oils and how to do that and that they’re not finding, yet, significant differences in all these things. There is a thing by the Getty Museum, I think a while back.

[00:06:46] Something to really think about is that, yes, water-mixable oils have been around since I think about 1990, the early 90s, something like that. But there are a lot of limitations to them that regular oils don’t have. And here’s some stuff to think about. All right, so acrylic paints, they’ve been around for a long time – more than 50 years, 60, 70, I don’t remember exactly when they…I can’t remember when they were formulated, but they’ve been around a long time and a lot of artists use them and some of them will last a long time. But if you look at conservators, acrylic paints have a lot of inherent weaknesses. And so #1 they’re terrible for the environment because they’re made from crude oil. And if we’re trying to get away from the consumption of oil around the world, then acrylics is not the way to go.

[00:07:42] Whereas oil paints are made from linseed, which is just flax. Flax is the same thing that we use to make the canvasses that often the linen canvases that we paint on made from the plant part. And then the seeds are squeezed, and that’s where we get the linseed oil. It’s just a plant. Harmless, basically, to the environment. The pigments aren’t necessarily harmless. There can be a lot of toxic pigments if we get them in the environment, but that’s gonna be the same no matter what binder we use.

[00:08:14] So the acrylic emulsion, what happens with that is…OK, so what does a binder do? The binder dries and it forms a solid hard surface so that the pigment is protected. With acrylics versus oils…oils we use like a linseed oil. It dries. It’s a hard drying. So like think of olive oil in your kitchen. Olive oil is a non-drying oil. It’ll never dry out. You can’t use it for painting with because it doesn’t form a hard shell. So we use the drying pigments. D R Y I N G if you’re having trouble understanding me, I’ve had a bit of a cough and so I’m not, my voice isn’t very clear right now.

[00:09:06] So walnut oil. This is also a drying oil like linseed oil. Safflower oil is a drying oil and poppy seed. Safflower is not as hard – doesn’t dry to as hard a surface as linseed oil. So in pointing to this, this is made with walnut oil. And then I have others like Gamblin that are, generally speaking, most of theirs are made with linseed oil. There are some that you can find like certain whites that are made with sunflower oil or safflower or poppy seed. It depends on how bright you want your white. So that’s another conversation as well.

[00:09:43] So with acrylics, they actually dry to a softer shell then oil’s do. Now in one way that’s a good thing because it’s a little bit more flexible, so they don’t tend to crack as much. They can crack and some acrylic paintings do crack, but they have less of a tendency to crack than oils because they don’t dry to his hard of a surface. That’s the reason why it’s good to paint on a solid surface like a panel rather than on a canvas, which I painted on for years and years, because canvas is flexible and the oil paint is not as flexible and it tends to have more of a tendency to crack.

[00:10:29] But with the acrylic being a softer shell, it also is less…OK, there are a few things. First, it’s more electrostatic. It’s like what happens to clothing when you put it in a dryer and all of a sudden there’s all this static electricity. It’s a lot more of that going on in the acrylic and it tends to attract dirt to it. So you put an acrylic painting up on your wall and over time it’s going to get a lot more dirt attracted to it than an oil painting will. Both of them are going to attract dirt over time. It’s just it’s in the air. We’ve got all kinds of stuff in the air that gets on the paintings. That’s why we want to varnish them.

[00:11:08] With acrylic paintings, what happens is they’re so soft that there’s even a tendency for that acrylic to actually form around the dust particles that get on it and it becomes a permanent part of the painting. You can’t get it off without scraping it out of the paint.

[00:11:28] And if you try to put a varnish on it. The problem with that is they don’t have a really, they don’t have a good water-soluble varnish. I mean, part of the reason for a varnish is to protect. And if it is if it gets sprayed with water, you don’t want that just sliding off of there or melting off of there. They do want to create a good water-soluble varnish for acrylic paintings, but they don’t have one yet. And so there aren’t really any good varnishes for acrylic paintings because the chemicals that you would use, any chemical you would use, whether it’s mineral spirits, turpentine, xylene or whatever, to get that varnish off of there is going to also affect the acrylic paint. Whereas with oil paint, they have all kinds of varnishes The best one that I know of today is the Robert Gamblin Gamvar – G A M V A R. Gamvar is a fantastic varnish. You can take it off with mineral spirits, which is one of the most harmless solvents that we can use. So the acrylic paint, conservators museums are having a really hard time with acrylic paint because it’s so hard to clean it and to take care of it because water, you don’t want to use soap and water on it. There really are no excellent ways, no good ways to clean acrylic paintings after they’ve dried and are sitting in a museum. Now most of us probably aren’t going to have our paintings sitting in a museum, so it might not be a big concern of ours. But why use a material…OK, so there are reasons. It dries faster. You can use water to thin it and things like that. So I can see some of the benefits to it.

