Safety In Oils

Safety In Working With Oil Paint

You’ve already read a lot about paint safety as part of our Toxicity discussion in our Choosing Your Paint lesson. We’ll go a bit more in-depth in this lesson since you have chosen oil as your preferred painting medium.

Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:






A lot of beginning students that I talk to are interested in working with oil paints, but are concerned with the hazards associated with them. They may have heard stories about “smelly” turpentine or toxic paints and while these concerns are certainly based in fact, many of them are now nearly obsolete with advances in painting technology. There’s a theory that van Gogh died of lead poisoning, the result of being careless with (and possibly nibbling on) his paints. But that was in the 1800’s. Now, paints that were once made with lead are being made with non-toxic replacements.

Painting in oils can be extremely rewarding—but also potentially hazardous to you and the environment if certain rules aren’t followed or if you make poor choices. Before you start painting, read these safety precautions regarding ventilation, flammability and toxicity.

The only difference between traditional oil paints and water-miscible oil paints is that traditional oil paints require solvent to clean and water-miscible oil paints require only water. Some experienced painters notice a difference in the quality of the paint, but you don’t need to worry about that just yet.


When you’re working with traditional oil paints, you’ll use solvents to wash your brushes and thin your paints. A lot of beginning painters think only of the smelly turpentine artists used to use to clean their brushes and are turned off by this factor. Not all solvents are equal, and while some have quite the odor to them, others have nearly none.

We recommend Gamsol (made by Gamblin). Here’s what Gamblin’s website says about it:

Most solvents available to artists come from the industrial paint industry where solvent power and cheapness is prized. 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.

These facts are detailed in the MSDS for Gamsol, this document shows that it has an Exposure Limit Value higher than most solvents available to artists. In addition, Gamsol’s flash point is so high it can ship via air cargo as a non-hazardous material.

All of these factors have lead to Gamsol being used widely in oil painting classrooms; in those classes there are no solvent odors, only the wonderful smell of oil colors.

I have worked with Gamsol exclusively for years and absolutely love it. It’s not at all smelly–my roommates have never smelled any sort of fumes and I paint in the house–and it’s reusable. When you begin a painting session, you’ll pour some Gamsol into a small container. When you’ve finished a painting session, simply replace the lid on your small container and allow it to sit overnight. The next day, all the paint solids will have settled to the bottom of the container and the clean Gamsol can be poured off into another vessel for reuse. The paint solids that are left over can be wiped out with a paper towel and thrown away if you haven’t used any hazardous colors (cadmium, cobalt, lead, etc.). If you are using hazardous colors, you’ll want to keep a jar of these paint solids and dispose of it properly about once a year. If you’re into recycling, you can turn the paint solids into a neutral grey to be used for paintings later on. Check out Oil Supplies And What Do I Need for a fun video on how to do this.

It’s best to have some ventilation when you’re working with solvents.

Cross ventilation is best—two open windows across from each other to let in fresh air. If not, open what windows you have available to you. You could additionally use a fan to help move the vapors outdoors.

If you ever start to feel light-headed or nauseous, leave the room immediately. Go outside and get some fresh air. Your studio isn’t well ventilated enough and you should reconsider your ventilation system or your working methods. For more information about proper ventilation, check out this website:

If you have absolutely no ventilation, consider working outside (en plein air) or using an alternative solvent. You can rinse your brushes out with plain, clean linseed oil. To do it this way, have two containers—one for “dirty” linseed oil where you will wash your brushes off initially, then another container with “clean” linseed oil. After you rinse off in the dirty oil, wipe your brush on your rag then rinse it again in the clean linseed.

Additionally, you can choose to work with Water Miscible Oils (WMOs). They clean up with water, so no solvents are needed. WMOs have the same working properties as traditional oil paints. Only one molecule has been removed, thus allowing the paint to be soluble in water. If you decide to go this route, you will need to purchase water miscible linseed oil (you can’t use traditional mediums).

You need to practice good housekeeping for your safety with both traditional oils and water miscible oils.


Mediums are additives you mix in with your paint for a variety of reasons, including increasing flow, adding gloss, reducing gloss, adding texture, and more. Most of the mediums we use in this course are pretty safe, but always be sure to read the label before you use a medium. Ventilation is always a good idea, as is keeping them out of the reach of children and pets, and not eating or eating near your supplies. If you’re interested in learning more about mediums, see our post in the SRC.


You’ll need to have a fire extinguisher wherever you decide to work. This is a good idea just in general and not necessarily related to the paints themselves. A fire can is also a good idea to prevent an accidental fire.

Solvents are flammable.

Turpentine, turpenoid, odorless mineral spirits, paint thinner, and Gamsol are all flammable. Do not smoke or leave lit candles/incense by your solvents.

Rags can ignite without a spark.

Oil and solvent soaked rags can combust without the help of a spark.

Watch this video from ABC News:

Keep rags in a fire can—any metal container with a lid will work. Make sure there’s no plastic inside the can as it can ignite and melt if there’s a fire. If you don’t have a fire can, you can soak your rags in water and lay them out flat to dry. Crumpled rags start fires but laid flat the heat will dissipate as the oils and solvents cure. Once they have dried, they can be reused or thrown out with your household trash. If you have been using paint that contains lead, you will need to dispose of your rags by contacting your local recycling center for hazardous materials requirements.

