I Wish I Knew This in Art School (Part 1)

After art school, I worked for almost three years in a sales job travelling around Alberta teaching art teachers and stocking their art rooms with supplies. With a degree behind me and on-the-job experience, I thought I knew everything. (Don’t we all think so when we are young and naive)?

Then I had an opportunity to work at The Paint Spot. Sure I aced the interview but the first weeks on the job were a surprising lesson in just how little I knew about art materials. Luckily, I had the best mentors in the business, David and Sidsel Bradley. David had a curiosity for all the technical information behind the chemistry and manufacturing of art materials. Sidsel loved the romance of working with materials and made sure I tested our materials and experimented with new techniques. The Bradleys helped me gain a thorough education in art materials and, more importantly, a desire to keep learning.

If I could now visit myself back when I was in school, these would be the tips I would share to save time, money, and frustration. Learning these tips as a student, I may have created better art. I hope they help you.


Oil Paints Are Not Toxic: Watch Your Solvents

If you were in art school or at university during the 80s you may well remember the large open coffee tins of brushes soaking in solvents. The aroma of solvent was an accepted part of the studio experience. Fast forward to the late 90s and oil paints were all but banned from most academic studios. It is not the fault of the oil paint. It is the solvent we used to clean them.

Oil paint is most often made from linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant. Flax has lots of healthy advantages. However, linseed oil is a drying oil that does not mix or clean with water – hence the need for solvents. The stronger the solvent, the faster and easier it cleans. However, the stronger the solvent, the more harmful the aromatics it contains. They can do all sorts of damage to the immune system, nervous system and may even lead to cancer. Toxicity of a solvent is also seen in how quickly it evaporates into the air and how few parts per million it takes to reach toxic levels. Flash point is another underestimated danger. I am surprised we didn’t spontaneously combust at art school. (Probably the studios were too cold). Compare your solvents in this handy chart courtesy of Gamblin Artist Colors. To learn more about safety in oil painting visit Gamblin Artist Colors.

Solvent Chart

Modern options in oil painting mean harmful solvents may be avoided altogether. Water-soluble oils like Holbein Duo, are some of the better options. A solution for purists in traditional oil painting is simply to switch to Gamsol.  According to Gamblin, “Gamsol is special: it is made for products and processes that come into more intimate contact with the body such as cosmetics, hand cleaners, and cleaning food service equipment. Gamsol is a petroleum distillate but all the aromatic solvents have been refined out of it, less than .005% remains. Aromatic solvents are the most harmful types of petroleum solvents.”

Oil painters – rejoice! You can still enjoy the luminous colour and extended blending times associated with traditional oil painting. Just pick you solvents wisely and use them sparingly.

Don’t Discard Your Hard Brushes!

Yes, you can clean dried acrylics and oils out of brushes. A toxic and common misconception is that turpentine is required for all tough jobs. Several brands of non-toxic brush cleaners provide an alternative for cleaning brushes more easily and more effectively. Turpentine will not remove acrylic polymer. Surprise! Dried acrylic can be cleaned out of brushes with ammonia window cleaner or isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. I recently took up the challenge in Oksana Zhelisko’s ‘Expressive Portraits in Oil’ class. Almost every student had a brush or two that was dry and hardened with paint. Bristle Magic and Marianne’s Brush Soaps worked the best.

May I suggest matching your brush to the type of paints you are using? Acrylic paints work best with synthetic brushes. Dried acrylic peels easy from a plastic palette; therefore, dried paint will also peel off the plastic hairs of a synthetic brush. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Hog bristles are better for oil paints as they more durable for use with solvents. More About Brush Repair.

2013-10-15 13.06.40

Use Mediums & Gels to Dilute Acrylics

Okay – perhaps mediums and gels were mentioned but I never gave them the attention required. Of course, no one demonstrated the dramatic tinting strength of GOLDEN Fluid colours diluted like the example to the left. On my goodness! 90% dilution and the intensity is maintained! Plus, the slight transparency helps the white canvas or paper boost the glow of the intense colours. Rheni Tauchid from Tri Art explained it so well. “Colour is the prima donna of art. Think of gels and mediums as the special effects, lights and sound crew. They are what help your colours really show off.” Not knowing this at the time meant both my paintings and my student budget suffered.

Wait there’s more … gels and mediums have no pigment and are significantly less expensive than the colours. Make your colours go further and do more –all while saving money. The best thing about gels and mediums is that there are so many to enjoy. Painting will be more fun and your projects will have unique personality. We have several gel charts on hand so you can decide when ones may work for you. Read more about the world of gels on my favourite website GOLDEN Artists Color.

This October, I celebrate 19 years at The Paint Spot. That makes nearly two decades surrounded by art material manufacturing and art-making. (Best job in the world!) I am grateful for the education and inspiration of mentors, countless instructors, visiting artists, manufacturers, resident artists, customer and friends. Every day I learn something I didn’t know. So stay tuned.

Did you find these tips to be relevant and useful? Drop us a line or visit our shop and share your experience with us.

 Kim Fjordbotten (October 2013) As owner of The Paint Spot, Kim Fjordbotten is passionate about helping artists use materials and make art. She is available as a speaker and educator for teachers and art associations.

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