[00:13:30] But there are so many inherent weaknesses in it compared to oil paints and oil paints are so, they’re so vivid and you can get translucence. There are so many things you can do with oils that you can’t do with acrylics and that you can’t do with water-mixable oils as well.

[00:13:50] So the water-mixable, to get back to that. It’s that soft surface of the acrylics, based primarily because it’s a plastic, that causes so many problems. But when you start playing with…Robert Gamblin, he says that he will never produce a water mixable oil. He is the oil painting guy out there. I mean, he’s the one who focuses solely on oil paints. No acrylics, no watercolors, just oil paint. And he says he’ll never produce a water-soluble oil because he doesn’t trust the science. And this guy is all over with the science. I mean, he’s right in it. He’s one of the main ones that worked with the Smithsonian with…in fact, that was how Gamvar came to exist. It was in connection with the Smithsonian. He does a lot of right in there working with the Smithsonian on oil paints and their longevity. So he’s one of the go-to guys for oil paints and he says he’ll never do that.

[00:14:58] He said, yeah, it’s really popular as a marketing thing today, in the last 20, 30 years. But he says it’s just not a good way to go for a lot of reasons. Generally speaking, the colors are not as vibrant. There are fewer colors to work with. They are not as nice to paint with. They are often sticky, it depends on the brand you get and it seems that most people like the Cobra brand. I had students who would come to my studio and sometimes they would have water-mixable oils. Every time I tried to help them with their paintings and use their paints, they were awful. But that’s…But some people say that using Cobra and some of the other brands, that the stickiness and things that can come with it are not nearly as bad – that they work great, great pigment load and all this.

[00:15:49] But to me, in the long run, when you’re thinking of varnishing it and then taking that varnish off with water-mixable oils, there are only certain ways that you can mix water and oil. Yes, I know they do this with mayonnaise and other things where they mix water and oil. But in order to do that, you have to, what is it, emulsify the oil in some way so that it will allow the water and the moisture to mix with it. And right there, there’s some tricky science that goes into that. 30 years still isn’t enough time to say that this stuff is safe.

[00:16:34] They barely start getting into needing to replace any varnishes or anything that were on those paintings. So when you start thinking about what happens with acrylic paints and all the problems they’re having, and then you look at all the things, when they start putting any anytime they start putting in extra additives, emulsifiers or some kind of agents like fillers into paint, you introduce one more step into the unknown zone because you multiply the factors of what is possible by, you know, it becomes exponential.

[00:17:12] So when like Rublev here, they probably get as close to, and Michael Harding, both of these are really excellent brands. They don’t use a lot in the way of additives and that sort of thing. GAMBLIN doesn’t either, except to make the paint shelf-stable, I guess. But then you get into some of those, this is a good color to talk about that with. This is ultramarine blue and ultramarine blue by itself, when you mix the pigment with the oil, it has a tendency to want to separate quickly from the oil. The pigment does. And it can get really…well this one, when I got this, this is Rublev ultramarine blue and you can see there is a difference between them as far as the creaminess. So when we’re used to seeing this nice, opaque kind of, well Ultramarine’s not necessarily opaque, but we see this color and it’s kind of thick and creamy, well this one’s not going to be nearly as thick and creamy as we might get with maybe a Gamblin type of ultramarine blue. But that’s because he’s really trying to keep from additives and that sort of thing.

[00:18:28] Same thing with Michael Harding. Michael Harding paints really are fantastic paints, too. So the ones from M Graham & Company, these are made with walnut oil for the most part. These are beautiful, too. So there’s a lot of great paint manufacturers out there.

