Oil painters have used turpentine since the Renaissance.
This product is a derivative from tree sap or wood. It is used to thin oil paint, clean brushes and is a very inexpensive and efficient product.
However, it is also a health hazard and unless an artist uses it properly, prolonged exposure can be a serious health risk.
Over the centuries, common sense has kept most oil painters alive.
We don’t see our numbers diminishing substantially due to workplace fatalities. However, prolonged exposure and poor work habits can certainly cause health problems, which can have serious consequences.
Turpentine is available in several grades. Building supply stores sell very low quality turpentine. This is not suitable for an artist’s use for anything except brush cleaning. If you’re a truly starving artist, go ahead and use the hardware store brand turpentine to clean your brushes, but you must swear that you will never use that turpentine on a painting. Remember, you swore an oath.
The low priced household grade turpentine is not extensively refined. The impurities in the product could have an adverse reaction with the oil paint and eventually damage your painting.
Artist grade turpentine is refined to remove all impurities. This product works very well and is economical. However, it is easily absorbed through the skin and the fumes are hazardous. If you choose to use turpentine, you should have proper ventilation and avoid excessive contact with your skin.
Today’s artist has a number of other products available that are far less toxic and noxious. The major art supply manufacturers all produce solvents that are easy to use, effective and have fewer hazards associated with them.
There still is turpentine available for the die-hard purist. However, it should be used with care and caution. The major hitters in the art world such as Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher and Weber all still produce artist quality turpentine.
Turpenoid And Petroleum Based Solvents
Odorless Mineral Spirits and other similar products are petroleum distillates. They are less hazardous, but they are less potent and may work more slowly or efficiently. For someone who is sensitive to odors, these are good replacements for standard turpentine.
Mineral spirits is less odorous and oily compared to turpentine. It evaporates slowly, is used to thin paint and is used with touch-up varnishes. It is also useful for brush cleaning.
Odorless Mineral Spirits
This product has very little aroma, evaporates slowly and does not degrade when stored.
Sanodor, Gamsol and Turpenoid are all name brand low odor thinners and are less injurious to one’s health. That doesn’t mean that they are free of potential dangers, but there are fewer risks associated with them, and they won’t have you running from the room with the overpowering smell.
Other Solvent Considerations
If you are really adamant about using a low-risk solvent, there are a couple of fairly safe products to consider.
Eco-House 915 Orange Terpene is a solvent made from food-quality ingredients. It is archival quality and can be used as a substitute for turpentine.
Holbein and Lefranc & Bourgeois both offer Spike Lavender Oil, which is a distillate of a lavender plant that has been used by oil painters for centuries. This oil has properties similar to turpentine and smells nice as well. It does not evaporate as quickly as turpentine and may oxidize over time.
As a culture, we have become very cautious about health risks. There are many potential hazards that face us as we careen through our daily lives. It’s too bad that we need to be cautious doing something we love. A mountain climber knows the risks he faces every time he pursues his passion. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that, just like the mountain climber, we have to guard against the pitfalls and dangers of our passion as well.