Christine Lashley, “Water Lilies in Summer,” 2016, oil, 24 x 24 inches, private collection

by Christine Lashley

I paint with both water-mixable oils and traditional oils, and I get a wide variety of responses when people discover this. Everything from rude negativity (“what crap is that?”) to nods from those in the know (“I use them too, aren’t they great?”). It’s rather funny, as most art supplies don’t have groupies or naysayers like this … the lovers and the haters of water-mixables.

You would think there would be a safe middle ground, but unfortunately, outright suspicion of water-mixable paints (oil and water shouldn’t mix, right?), or rejection of new science as bogus, can make artists retreat to tried-and-true materials. But technological advances have given us: lightfast pigments, more colors, and safer paint than ever before. The Old Masters would kill to have our paint choices, I’m sure. So let’s take another look at water-mixable paints with an open mind.

Water-mixable oils (also known as water-miscible or water-soluble) can be a great asset to oil painters if you know some secrets to get started. I’ve had more than one artist friend confess they tried them, but “tossed them all out,” wondering why anyone likes them at all. However, you will see why many artists are very excited about these paints, when they’re used correctly.

What’s Not To Love?
Water-mixable oils sound great: artist-grade pigments, easy cleanup, no solvent needed. They also dry faster in general than traditional oils and are thus great for travel, or underpainting with “lean” layers.

Looking Past the Label: A Little Science Lesson

Yes, they are “real” oils, just like traditionally formulated ones. Water-mixable paints in the tube contain no water, only oil/binder, pigment, and additives such as resin or emulsifiers. The big factor for most people is understanding how this “oil and water” idea even can work. However, there is solid science behind the paint, which has been around since 1990.

Different brands of paint use different elements to allow the oil and water to mix — either a fatty acid molecule in the oil has been modified or removed to allow for binding with water, or an emulsifier has been added. Sometimes it’s a mix of factors. This is not necessarily a scary thing or “too new” to use without question (like genetically altered food); oil and water have been mixed for centuries to make creamy things like mayonnaise, or tempera paint, with egg as an emulsifier. Also, we must remember that artists for centuries have been experimenting with new ways to paint. Someone invented oil painting in the 15th century, after all … it was not always around.

Christine Lashley, “Near Dupont Circle,” 2017, oil, 12 x 16 inches, collection of artist

Benefits Of Water-Mixables:
Better For Your Health: There is no need for solvent. Simply use water as your “solvent” to thin the water-mixable paints and for cleanup. You can tone your canvas, wipe areas out, or create a “watercolor” thin underpainting. Solvents are not healthy, as all have a warning label, including so-called “green” versions.

Newer OMS solvents (odorless mineral spirits) such as Gamsol still gas off harmful vapors — you just can’t smell them, unlike turpentine, which has a powerful smell. Allergies to solvent can develop suddenly or gradually over time. You may not even know you have a sensitivity (this can appear as headache or fatigue, or more severely as hives, lightheadedness, or shortness of breath). Interestingly, solvent as a paint medium/thinner has not been in use all that long in the history of oil painting … so perhaps we should be taking a look at the archival nature of solvent in oil painting as well? But that’s another article, I think…

Faster Dry Time. Water-mixables dry in about half the time of traditional oils. The paints actually have two dry times: For thin watery mixes (like a watercolor wash or canvas tone), the water evaporates rapidly and the paint is mostly dry to the light touch in five or 10 minutes. You can still rewet areas to wipe out or remix. At this stage it is possible to start more direct painting, or layering with thicker strokes. To let a thin tone or grisaille layer fully dry (via oxidation), wait at least until the next day. The thicker the paint application (the less water used), the more your dry times will increase. Paint that contains a lot of oil already, such as cadmiums, can take longer to dry.

Cleanup Is Very Easy: Just use soap and water. Also great for travel.

Excellent for Layers/OK to Intermix With Other Oils. Because the paints dry quickly, if you know you like to layer, you can start your artwork with water-mixable oil paints and then move into more full-paint layers, or on to traditional oils (since the dry time is longer with traditional oils, they are therefore “fatter”). You can inter-mix traditional and the water-mixables if you are painting directly. Once you cross over about a 20 percent ratio, the water-mixable quality gets lost. You can also intermix brands of water-mixable paints.