[00:18:44] Rublev and Gamblin and I think Golden, are in a three-year test right now for a lot of pigments to see, because it turns out that a lot of the synthetic organic pigments aren’t as light fast as they first thought they were. They just found that out this year, like this fall or something like that. Crazy stuff. So, just because these paint manufacturers who are trying to market their products, I’m not saying they’re being disingenuous or dishonest or anything like that, I just don’t think that…my feeling is that they are relying on science or testing that isn’t thorough enough.

[00:19:30] So when I say not to use water-mixable oils, it is with the caveat that if you’re just going out to have fun, you don’t care about how long it’s going to last, or any of that, or if you’re thinking “hey, I’m probably not going to be around in 40 years” maybe you’re 90 or something. You think “I’m not gonna live to be a hundred and thirty or whatever. So you’re not too concerned about it. Overall, that’s not a big deal to you. Use whatever is going to work great for you and really do that anyway? But if you are particular about the longevity of your paintings and you try to do everything you can to make them as archival, archival’s kind of a pseudoword, it’s not that accurate. But you want them to last as long as possible, then I would suggest that you stick with traditional oils.

[00:20:28] You can do so much more with them overall in the long run, just with the techniques, the brushes you can use. So with water, mixable oils, they have problems with using a lot of natural hair bristle brushes because they’re always using water and water’s terrible on natural hair bristles. Just think about your own hair and washing with soap and water and all that. It’s not good on the hair. It’s better when we leave the natural oils for a while, right? Well, with regular brushes, same thing. Oil is great for them. It conditions them and all of that. You know, the non-drying oils, we don’t want them to dry out. But soap and water are not, it takes away the natural oils in the brushes. And so they try to find good synthetic brushes to use instead a lot for the water-mixable oils. They tend to work better.

[00:21:20] Why limit anything like that when there’s there’s nothing inherently unhealthy about regular oils?

[00:21:28] Now people talk about the solvents – don’t use solvents.

[00:21:32] I did experiments with like Spike oil (lavender oil) because they use it in aromatherapy and all that. I wouldn’t suggest that. It is an evaporative solvent that’s not supposed to be as toxic as something like turpentine. But when I used it, I could feel that flush in my face. Just from my own personal experience, being a little bit in tune with my body, I would say to stay away from it because I think there’s some…that evaporative nature of it is not healthy.

[00:22:05] With mineral spirits, I did use mineral spirits for 30 years and never felt anything negative from it. I used the Gamsol because it’s the, well to me it’s the best, from what I’ve found, it is the best mineral spirits to use. But if you have any if you have like a super sensitivity to solvents at all, then don’t use mineral spirits.

[00:22:28] I’ve been going without mineral spirits as an experiment for about six or seven years now. I just use a little bit of walnut oil, just like right here, in my paints when I want to have a bit more fluidity, especially like in the first wash stages of the painting. That’s all it needs. Otherwise, you can use paint straight from the tube. There’s no reason to do anything else.

[00:22:50] The only advantage that the water soluble oils have in that department is you can use water, but you can’t use just like a few drops of it because it causes problems with it. You’re supposed to use it as a…you can get it washy, but then what are you doing? It’s the same with mineral spirits. If you use too much mineral spirits, you’re taking away, you’re evaporating or losing a lot of the binder that’s in the paint. That’s not good for the paints either. So no matter what you’re using, you don’t want to use too much of it, whether it’s mineral spirits or, and when they say to make a wash like you do with acrylics, with water. With oil paints, all you’re doing is weakening the oil paint, and one person I said that was a real proponent of water-mixable oils, they said, don’t…you know you can do these nice soupy washes with water, and this water mixable oil paint, but you don’t want to leave that as a permanent layer. You want to paint on top of that. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. That means that if any of that, because for me, I do a lot of dry brushing, layering, but I’ll still have evidence of that first wash coming through. And then if that’s not a really permanent layer, then that means that in the future, there’s going to be some problems with that, especially even if I put a varnish over it, once they take that varnish off, whatever they used to do that with is probably going to take off some of that original layer that I have on there, those washes, and then I’m going to lose why I put that wash on there in the first place. Oftentimes when I use put a wash underneath, I like some of that to come through or I might even leave quite a bit of it depending on how to what kind of a refined or finish state I bring the painting to. That’s limiting right there. And I don’t see the logic in that.

