How Mineral Spirits & Turpentine Differ (Plus A Natural Alternative)
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Does this sound familiar at all?
When first starting out on my oil painting journey, I found that I was running through my tubes of paint at an incredible rate…
…and I didn’t even realize it!
I thought that it was completely normal that every painting I made used up at least a half of a large tube of Titanium White…
…that’s not normal.
Besides, how many more tubes of Titanium White can a starving artists budget really handle before it breaks the bank?
I mean, come on:
We all love to paint.
But when it requires endless restocking of the mediums that we so passionately love, we sometimes need to take a more measured approach
Even if budget isn’t necessary the biggest issue (lucky you), you still might run into some problems when it comes to honing your technique if you find that the oil based paint is just simply too thick of a medium for you to wield appropriately.
Of course you could use a bottle of linseed oil, but then you run into the problem of long drying times that not only get in the way of your workflow, but may simply kill your progress all together.
Now for us artists, we find that there are two major types of solvents that we are relying on time and time again, and that’s either a turpentine or a mineral spirt (and perhaps a secret third one…which I will get to in just a minute).
If you have used one of these before, you probably are already familiar with the results.
If not, I want to spend just a minute talking about a solvent for those of you who are a bit newer to the ever-growing world of art and art supplies:
Table of Contents
What Is A Solvent? And What Effect Does It Have On Your Work?
Solvents are a key weapon to any artist’s workshop.
You probably heard the saying before ‘fat over lean’ (or thick over thin).
Basically this ‘fat over lean’ is a rule that nearly all artists live by…
…and it’s pretty easy to follow.
When you make any piece of art (especially an oil painting), it’s usually constructed in several layers:
- Finished with some sort of gloss or varnish
Well, here’s the deal:
If you take your fresh squeezed paint from your oil tube, you are going to find out that it’s not only thick, but will take FOREVER to dry.
Seriously, we are talking at least a day.
Now, painting isn’t a rushed process…
…unless you are a speed painter of sorts!
But for most of the mere mortals like myself, we would much rather have a painting completed in a few days time rather than several weeks.
Furthermore, we like to apply different styles and techniques as we tackle each new piece as well.
This is where solvents come in.
Solvents play a key role in thinning out the paint and can generally be called paint thinners.
Now, while we are only talking about turpentine and mineral spirits (and don’t forget that secret one that I will share in just a minute) in this article, there are several other liquids that fall within the solvent category, including acetone, naphtha, and DMF to name a few (source).
So, what exactly does a solvent do other than thin paint?
Well for the sake of not sounding like a high school chemistry teacher (having vivid flashbacks of being called upon), solvents do this:
They help to break up (or dissolve) a solute, in this case our oil based paint.
Oil based paint is, you guessed it, a mixture of oil and pigment in a single tube.
These solvents largely target the oil in this mixture to make it transform to a more water-like consistency.
While solvents can get your oil paints to be incredibly thin and almost watercolor-esq, these solvents should always be used with extreme caution.
Not only do they have an incredibly low flashpoint at 104° F (40° C), but they may cause peeling of your work if they are overused.
The last thing you want as an artist is to hang up or sell your artwork only to have it begin peeling due to your heavy hand with the solvents.
Now, it does bear repeating, with the thick-over-thin rule that so many artists exercise, it still is completely safe (and expected) to use these solvents in your daily workflow…
…but just be sure to use them more so for the initial wash and underpainting rather than the overpainting.
Mineral Spirits vs. Turpentine – What Are They Formulated From?
Initially many folks may think that mineral spirits and turpentine are derived from a chemical.
After all, when was the last time you saw a turpentine flower when at your local nursery?
However, here’s the truth:
Turpentine is actually derived from a tree!
Yes, you read that right.
Turpentine is commonly made from the resin in pine trees (who would have thunk?!).
Now there are some turpentine’s derived from balsam, cypress, larch and a few others, but most of what you will find on store shelves comes from some form of pine tree.
Now you might be thinking, being that turpentine is derived from a plant, surely it must be safe in a studio environment right?!
If you head to your local hardware or home improvement store, you are likely able to pick up a huge jug of turpentine for under $20 bucks.
However, this turpentine isn’t highly refined.
Not only will this mean that there are several impurities in the solvent that simply aren’t suitable for fine art, but will also feature heavy toxic scents as well.
Therefore, by all measures, you should avoid using this type of turpentine in an art studio for your own safety.
Contrary, you can actually find artist grade turpentine.
This artist grade turpentine has a much more dialed back potency.
If possible, we would always recommend going with student grade turpentine as it will be the most mild form as they are designed for classroom settings.
So, all this info about turpentine, what about mineral spirits?
Derived from petroleum, mineral spirits tend to be preferred among artists both old and new.
