Odors: Acrylics Versus Oils

I don’t want to discourage anybody from using acrylics because I mention that they may have a very subtle odor. It’s more than likely that you won’t smell anything at all when you work with acrylics.

To put it in perspective, working with oil paints produces odors that can be many times stronger than acrylics. This of course depends upon the artist and the oil painting materials they choose to work with.

When I painted in college, most of the students opted for the cheapest paint thinner they could find in the hardware store. The fumes in the classroom were horrible. I would have a headache when the class was over.

When painting with acrylics, you can clean your brushes in a jar of water. You don’t want to let them dry while you’re working. At the end of the painting session you’ll want to clean them thoroughly with soap and water.

Acrylics clean up with regular soap and water so you don’t need to use solvents for cleaning. There are special soaps that are made for cleaning brushes but I find that regular bar soap works just fine. Once in awhile I may give my brushes a thorough cleaning with brush cleaner but it’s not something that I use regularly.

Oil paints require some sort of paint thinner for cleaning. Yes, there are odorless thinners but that doesn’t mean that they don’t require ventilation. My post The Easiest Painting Medium for Beginners explains that the manufacturers of these odorless thinners still recommend using ventilation.

Even if you don’t use paint thinner, the oil paint itself smells like linseed oil and manufacturers may add other solvents that can be additional sources of odors.

The odor that painting with oils produces is many times greater than acrylics. When someone works with oil paints, the entire room may smell like linseed oil, paint thinner, and varnish.

Artists who enjoy painting with oils but don’t like the smell have come up with materials and methods that are less smelly.

Low Odor Oil Painting

I can’t offer much advice on the subject of low odor oil painting because I haven’t pursued it myself. However, I can point you in a direction that you can research for yourself.

If you want to work with oils but don’t like the smell of it, you may want to look into trying out M Graham oil paints. They offer a 5 color solvent free oil set. The paint contains walnut oil instead of linseed oil and they claim their formula is solvent free. They also state that you can use the walnut oil for cleaning your brushes instead of paint thinner.

Another option is water soluble oils. They’re the same as regular oil paints but with some sort of additive that will allow you to thin them with water. They clean up with soap and water. I assume they would still have the smell of linseed oil which you may or may not find objectionable.

Golden makes open acrylics which dry much slower than regular acrylic paint. Many artists use these as a substitute for oils. Here’s an 8 color set of open acrylics.They do stay wet longer which allows you to create blends that are similar to oils. They’re different than oils in other respects though. For instance, the consistency is thinner than oils. But if smooth blending is what you’re looking for, then this may be the solution that you’re looking for.

Sensitivity to Odors and Chemicals

As I stated in the beginning people have varying degrees of sensitivity to odors and chemicals. I’m more sensitive to odors than the average person. I usually opt for the fragrance free detergents, soaps, and other household products. It’s the odor of these products that I dislike, even if they’re non toxic.

Everything that I say in this post has to be taken within this context. The fact that I can paint with them for hours without any irritation means that they must be low odor or else I wouldn’t work with them. I think you’ll find that acrylics are pleasant to work with.

Is It Okay to Use Acrylic Paint That Has Separated?

Yes, as long as there aren’t any other indicators that the paint has gone bad. Discard the paint if you detect any strong odors or notice there’s mold growing in it. You can often mix it together and use it without any problems.

Separation is when the components of the paint begin to settle and separate from each other. When you squeeze the paint out onto the palette you may find a clear liquid comes out of the tube before the color.

Is It Okay to Use Lumpy Acrylic Paint?

Tubes of lumpy acrylic paint should be discarded. It’s not worth trying to smooth out the paint by mixing it with a palette knife. The lumps are an indication that the paint has undergone some sort of change for the worse.

I know it’s frustrating to throw out expensive art materials but painting with lumpy paint isn’t going to be the best experience. I have found that it’s very difficult to smooth out all of the lumps and they may show up in the final painting. Painting has enough challenges, working with spoiled paint shouldn’t be one of them.

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