We have all been taught that ‘oil and water do not mix’ so, how can oil paints possibly be water mixable?

The answer is this: “On a molecular level, the oil vehicle has been modified to make it mixable in water, eliminating the necessity for turpentine or other dangerous solvents to thin paint and clean brushes and other supplies.”

©2016 LMcNee "Snowy Day" 20x20 oil
©2016 LMcNee, “Snowy Day” 20×20, water-mixable oil on canvas

First of all, water-mixable oils are REAL oils. They are water-mixable and are not water-based. There are still some painting purists who question whether or not these pigments are true oils, but I assure you they are.

Artist’s grade, water-mixable oil brands have the working properties of true oil paint. They are REAL oil paints made with a linseed oil binder.

In fact, I have been successfully executing my paintings using water-mixable oils with professional results since the 1990s.

I made the smooth transition from acrylics to the new oils in my home studio so my family and pets were not exposed to toxic fumes. My favorite brand is Cobra by Royal Talens. Cobra Artist Oils are completely archival, with lightfast pigments and a durable linseed oil binder. Cobra Artists colors have a comparable pigment load to other traditional oils in their class.

With an open mind and a little experimenting, you might also enjoy the benefits of water-mixable oils. Below, I will do my best to inform you of this remarkable paint medium from my own personal experience and with a little help from the technically informative book, “Painting with Water Soluble Oils,” by Sean Dye. (*Although these paints are NOT water-soluble, they ARE water-mixable!)

Go Solvent free with Lori McNee!

Facts:

  • Water-mixable oils are also known as solvent-free or water-miscible oil paints. These oil paints offer greater convenience and increased accessibility. These new oils are especially helpful for people with allergies, home studios, students, schools, and those who have avoided oils because of the toxic solvents.
  • Water-mixable oils smell great. Some brands have a milder scent than others.
  • Water-mixable oils are made with linseed oil, just like traditional oil paints.
  • These water-miscible oils were developed to be used with water in place of turpentine, mineral spirits, or other solvents!
  • The vegetable drying oils have been restructured in water-mixable oils which helps to eliminate yellowing.
  • Like traditional oils, water-mixable oils must dry through oxidation – absorbing oxygen through the air. Once dry, they are just like any other oil painting and should be treated as such.
  • Like traditional oils, water-mixable oil paintings cannot be reactivated with water when dry.
  • Most water-mixable brands have mediums that have been developed for water-mixable oils: quick dry mediums (my favorite), stand oils, painting mediums and impasto mediums, linseed oils, and alkyd mediums.
  • Traditional oil paints and mediums can be added to the new oils in small amounts of up to 20%-30% and still retain water mixability. Small amounts of traditional oil color can be added to the water-mixable oils without affecting the color or consistency.
  • The new pigments blend and mix extremely well.
  • When water-mixable oils are mixed with water, they may at times appear somewhat cloudy until the water evaporates.
  • The fast-drying mediums allow for plenty of time for blending but still make over-painting easier and faster.
  • Luminous, transparent glazes can be made by using water-mixable mediums. Rich, opaque darks are easy to achieve.
  • Water-mixable paints produce fresh, bright, strong colors. It is easier to avoid making a ‘muddy’ color.
  • Water mixable-oils are easier to clean up – with only soap and water!
  • Those with limited or no experience with traditional oils adjust to water-mixable oils more quickly.
  • Depending on how thick you paint, the water-mixable oils retain their elasticity and workability for up to 48 hours.
©2022 Lori McNee, “Hens on the Loose” 24×48, water-mixable oil on canvas

Tips:

  • Water-mixable oil paints are perfect for travel, especially on airplanes. Many airlines restrict traditional and flammable solvents on commercial flights. Eliminating the need for harsh solvents makes water-mixable oils easy to pack for painting on location whether by car, plane, or horseback.
  • The plein air painter can keep paint on the palette for long periods of time without the paint drying out.
  • Take care when drying freshly painted new oil or traditional oil paintings. Avoid dark or moist areas to prevent darkening or yellowing that is caused by the linseed oil.
  • Acrylic gesso should be used as the starting ground for water-mixable paints to ensure proper adhesion.
  • Synthetic paintbrushes are best for painting with water-mixable oil paints. But natural bristles are good for underpaintings but do not let them sit in water or they become mushy.
  • A few drops of linseed oil on the palette restore the paints to their original workable form.
  • All oil paint should be applied fat over lean to prevent cracking.
  • Do NOT mix water-mixable oil paints with acrylic paints. Oils and Acrylics dry very differently and mixing them will compromise the long-term integrity of the paint film.
  • Use water to thin the paint and for laying in washes. Build up the oily layers after the underpainting is dry.
  • Just like with traditional oils, water-mixable oil paints can be laid down in many smooth, thin layers – called indirect painting.  Also water-mixable oils can be applied in a thick wet single layer called direct or alla prima painting or everything else in between.
  • Drying time is longer when a lot of white pigment is used.
  • The dark passages in water-mixable oils sometimes ‘sink’ and lack the glossy appearance of a traditional oil painting. This is easily remedied by a final varnish.
  • I prefer Cobra solvent-free oil paints by Royal Talens. The characteristics of this brand are consistent with their traditional oil-color counterparts. They use all of the traditional pigments in their lines including cadmiums and cobalts. These paints deliver brilliant, luminous transparent glazes and rich opaque passages.
  • Water-mixable oils clean-up with soap and water. However, Terpenoid Natural can be used on hard-to-clean brushes. Baby oil is also a good cleaner, followed by soap and water.
  • Use a little petroleum jelly conditions the brushes back to their original shape.
  • Rubbing Alcohol, white vinegar, or vegetable oil and a razor blade are great for cleaning a glass palette for the next painting session.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding and appreciation for the benefits of water mixable oils. They are easier and less intimidating to use and deliver the beautiful results of traditional oils.

You might enjoy trying my new Cobra Oil “Lori McNee Special Edition Set.” 

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