[00:24:43] With oil paints, as long as you don’t use too much mineral spirits or you use no mineral spirits at all, just paint straight from the tube, or maybe with a little bit of walnut oil, you’re going to be good to go. In fact, there are paintings to be around for more than 100 years where the artists used soupy poppy seed. They use poppy seed oil as their medium and they have this stuff run…just dripping down and you can see the remnants of it at the bottom. They use that as part of the technique, the look of it, and it is perfectly in good shape over a hundred years later. So I don’t know that we’ll be able to say that about a lot of these other materials that we use. So if you’re worried about the health of it because you’re super sensitive to solvents, then just use the oil paint straight from the tube, but use the traditional oils, not the water-mixable oils, because in the long run you can just do a whole lot more with it.

[00:25:44] There, there’s just…they say that that they’ve been using them for a long time, that everything’s just fine. I don’t trust that. So if you decide to use water-mixable oils, just remember in the back of your mind that they don’t know really the problems that are going to come in the future from those things. And remember that you are limited in some of the techniques and things that you can do with them compared to traditional oils.

[00:26:15] So, go for it. My philosophy is to follow your gut. Do whatever it is that you think is going to work well for you. And in the end, who knows if any of these things are really going to last? How long? I don’t know. We can’t tell exactly how each manufacturer manufactures their paints today. They all talk secretly about their proprietary blends or whatever, we don’t know for sure on a lot of these things.

[00:26:44] The Smithsonian’s during a lot of research, others are doing a lot of research. But there’s still much to learn and very little we really know about materials today. So in the end, we should just have fun with it. Whatever makes it more fun, more enjoyable, go for it. Do that.

[00:27:04] But if you’re really concerned about the long term nature of your paintings, then you might want to just stick with the traditional oils. You’ll probably be happy 20, 30, 40 years down the line if you do. I plan to be around, I’m only 54 now, I plan to be around for a lot longer and keep on painting with these traditional oils. So maybe I’ll be proven wrong on this and I’ll be very happy if that’s true.

[00:27:32] I never mind being proven wrong on anything. So just remember, this isn’t some rule. I don’t believe in, really, rules in art because nobody knows everything about the principles underlying what we do as artists, so to a great degree, we have to follow our instincts and follow the best information we can get. But in the end, nobody knows at all and we’ve just got to have fun with it. That’s really what it’s all about.

[00:28:02] And to me, oil painting…I’ve done a lot of watercolor painting. I’ve used acrylics. I’ve done a ton, that’s how I learned color, how to use one color next to another, was doing pastel paintings for years and years. I love all of it. It’s all fun. If I had to use just one, I wouldn’t mind using any of them. But to me, oil paints just have so much possibility to them that that’s why I’ve continued to use them almost exclusively.

[00:28:36] They’re all fun, but there really is no reason, if you’re worried about the health of it, there’s no reason not to use traditional oils. There are so many things you can do that it’s not going to affect you any worse than any other media that’s out there. So if you’re concerned about your health, don’t let traditional oils concern you.

[00:28:57] Just stay away from the solvents, especially turpentine. Turpentine is, yeah, it’s the devil. It’s terrible as far as your health goes. Do not use turpentine. And I would probably stay away from the spike oil. I really don’t think that’s going to turn out to be good for us as artists. They haven’t any real testing on that yet. But just from my own personal, I would suggest you stay away from it if you’re going to use it, especially indoors. It really does have some kind of an effect. But mineral spirits? I haven’t personally noticed the effect. I might even go back to using it because I love some of the effects I can get with the initial washes. I don’t know. I’m experimenting all the time, but that really is for me to decide. For me. For you, you have to decide for yourself as well. So have fun with it if you decide to go with water-mixable oils. I hope it works out fantastic for you.

[00:29:53] I just wanted to give you a little bit of information to give you some, some direction in how to make the decision about these things. All right. Have fun and happy painting.


Love art? Get started with Master Oil Painting for free.

Enter your email address below to access our absolutely free video library.