3 Important Oil Painting Mediums For Artists

Cups of linseed oil and alkyd lined up at the Hillsborough Art Academy.

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Maybe you just recently started oil painting, or you have been at it for a while, but you have most likely heard teachers or other artists talk about oil painting mediums. 

A medium is a vehicle that’s used to thin the paint and change the drying process. Different types of mediums impart different qualities, some dry paint quicker some make it stay wet longer.

All oil paint has some form of medium in it already. Oil binds paint pigment together, as the pigment is just a dry powder. It’s simply color and then paint manufacturers add oil to it. Most paints these days are made with either safflower oil or linseed oil.

So with that in mind, let’s discuss several different types of oil painting mediums and why a painter might choose to use them.

A display of how painters used to mix their own pigments with linseed oil. Credit: Old Holland Museum

Do I Actually Need Oil Painting Mediums?

Generally speaking, paint is in its finest condition the way it comes out of the tube. Quality paint manufacturers like Old Holland don’t make a product designed to be degraded with more medium. If more oil was required for the paint, they would put more oil in the paint.

So the higher the grade of paint the less oil you will have in it. If you open up a tube of paint and oil spills out of it, chances are you dealing with a lower grade material. So you can assess the quality of paint based on the amount of oil that’s in the paint because paint pigments are a lot more expensive than oil binders.

If you are working with high-quality paint, you don’t need to add oil painting mediums. But you may want to affect the density, drying time, or characteristics of the paint, and for that, you can use a medium.

Medium can thin down opaque paint or increase the fluidity of glaze.

Choosing a Medium requires Intention 

When Evolve students are taught to paint, they add extra linseed oil to the paint to thin it. This also slows down the drying process a little, but the big thing is the thinning of the paint to create a smooth, even finish.

The general rule of thumb when adding oil painting mediums to a painting is you don’t want to thin the paint unless it’s your intent. You don’t want to add medium to a point where the paint is no longer opaque or solid. Rather, you want a stable paint film that you can easily move about on your canvas.

This means that you never want more than 50% of your mixture to be oil. Ideally, you will have much less than half, just a little bit of oil, because the paint as it comes out of the tube is in its most pristine condition.

You should use a medium only if necessary and if it works with your intentions for the painting. If you are using quality paints medium is not necessary most of the time. But if you require paint to dry quickly, slowly, or be a bit thinner, the medium is a good choice.

Kevin used medium to speed drying and increase opacity in this painting.

Alkyd Medium

In general, people want their oil paint to dry faster and for that, they may use an alkyd as an oil painting medium. Alkyd is a chemical that has some solvent in it. One recognizable solvent is turpentine, which breaks down binders in the paint, drying them at a faster rate.

Alkyd will dry a painting overnight unless the paint is very thick. Generally, it will dry paintings within 24 hours that you can work layer on top of layer for several days in a row. This is beneficial for quick turnarounds in paintings and techniques like speed painting where it is necessary to paint in thin layers.

Here at Evolve, we always mix alkyd into linseed oil. And the reason is that alkyd by itself will start to dry up the paint very quickly. So if you sit down to work in a three-hour window, the paint will begin to stiffen up. While there are times this may be desirable, often mixing linseed oil into alkyd produces the most workable paint drying time.

oil painting mediums

Kevin used medium to speed drying and increase opacity in this painting.

Alkyd Used As An Isolating Layer

Alkyd medium can also function as an isolating layer called “sealing”. This simply is the process of locking completed layers of paint in place with alkyd so that glaze or additional paint can be put on top without lifting any of the paint below.


Once a painting is dried, it can be sealed with alkyd. Once the alkyd layer is dry, the artist can go on to paint with opaque or glaze paints, sealing again when it is necessary to lock in the layers below.

Linseed Oil as an Oil Painting Medium

Linseed oil is a standard and traditional medium used to make most paints. It will simply thin the paint and make it stay wet a little bit longer.

A paint palette can be preserved for many days with clove oil. Photo by Dan Cook

When mixed with paint it slows down the drying process so that over a long day of working your paint will remain pliable and not begin to dry or become sticky. However, it will often take longer than 24 hours to dry if used alone.

Here at Evolve, we recommend and use linseed oil with alkyd, generally in four-part linseed oil to one part alkyd ratio. And what that does is give painters a medium that stays workable for several hours, but will still dry overnight. After four or so hours the paint will begin to stiffen slightly, but it is still very workable and pliable and will be dry for work the next day.

Clove Oil as an Oil Painting Medium

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want the paint to stay wet longer, you would use clove oil. Clove oil is not technically an artist material, it’s actually an essential oil and is available at certain markets or pharmacies. Clove oil is usually used for two things: cooking and toothaches.

However, if you take clove oil and add it to your paint it will keep your painting wet for days. Only a few drops mixed with linseed oil, and you will have a palette that remains wet for a few days.

Clove oil can be a very helpful tool for artists, particularly when working on large pieces or artists who may need to extend their palette to stay wet for several days.

oil painting mediums

Clove oil can extend the life of your oil paint. Photo by Natural Pigments

Conclusion

Different mediums are used for different purposes. This is crucial when deciding the medium you wish to add to your paint. If your intent is to extend drying time, then consider linseed oil or clove oil. But if you wish to have your paint dry very quickly a combination of linseed oil and alkyd or pure alkyd will be helpful.

Your intent is always important to consider as you choose a medium, and keep in mind that paint in its purest form, out of the tube, is often all you need.

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  1. Thank you Kevin. That was very informative and great to know. It takes some of the mystery out of what mediums a painter should use and when to use it. I especially liked the linseed oil and alkyd combination!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Linda

  2. I love using Old Holland paint it is a very different experience the feel of the paint is fantastic, The problem is how fast it dries, I have found it very waist full, and so very expensive. I bought walnut oil and that has solved the problem. I store it in a mastersons stay wet palette which is air tight. My paint can stay wet for days depending on how much I use. I would like your view on this.

    1. Hi Antoinette!

      Old Holland can dry quite quickly, which can be very helpful at times and frustrating at others! Here at Evolve, we use linseed oil with a combination of Alkyd to create the perfect drying time for our paint. This allows the painting to be worked into for about 6 hours, but dry for work the next day.

      Quality walnut oil can be quite a bit more expensive than linseed oil and dries slower. This can be helpful if you want your paint to stay wet but causes issues if you wish to work the next day, or even in the next two days. The viscosity of walnut oil is a bit different as well, which causes a different texture to the paint. If the texture of the walnut oil is causing the paint to be too difficult to work with, I would recommend trying clove oil, a less expensive product that also slows the drying time significantly!

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