Goodbye to Turpentine
by Robert Maynord
by Robert Maynord
It is common for an art student to show up for the first day of painting class and discover that other students in the room will be brushing with various solvents such as turpentine, mineral spirits, and odorless mineral spirits (OMS). In the last painting class I attended, two students left on the first night because of the fumes. These solvents are assumed to be part of the artistic process, with painters working in rooms without ventilation, using materials that can cause serious reactions -- materials that are illegal in schools and restricted in the general workplace. Further, the art stores are largely unaware of these problems, not selling protective masks, gloves and coats that would normally be required in the workplace.
Just this past week, I was attending an art fair, and had the opportunity to converse with the featured artist. She was using watercolors and acrylics in her work, but confessed her real desire was to work with oil paint. She had actually worked with oils in the past, but gave them up because she couldn't stand the fumes. Unfortunately this artist, like many others, didn't know that oil paint can be one of the safest, least toxic, least polluting and most natural of all art media!
There are actually many historical forms of turpentine, all made from the resin of trees. Perhaps the oldest, dating from the 14th century, was made from the terebinth tree, a member of the cashew family. Later, various turpentines were made from pine and fir trees, including Canada balsam, made from the balsam fir, and Venice turpentine, made from the western larch tree. Artists valued these forms of turpentine for their resinous sap, not for their use as a solvent. Today, what we call "turpentine" is made from distillation of the sap of pine trees, and as such it is sometimes added to cleaning products, or used as a substitute for gasoline. Turpentine solvent, sometimes called "spirits", has the opposite effect in painting from the earlier turpentines used by historical painters, thinning the paint rather than adding clarity and brilliance.
Rembrandt: "The Artist in His Studio"
During the Industrial Revolution, turpentine was produced for much less cost than spike lavender, and artists begin to use it as a cheap alternative. Later, mineral spirits was introduced as a dry-cleaning chemical, and then artists and commercial painters begin to use it. Since that time, research has shown that mineral spirits, marketed as less toxic than turpentine, actually causes chronic toxic encephalopathy with professional painters. In fact, the disease is called Chronic Painters syndrome. However, spike lavender does not have these problems. Artists have used it for centuries. Further, mineral spirits will not dissolve dammar crystals when making various types of varnish for painting, but Spike Lavender will! Thus Spike Lavender is much closer to turpentine than mineral spirits in performance, without the drawbacks.
A Section from the "Ghent Altarpiece"
It is possible to avoid turpentine and mineral spirits entirely, and create totally solid archival paintings. As we become more aware of environmental and health issues, more artists will no doubt choose this approach, saying goodbye to the fumes.
ROBERT MAYNORD's PERSONAL INTEREST:
Five years ago, I was experimenting with various oil painting mediums, including some that had mineral spirits as part of the ingredients. One of the extremely popular mediums I tried contained naphtha (a petroleum distillate sometimes referred to as OMS, odorless mineral spirits, or Stoddard solvent) as well as 2-butanone oxime, a chemical used for model cement, adhesives, and plastics.
A shop for alternative art materials, solvents and painting mediums
It should be possible to do art in the studio and home without worrying about toxic materials. Early on, I experimented with "odorless" thinners, and various painting mediums and found that I reacted to them.
'The Art Treehouse features several items of interest to the "less-toxic" painter. Besides Oil of Spike Lavender, there is a Bio based Artist Solvent that is extremely enviro-friendly. It took six months of testing to figure out the right way of balancing solvency with evaporation rate. There is no lead, no cobalt, and no cadmium in anything we sell - including our paints. We sell no turpentine, no OMS, and no mineral spirits. Oil of Spike Lavender will dissolve resins (and OMS will not), so we have Copal-Spike and Dammar-Spike mediums available. We even have some rare gadgets such as The Artist Mouthpiece, for artists who paint with their mouth. More interesting items are on the way!'
Spike Lavender Oil Safety
The Art Treehouse commissioned an external safety evaluation of Spike Lavender Oil, what follows is an excerpt from the Executive Summary:
'ChronicHealth Effects Assessmentof Spike LavenderOil'
'Evidential data are supportive that Spike LavenderOil would not cause a chronic health effect with
acute or prolonged dermal or inhalation exposure. The potential for idiosyncratic allergenicity may exist
and should be forewarned, but this effect would be readily identified and reversible. It is not proposed
as a label caution. Adverse effects during pregnancy are unknown but assumed minimal given the
history of product use. It is not proposed as a label caution.'
Parts of this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post
(Arts and Culture Section) on 30 Sept 2013.
Reprint by kind permission.
Copyright for this page, 2013: Robert Maynord (nontoxicprint)
Images: 'Rembrandt', 'Mona Lisa', 'Pollock/Namuth': Wikipedia / Creative Commons
other Images: Robert Maynord / The Art Treehouse
The Art Treehouse
The Art of Robert Maynord