If you are painting with oil colors you will find that solvents are very important integral part of the process of oil painting. Many years ago when I was only starting to learn oil painting technique, way back in my father's studio and during my Art Academy days there was not much choice at the time (we are talking about the ninties). We only had two options available back then in my country- regular white spirit and turpentine. From the first contact with the white spirit, I found the smell so overwhelming that the minute I walked into the room the smell would literally physically affect me so that I would have to cover the jar the liquid was in and keep it covered, which was tricky if you trying to keep your brushes clean when changing color! I soon realized I constantly had to ventilate the studio with lots of fresh air.
My father suggested using distilled turpentine instead for cleaning the brushes when changing color while painting. I was delighted with the idea and had not used it in such a way previously only as a part of classical painting medium mixed with linseed oil.
I switched to using Turpentine for cleaning my brushes during the painting process instead.
The white spirit is a petroleum-derived clear liquid used as a common organic solvent in painting, It is still considered potentially harmful. Turpentine is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin obtained from live trees, mainly pines. It is mainly used as a solvent and as a source of materials for organic synthesis
On the Winsor & Newton website, they classify it slightly more harmful than the white spirit. If using turpentine make sure you are using artists Distilled Turpentine not Genuine Turpentine for home decorating.
Unfortunately, turpentine did not work for me either- it has a particularly strong smell - 'odor'. The headaches returned and the painting with oils was so frustrating so that even though it was my favourite medium I had to switch to painting with acrylics for a while.
Fast forward to years later when I moved to Ireland to live, a friend mentioned Sansodor by Winsor & Newton to me and said they use it in her college as there are many people in the room to prevent the overwhelming smell of the white spirit and turps they only use this product. Of course, I immediately got my first bottle of Sansodor in the first available art shop and this was my first experience with OMS. OMS stands for Odorless Mineral Spirits, I actually could not believe that I could keep the bottle open on the table beside me while working on my painting and not get a headache. Since OMS is a type of while spirit- chemically speaking minus the smell it must be the odour of the white spirit and turps that gave me headaches.
So what happens is the harmful aromatic solvent component has been removed. I still had to take frequent breaks and ventilate the studio when painting but it made a huge difference. I have since experimented with a few more brands, like Gamsol by Gamlin. Daler Rowney also has a really good low odor thinner.
It is important to keep in mind that OMS still has a certain level of toxicity and should be used with caution. If your painting style allows you not to use a solvent at all during painting process such as painting Alla Prima that is great. However for the style of painting that I do, I find this is not possible unfortunately. Artists who paint in Alla Prima style, for example, are often able to avoid using solvents during painting process almost completely.
However, if you are painting in a more traditional layering and glazing style like me you will need to clean the brushes when changing colors as well as use a solvent for fat over lean layering. The first layer applied over Gesso primer is traditionally a very lean often solvent only diluted paint without the use of a medium.
Another good option to reduce inhaling the fumes as much would be to do as much underpainting as possible with acrylics and finish only the final layer/s in oil.
A couple of weeks ago I came across a new completely different type of solvent which is neither OMS nor turpentine and I must say it is my absolute favorite one so far, it is called Zest it. A natural product made from Citrus oil: ' a more environmentally friendly, non-flammable, pleasant to use, biodegradable alternative to 'turps' and white spirit, made using the zest of citrus fruit for cleaning brushes and thinning paint, a much safer solvent for studio use. ' - Zest-it.com
This fantastic product has a mild citrus smell which is actually pleasant for a change. I am absolutely convinced that Zest is a solution and a way to go for my allergy problems and am finding it amazing so far.
I recently found out that Walnut Oil can be used as a low odor medium as well as a solvent; however, I have not had a chance to test it myself before posting about it and I plan to review/edit my blog post with that latest update as soon as I have had a chance.
Friendly note Important! / Disclaimer: Please note that this post is about sharing my own experiences with using and trying different solvents over the years. Some products that I use and mention here might not be suitable for everyone and may still pose various health risks. If you have any concerns about trying and using products mentioned above please consult with your health professional before doing so. Avoid skin contact, prolonged exposure and inhalation, ventilate the room with fresh air often regardless of which type of solvent you are using.
Since most art materials especially solvents can cause health risk to children and pets please take extra caution when working with solvents- keeping in mind they should never be within their reach and avoid for them to be directly exposed to the vapour in the room - studio where you are working.