Gamsol has a very high flash point, which means it’s much less likely to spontaneously combust than other solvents.


Some paints are toxic.

Both traditional oil and water-miscible oil paints made with pigments like cadmium, cobalt and lead are toxic. Lead white, in particular, shouldn’t be used—the lead can be absorbed through your skin and can accumulate in your body. A lot of lead poisoning used to happen when painters would “point their brushes” by putting them in their mouths and then drawing them out between pursed lips.

Many modern paint companies, like Gamblin Artist Colors, replicate these pigments with safer alternatives while maintaining a vibrant pigment load. Most student grade paints are made with safer alternatives, denoted by the use of the word “hue” on the paint label, meaning the hazardous component has been replaced with a safer alternative. Imitation colors (i.e. Cadmium Red Hue) are safer but don’t have the vibrancy or pigment load that the real thing does, so there are pros and cons to buying hues.

Do not eat, drink, or smoke around your paints.

Keep all food and drink away from your studio to prevent accidental ingestion. I know this can be hard to do. I keep my tea far away from my workstation in a lidded container with a plastic cover over the opening for the mouth so I can ensure no paint or solvent gets in.

Check the label.

To know what’s in your paint, check the label. If it’s toxic, it will be clearly labeled with a warning. Let’s take a look at the following labels:



Flake White is toxic (made with lead) and Mars Black in non-toxic. Notice that Flake White has a warning on the front of the label as well as an explanation on the back. Mars Black does not have a warning because it is a safe paint.

On the tube on the left, there is a clear warning on the front of the label that reads “WARNING: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED. SEE SIDE PANEL.” On the back of that tube, the label reads:

WARNING: Contains lead compounds. Danger of cumulative effects. May cause birth defects and damage to the kidneys, nervous system and blood. Cancer hazard.

PRECAUTIONS: Avoid ingestion and skin contact. Do not sand dry film. Wash thoroughly after handling. Keep out of reach of children.

FIRST AID: If swallowed, get medical attention immediately or call your Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

WARNING: This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Conforms to ASTM D 4236.

Unless you ingest the paint directly, the concern is more for the cumulative effects, meaning that a drop of flake white on your skin may not immediately affect you, but after years of consistent exposure, you may develop medical problems. However, Flake White with actual lead in it is 1) expensive and 2) hard to find. It’s also not the most common white to paint with. More likely, you’ll be using Titanium White or even Zinc White (both completely fine). If you do decide to buy flake white, many companies now make Flake White replacement, which is the same as the original minus the toxic lead.

For your information, we do not recommend any paints containing lead. We do recommend two cadmiums, though–Cadmium Red Light and Cadmium Yellow Medium. The biggest concern with cadmiums is ingestion and inhalation. Since you won’t be working with powdered pigments, the concern of inhalation is non-existent. And ingestion is more to do with environmental pollution than anything that occurs in the painting studio. If you’re interested in finding out more, here’s a short article from Independent.

Almost all paints have been made available with their toxic components removed. You could use Cerulean Blue (which has a California Prop 65 warning–it may contain ingredients known to cause cancer or birth defects) OR you can use Manganese Blue Hue–the color is almost exactly the same but the hazardous materials have been replaced with modern, non-toxic equivalent.

You can use Gloves in a Bottle, which is essentially a specially designed lotion that provides a protective barrier on your hands so you can use oil paints without fear that they’re seeping into your skin.

gloves in a bottle

Available for purchase online or in major big box stores.

Standards for the naming and labeling of paint are set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Conforming to the standards is voluntary, but most manufacturers conform to them. On the back of the tube of paint will be the letters ASTM followed by a code, such as D 4303. Any toxic paints must be labeled with D 4236, which means it is potentially hazardous.



The Art and Craft Materials Institute (ACMI) label on paints show that the paint has been evaluated by a qualified toxicologist. Any paint that is potentially hazardous will have the ASTM D 4236 rating, a signal word such as “caution” or “warning,” a list of the hazardous ingredients, a list of how it can hurt you if used improperly (i.e. may cause cancer, etc.), instructions for using the paint properly (i.e. avoid ingestion), an appropriate phone number, and a statement that it is inappropriate for use by children. The label above displays a “CL” in the center, which stands for “cautionary label.” This means the paint contains something that may potentially be toxic.



The “AP” (approved product) label identifies art materials that are safe and that are certified in a toxicological evaluation by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems.

Check the facts.

If you want to know more about what’s in your materials, find the Material Safety Data Sheet by going to There are millions of records on file for everything from oil paint to thinner to laundry soap. Find the product number on the material in question and input it into the search bar at the top of the MSDS homepage.

Dispose of your hazardous materials properly.

Some materials can be thrown out with your household trash, but others cannot. Paint tubes should be fully emptied before going into the trash. If they contained hazardous chemicals like lead, you’ll need to contact your local recycling center for information on how to dispose of hazardous waste. For example, if you live in San Francisco, you’ll need to check out this website to find out how to dispose of your hazardous waste properly:

Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about potential hazards associated with oil painting and are prepared to make informed decisions regarding your materials and work space.

Next Lesson: Locating And Setting Up Your Work Space: Oils

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