For the most part oil painting is a very safe practice. As long as you don’t eat your paints or breathe in the dust from dry pigment powder or sanding dust there should be no impact on your health. There is one liquid used by most oil painters that can be problematic however, paint thinner. Whether you use turpentine or odorless mineral spirits there is a certain exposure level at which these are harmful to your health. Ideally your painting environment should be well ventilated. But besides that what else can you do to eliminate unwanted excess odors from your painting solvents?
Well, one thing that easily eliminates the odors is to not use paint thinners at all. Most mediums have some solvent in them so that will mean using a very basic medium like linseed oil, stand oil or no medium at all. In order to clean your brushes you can follow this simple procedure: Step 1 – wipe off as much paint as possible on a rag or paper towel. Step 2 – work oil into the bristles to get out the majority of the paint and again wipe this on a paper towel or rag. Step 3- use some soap and water to get the oil and any remaining paint out of the brush. When it comes to what type of oil you use to clean the brush it doesn’t matter. I suggest that when it comes to cleaning brushes the cheaper the better. You can use canola, sunflower, linseed, walnut, whatever. Although M. Graham makes the claim that they somehow invented a solvent-free way to paint and clean brushes, they didn’t. Walnut oil is no more or less toxic than linseed oil. It also doesn’t clean brushes any better or worse than any other oil.
If you are like me and want to use solvents, then you need to think about limiting exposure. I’ve seen many artists with open jars or tins of solvent on their easel or work space. I would strongly advise against this. When you have an open container the solvent is free to evaporate continually and make itself available for uptake in your lungs. Not ideal. If you are a plein air painter and work outdoors this isn’t that big of a deal. However, if you paint indoors then this type of constant exposure really adds up.
If you use spirits generously while painting and don’t want the hassle of opening and closing a lid while you paint I suggest the following: Tip 1: Get a syringe and needle. Suck up a quantity of spirits or medium into the syringe and then dispense it onto your palette as required. If you are using a sticky, viscous medium you’ll probably need to mix it with some thinner or oil first in order to be able to suck it up into the syringe. Also, having a needle with a decent sized opening is imperative if you have any hope of sucking up a stringy, goopy gel. Depending on the type of syringe and spirits you use you might have trouble with the spirits eventually dissolving the rubber stopper inside the syringe. To mitigate this I make sure that there is some air in the syringe and store it pointy end down in a jar so that the spirits don’t touch the rubber when it’s not being used. You can also empty the syringe after each painting session. I should note here that you must be very cautious when using a syringe full of spirits or medium. Accidentally injecting yourself with these compounds is, as you can probably guess, not a good idea. You should also keep this out of reach of young children. (For an extra safety precaution you can use a metal file to get rid of the sharp point on the syringe as it is not necessary for this application). For sessions when you are using a high quantity of spirits you should consider the use of a certified mask that is capable of removing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Air purifiers that eliminate VOCs are also a great addition to any studio environment.
Tip 2: Another handy addition to any studio is hospital scrubs. If you are going to put in a full day at the easel then perhaps it is best to be dressed in suitable clothing. However, if you only have an hour or so to paint then I find it easy to just throw on the scrubs over top of whatever you’re wearing and you’re ready to rock. Lab coats and aprons can also work, but I personally like the full leg coverage that the scrubs can give you.