IS IT SAFER TO PAINT IN ACRYLICS OR OILS?
When I was a teenager, I painted in oils. I had my easel set up in the corner of my bedroom as it was the only place I had to paint. The turpentine smell wasn't pleasant and I eventually had to put it away because dad said it would make me sick. Eventually I went to painting in acrylics.
Thankfully, nowadays there are so many newer products that overcome that problem. Odorless turpentine is not completely odorless, but it is a vast improvement over the fumes we had to deal with previously. Also the mediums available in todays market are wonderful! Yes, some are still somewhat toxic so it is recommended that we use them in a ventilated area for safety.
However, the biggest issue we must deal with today is toxic ingredients in the paint. The cadmium in paint is toxic, as well as the lead in lead white. But there are more toxic chemicals to contend with. Below is a list of things to watch out for and how we can protect ourselves.
1. CADMIUM: This is what makes our reds, oranges and yellows so vibrant and lightfast. There are only small amounts in the paint, minuscule according to some. But it is toxic. linked to cancer of the liver and kidney, so we need to protect ourselves. It is found in both oil and acrylic paints. Thankfully Cadmium-free colors are being sold now that rival the best qualities of the Cadmium paints and the prices are the same!
2. LEAD: It is easy to see the Lead White is a no-no. They have virtually removed lead from most paints and households since the 1950's, but older homes and paintings still have lead, so we must be careful. This is a problem with both oils and acrylics. Lead is toxic, but especially for younger ones as it affects development.
3. POLYESTER RESIN: The beautiful coating we use on our paintings not only has toxic fumes requiring a mask and preferably a respirator, but we must also wear gloves to protect from the ingredients that cause cancer. You need to be very careful using this product! Even the molds used for resin have toxic ingredients in them. ALWAYS use protection!
4. FIBERGLASS: This doesn't apply to oil or acrylic paints, it is more used in sculptures, but I wanted to list it anyway. My father worked with fiberglass most of his life and it caused him multiple health issues and ultimately contributed to his dying at a younger age.
5. FORMALDEHYDE: A lesser known art ingredient, this can cause leukemia and brain cancer. It is found in varnishes and paint. The best protection is good ventilation.
6. SOME METALS: This would mostly apply to sculptors, but if you use metal foils in your artwork, be sure to read the precautions!
1. The best protection we can recommend is to wear gloves and ALWAYS have some form of ventilation when you paint! I try to have a window open or the fan on when painting, and when I am using resin I work out on my back porch, with the fans going, and wearing gloves and a mask!! I would wear a respirator if I had one, even on my back porch!
2. NEVER LICK YOUR PAINTBRUSH! Even if you think it is clean!! A fellow artist lost her mother to cancer because she licked her brush to get a fine point, and she worked in watercolors!
It is a habit that is easily developed and hard to stop, so PLEASE BE CAREFUL!
3. WEAR GLOVES, especially when working in oils. Yes, they can be a nuisance, but it is better than getting cancer! I recommend you buy glove that fit snugly so as not to keep getting in your way. Stores such as Home Depot, Lowes, or Harbor Freight sell them in boxes of 100 for around $7- $10. That's cheap for the protection they provide and they can be reused, except with resin.
ARE OILS SUPERIOR TO ACRYLICS?
That is a debatable question. It is really just up to your preference as an artist. I will say this. For myself after having used acrylics for many years, I am going to start using oils again for my better paintings for a few of reasons:
1. Even though acrylics have gained recognition in the art world, they still do not command the same respect and therefore cannot bring the same price as oil paintings. There are artists who will disagree on that, but I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me if my paintings are oil or acrylics. When I say they are in acrylic, I get the usual "oh" and the look on their face of less than satisfaction. And believe me, I have worked long and hard to make my acrylic paintings look like oils. You cannot tell the difference by looking. Many think they are oil paintings, but if they ask, I will tell them the truth.
2. No matter what medium I use with acrylics to slow down drying time, I still cannot get the same blending ability as you can with oils. There just is no comparison. I still teach and use acrylics on a regular basis, but I have kept some oils and will start using them again, especially for portraiture. I made the mistake of give away a big box of oils. I'm now sorry I did.
3. The luminescence of oil paint is unbeatable! I must layer acrylics multiple times to get any luminescence and it still does not reach the same level. As a result many artists now block in with acrylics and then paint the detail or final coat in oils. Or they may just top part of the acrylic painting with oils to achieve a luminescent moon, sky, etc. It needs to be varnished first for partial oils though. If you cover the entire painting in oil, you may then say it is an oil painting. If partially covered in oil, it is called mixed media or acrylic & oil.
4. Oils maintain the color you see when applied as opposed to Acrylics that dry darker. As a result, you must learn the characteristics of acrylic and learn to paint "lighter" than desired so you don't have to keep going back over it with a lighter and lighter color to get the desired effect. This can take a lot of time and practice. I have learned from years of practice, but I can still get frustrated by this issue. And acrylic continues to darken over time, something that teachers may not tell you! I have had an acrylic painting darken for as long as a month.
5. I cannot tell you how much acrylic paint I have had to throw away due to drying up on the palette. I have an expensive sealable palette with a sponge and paper all designed to keep the paint wet. I paint almost every day and wet it down daily, and it still dries up on me! The sponges and paper are now expensive to buy, even on Amazon. I suggest you buy a roll of freezer paper instead. There is no substitute for the sponges that I know of, and they wear out quickly from staying wet all the time. I also suggest you put a few drops of bleach into a spray bottle and then spray your palette and paint to help prevent mold from developing on the wet paint and palette. It also helps with that wet, moldy smell that can develop. However if you don't paint a lot, then just put out a small amount of paint. It is easy to reach for more when you need it. I would however leave the colors you are using somewhere close by so you don't have to look through a bunch of tubes to find more.
Don't get me wrong. I still love acrylics and will continue to use them. But I will also use oils, especially for larger paintings with lot of detail! If I am going to put in the time and effort on these large landscape paintings, then I want to be able to command the price they deserve.
For my mixed media paintings I will always use acrylic paint. It is durable, dries quickly and gives the effect that I am looking for. It works well with the resin too! So keep painting and use what you love, CAREFULLY!