Friday, March 07, 2008

Water Soluble Oils On Plain Unprimed Paper

This is going to be a strange post. It is wildly off topic. And I don’t even have a lot to say. However, I’ve been wanting to do this post for about a week, so I figure I’m going to just indulge myself, do it and move on.


I’ve been interested in water soluble oils for a couple of years now. I’ve never done anything worth doing with them and I haven’t done anything at all with them lately. I got to thinking about water soluble oils again when I read that Karen Kilimnik uses them for her very cool paintings. I’ve continued thinking about them and have even done a little work with them.


The basic need for water soluble oils grows from the terrible health hazards of normal oil paint solvents. Although health hazards of normal oil paint solvents typically only get mentioned in passing in art instruction books, art students are very familiar with the troubles solvents have caused throughout history and art students all know classmates who have had bad reactions to solvents. The most frightening incident I’m aware of is what happened to the great illustrator Frank Frazetta, as recounted in the documentary, “Painting With Fire.”

It’s not surprising people have bad reactions to traditional oil paint solvents. The oil binders used in paints—typically linseed oil—are very similar to the fats which play such an important role in human biochemistry. In fact, one darling of the health food industry now, flaxseed oil, is really linseed oil under another name. Any solvent which disrupts the molecular bonds of oil paint binders is also going to disrupt the molecular bonds of the fats within a human body. And that’s just not cool. If I ever were to use traditional oil paints I’d stick with palette knife painting, no brushes, and I would not use any solvent at all for clean up.

Water soluble oils make this issue essentially moot. Water soluble oils are chemically almost identical to traditional oil paints. They are not ‘water-based’ paints. Where watercolors and acrylics dry by evaporation, water soluble oils contain no water in their make up and dry by oxidation exactly as do traditional oils.

But the oil binder of water soluble paints has been engineered so that plain water acts as a solvent for cleaning up. (Or thinning, but that induces a color shift until evaporation occurs.)

I like the high tech nature of water soluble oils. I love the long drying time, just like traditional oils. You can put down paint, work it, re-work it and even come back the next day for additional tweaks. And, even though I use palette knives for almost all my normal painting, it’s nice knowing that I can use a brush here and there and still be able to clean up with just water because I wouldn’t go near a traditional oil paint solvent.


The only thing I don’t like about water soluble oil painting is that like traditional oil painting the paint should be applied to a primed surface, typically gesso on canvas or gesso on wood or even gesso on paper. This is because oil paints dry by oxidation and not evaporation.

If you apply oil paint on a very absorbent surface like plain paper the oil binder will get sucked away from the surface, away from the pigment and away from open air. Unable to get oxygen to bind with, the oil will have difficulty drying and the oil in the paper will promote rot. Also when the binder gets sucked away from the pigment, the pigment layer on the surface of the paper will be under-bound and subject to damage.

However I like the simplicity and spontaneity of working on plain paper. I don’t like preparing a surface and I don’t really like the ‘feel’ of gesso on anything.

And, although the ‘science’ of oil painting on paper has been understood for generations, many artists have enjoyed the simplicity of doing small works on plain paper. Most famously, perhaps, are the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec on cardboard. Most of these have held up very well, as have other works which really should not have been painted the way they were. I have even seen documentaries on the textile industry where textile workers made color notes in their journals using oil paint on plain paper. Although the pages bore the familiar ‘halo’ of oil that was absorbed away from the pigment, gentle handling of the pages has kept the paper intact, kept the pigment in place and preserved the beautifully intense color of the oil paint.

It’s good to know the science behind the art, but it’s not good to let the science stop you from working in a manner that is emotionally suitable to you. Oil paint on plain, unprimed paper is not a good thing to do, but if you keep your paint surface reasonably controlled and treat the final sheet thoughtfully, then it is not necessarily something that will fall about a few years down the road.

Incidentally, there are still books which promote the practice of painting oil paint on top of acrylic under-painting, as if all acrylics were like gesso, and art galleries and museums are often seeing these creations fall apart. You don’t want a surface that is too absorbent, but at the same time a surface that is not absorbent at all will not give the binder anything to bind to. Again, it’s good to know the science behind the art.


So, although it makes me very nervous, I’ve decided to invest some time in working with water soluble oils on plain unprimed paper. I’ve done some tests and the tests work reasonably well. Basically I’m not going to create anything that has to last forever, anyway. Ultimately I’m just looking to take advantage of the great plastic nature of oil paint for creating images that can get scanned and digitized. I’ve been experimenting with my sketches of Amy Greenspon, working on compositions that will lend themselves not to pencil or pen renderings but to serving as under-drawings for oil paintings.

If I do anything interesting, I’ll post the results. Now that I’ve kind of ‘opened’ this topic on the blog, I can always come back to it if anything good happens.


Gideon said...

I've actually done a slew of watercolor on plain paper, and I just did my first oil (traditional type). Basically I wanted to do oil since the watercolor crinkles the page a bit, but the oil is flat. I was worried about the water soluble oil wrinkling the page also; did this happen to you?

Jayne said...

Hello, I was wondering how those paintings on unprimed paper turned out a few years down the road? I was too excited to experiment with oils this summer, and priming the paper prior to painting didn't even cross my mind at the time, even though i knew it was unadvisable to do so. As they are my first oil paintings, i was hoping to preserve them long enough down the road that I can see my progress throughout the years. After much googling, i've not found any good advise on what I can do to "save" my paintings per se.. Also they are unfinished work, i'm wondering if i should just give up on them or if i should prime the parts i've not yet painted on. Any advise will be most helpful. Thank you in advance.

Mark said...


I can't help you very much. The one or two tests I did worked out fine, with no drama at all. But I started working with acrylics soon after this post, so I don't have a lot of experience with unprimed paper and oils. My general thought is--and this is just speculation--if you store the paper flat and let both sides of the paper get air for a few months even the oil in the paper will oxidize. I don't know. I would prime paper for oil painting, but for sketches or quick notes I wouldn't be too afraid of plain paper. But time will tell. Good luck with your work.


Ulrike said...

Hi Mark,

Another few years on---another question: what about using water-soluble oils on mylar or other such film like Denril? It is actually made for various materials including oils, acrylics, pastels, well as pen and ink. I'm hoping to mix the ws oils with ink. We'll see, I guess...

Deb M

Csilla Florida said...

I had a watercolor on 300 lb paper that I was not happy with, so I painted over it with water soluable oils as I had not worked with them yet. It turned out nice but the same question- will it hold up? I was wondering what would happen if I put varnish over it- and maybe on the back of the paper too?? Anybody have experience with this?