Although manufacturers say it’s safe to intermix these paints with other media (watercolor, acrylic, alkyd), I would be cautious here. I believe, after researching this paint, that with too much mixed stuff, it is hard to control the dry times of the paint layers. The only trouble I ever had with these paints was when I used Alkyd Titanium White and Quick Dry water-mixable gel medium for heavy applications of pastel whites — fine cracks developed after a few years, in a few studies done on panel.

Traditional oil paint still has its place, especially for those who like a long time to maneuver wet paint on the canvas. Currently my favorite way to work is to start with water-mixable in one or a few colors, and then switch to traditional oils for the longer dry time. I still paint without any solvent when using traditional oils and use a variety of techniques to get by. I freeze my brushes for the next paint session (used paint is still in the brush). If I need a clean brush, I’ll dip it repeatedly in oil to free excess pigment.

Drawbacks of Water-Mixables:

Avoiding Sticky Paint. If you are not careful with how you use the paints, they can become sticky and very unpleasant to paint with. Avoid using the paints with a small amount of water, as they don’t thin very well with just a few dots of water. Instead, a little water-mixable linseed oil or water-mixable medium will work wonders to make the paint more spreadable. On the other hand, it’s fine to thin the paints with a lot of water (to make a puddle that looks like milk) to start your drawing or block-in stage, grisaille layer, or to tone the canvas. Remember that this watery layer should only be an underpainting. Layers that are too thin will not stand up to the ravages of time and are not archival. Some paint brands, such as Cobra, are inherently more creamy right from the tube, thus avoiding the sticky range for the most part.

Paints can freeze more quickly in winter conditions if you paint outside in the winter.
Rain Texture. Paints will not work well in the rain or mist (obviously) — although rain can create some interesting texture effects, and that could be a good thing.
Paints can dry with a more matte finish, but a simple varnish layer, or working with a medium or a touch of oil will fix this.

Christine Lashley, “Sheridan,” 2017, oil, 12 x 12 inches, private collection

Will These Paints Last?
Remember these are “real” oils (not alkyd or acrylic), and we know oils last for centuries if they are painted on a proper surface with good techniques (“fat-over-lean,” etc.) and cared for. Studies so far show these paints to be very archivally sound. I will say that, although current and past scientific studies were referenced frequently (I did talk to a technician who worked in a lab), no manufacturer provided me with actual papers or concrete published studies with hard data. So I’d say more sharing can be done in this arena.

On a personal note, I have a painting that was done with Max (Grumbacher) paints on canvas in 1998 that has a paint film in perfect condition with no cracks or color distortion (I keep it to remind me about my early oils). It’s been carted around the country in several moves and stored in less-than-ideal conditions in the back room or unheated garage.

Brand Comparison/Reviews of Water-Mixable Paints:

There are several major paint manufacturers of water-mixable oil paints: Grumbacher (Max — nice, great colors, but can be stiff), Holbien (Duo — very nice, a bit more expensive) and Winsor & Newton (Artisan — can be smelly, contains only “hue” colors, and has somewhat less pigment load, also can remain sticky when dry), and Royal Talens (Cobra — newer brand, very nice buttery consistency, yet some colors are “off” such as the too-pale cadmium yellows and a too-strident French ultramarine). Newer brands have come on the market: such as Weber (sOil), Lukas (Berlin), Daniel Smith, and Reeves, but I have not tried these. Each brand seems to have its quirks. I use a mix of Max, Cobra, and Duo paints.

(Full disclosure: I don’t work for any paint manufacturer and currently do not have any contract with any company to promote its paints.)

As you can see, there is more to explore with water-mixable paints, but they do offer a wealth of choices and opportunity for the artist of today. Perhaps in time these will be the new way to paint with oils, and we will scorn the old days when people painted with that awful toxic solvent!

A publication by the Getty “Proceedings from the Modern Paints Uncovered Symposium” (Alun Foster, p. 53-71) discusses water-mixable paints (Winsor Newton) measuring three other types of paint (Alkyd, traditional oils – artist grade, and student grade) vs. water-mixable oils (WMO). https://www.getty.edu/…/modern_paints_uncovered_vl_opt.pdf

This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the helpful tips! I recently heard a podcast with the Gamblin folks who dismiss water-mixable oils and said that manufacturers have to remove pigment to add the component that makes them work. Curious if anyone has noticed a significant difference in pigment load vs. traditional oils.

    • Thank you for your comments. I’ll have to check out the podcast. It’s interesting that Gamblin seems to know about this, when most maufacturer’s are very proprietary of their recipe. When researching these paints for my article, I did speak with a person who worked for Grumbacher and he was involved with chemical lab anaysis and behind-the-scenes company studies of the paints for 20 years; and he said the water mixable paints were fully loaded with pigment. I’ve done some tinting swatches myself with French Ultramarine + white in water-mixables such as Duo, or Max vs. traditional paints such as Vasari and I have found the water-mixables to perform fine. I also visited the Smithsonian’s conservator’s lab to see a study on water-mixable vs traditional paints (Grumbacher) and the spectral analysis of pigment load (for naturally aged samples, artificially aged samples, and new samples) did not detect pigment differences in the samples. In fact, a few water-mixables were more strongly pigmented than the traditional oils. The theory was it might be the modified oil used in the paints. This study is not published yet with all of the data and is still in progress. In the Getty publication mentioned at the end of the article you can see that there are similar findings.

  2. I found that water- mixable oils take far longer to dry than regular oils. i did prefer lukas and grumbacher when I did use them. They seem to work better on panels than canvas

    Anne kiefaber

    • I wonder which brand caused you trouble? Early versions of Winsor Newton water-mixables often remained sticky to the touch, even when ‘fully dry’ after months. I think they have reformulated the paints currently sold. The brands I mention in the article are very reliable after almost two decades of me using them. Panels offer a great support – make sure they are not oil-primed as this does not seem to work as well.

  3. I love seeing and reading articles on water mixable oils. I have an allergy to oils after using them for many years and now cannot be in studio workshops where students are using oil solvents. I have found Duo first and now introduced Cobra because of limiting colors. I have a few Max colors as well. I ageee that Cobra is creamy…it has more oils and when squeezed out of the tube the oil needs to be mixed into the pigment more than Duo or Max. For those I mix some water mixable linseed oil to get them creamer. A friend of mine got Smith and she is very happy with them. I highly recommend these products for artist who have reacted to solvents and want a safer product.

  4. Great article and comments. I have been experimenting with water-mixables for over 13 years now, and I agree with everything written in your article. For the past 3 years I have been painting exclusively with Cobra. It has taken me a while to get used to their color range (such as Madder Lake instead of Alizarin Crimson, etc.) but overall I am very pleased and “not tempted to go back” to traditional oils. I use water as my thinner, and sometimes a bit of the Cobra painting medium which is very nice. The clean up for both studio painting and Plein air is so easy–I think easier than with traditional oils and solvent. I use a small spray bottle like one would use with acrylics, and I use a glass mixing palette and its amazing how quickly it cleans up. I also freeze my paints over night between paining sessions and the paint lasts a lot longer. One thing I have noticed about WMs is that the pigment does not sink in your brush washer can like traditional oils do–it just stays suspended in the water. So I simply dispose of the water in my brush washer can after each session. For Plein air I carry bottled water for my “solvent.” Very convenient. I’ve also found it helpful to use a brush that is a bit stiffer and holds up with the use of water, such as the Silverbrush Bristlon, a very nice brush. And it helps to use brights especially in the beginning stages of the painting. I am very happy with the Cobras and couldn’t image going back.

  5. Great article, Christine! I’ve been using water mixable oils exclusively for 22 years and they have really improved over that time. If I really need paintings to dry for a show I put them in a small space and run a dehumidifier. That dries them faster than a heater. I also freeze my palette over night. I like that the paints are hues rather than heavy metals such as cadmiums because I had a toxic load of heavy metals from applying composite silver and gold leaf which are made of aluminum and copper, etc., so I try to stay away from the more toxic paints.

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