Sold as regular mineral spirits or odorless mineral spirits, this is a great mild/nearly unscented solvent you can use daily.
Like turpentine, odorless mineral spirits will do a terrific job at thinning any oil paint you throw at it.
Just like turpentine, you can often find mineral spirits at your local hardware store, however, you should always opt to go for the artist grade solution.
Not only will it be safer for your body, but will also yield better results when adopting the fat-over-lean painting technique.
Odorless Mineral Spirits vs. Turpentine Drying Times
Source of the solvent and scent aside, one of the most important considerations when it comes to these two very popular solvents is their drying times.
As any seasoned artist will agree, having a firm understanding on how long it may take a particular part of your painting to dry will allow you to plan your work accordingly.
Now, while we would like to give you hard facts on what you should expect within your own studio, there are a lot of environmental factors that can alter the numbers.
Therefore, we will give more of a general guideline instead:
Turpentine will dry at a much faster rate than odorless mineral spirits.
Now, here’s the deal:
If you want a part of your painting to dry a bit faster, you will want to employ the following techniques:
1. Paint In Thinner Layers
While the whole fat over lean rule will always apply, if you keep your layers razor thin, this will help to decrease drying time.
Therefore, be sure to cut down any of the medium with a fair bit of solvent to thin out the oil in the tube itself.
2. Store In A Dry (Low Humidity) Area
If you paint in your basement, you may want to take your painting out of this area in the evening hours and place it elsewhere.
Basements are naturally damp environments and may extend the time it takes to dry out your painting.
Contrary, investing in a dehumidifier may make sense if you find that paint drying times are a problem you are dealing with regularly.
3. Drying Medium
Whether you use Liquin (by Winsor Newton) or Galkyd (by Gamblin), both of these products are used to shorten the drying time when mixed with your oil paint.
You can usually expect your work to be touch dry within 24 hours after application with any of the above products.
How To Dispose Of Mineral Spirits And Turpentine
In order to be a good steward to both the environment and your local water facility, you should under no circumstances put either turpentine or odorless mineral spirits down the drain or in the ground.
While these solvents are safe for painting, they are incredibly harmful for the environment.
Here are a few pro tips that you should follow when using these solvents:
If you poured out a portion of your solvent into a secondary container (more on this in a minute) and it became muddied with colors after repeated use, it’s not bad.
If you give the solvent a few days (or less), the liquid will separate from the pigment.
This allows you to pour off the top clear layer of the solvent into a new container and dispose of the remnants that are at the bottom of the existing container.
But please don’t throw out these pigment remnants…
Instead, you will want to get in contact with your local sanitation department for advice on properly disposing of this gunk.
But don’t worry…
It doesn’t cost you anything…and usually just involves swinging by the local trash collection area and handing it to them.
Where To Store Solvents Safely
Ok, when it comes to solvents you must exercise extreme caution not only for yourself but also pets and children as well.
When it comes to odorless mineral spirits, their near absent fragrance can very easily be mistaken for water.
What we like to recommend to our readers is that you place solvents in a metal latched or glass container (that doesn’t look like a standard glass you would drink from) and label it clearly.
Companies like Gamblin even offer labels for easy printing that you can place on the side of your jars for both safety and easy organization (see here).
Where To Buy Odorless Mineral Sprits And Turpentine
As we stressed earlier, both of these solvents are likely going to be sold in hardware stores…
However, as cheap and attractive that they may seem (I mean who could turn down 128oz of odorless mineral spirits for $14 bucks), these solvents aren’t artist grade.
Therefore, all the negative side effects associated with them will be quite prevalent.
As you would probably guess, the best place to buy these are going to be at either your local art supply store (i.e. Michaels, Hobby Shop, or mom & pop boutiques) and online.
Many artists like to go with Dick Blick as their selection is second to none.
A Natural Solvent To Consider
While we spent all this time talking about odorless mineral spirits and turpentine, surely we wouldn’t forget about that natural solution we eluded earlier, would we?!
Of course not!
One solvent that artists are starting to take more of a liking to is oil of spike lavender (also known simply as oil of spike).
Derived from the lavender plant, this oil is completely all natural and performs on par with turpentine.
It’s terrific at thinning out paint and decreasing drying times.
While it’s not as effective as odorless mineral spirits or turpentine at cleaning your paint brushes thoroughly, it’s still a great solvent to use while painting – making it a great way to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
Oil of Spike Lavender is a likely a bit harder to find locally and may require you to resort to online stores to purchase.
Key Takeaways When It Comes To Deciding Odorless Mineral Spirits vs. Turpentine
When considering a solvent, we would always recommend going with odorless mineral spirits for comfort (assuming your budget doesn’t allow for oil of spike).
The nearly non-existent smell in odorless mineral spirits will ensure than you don’t have any headaches for you and those around you.
Like any solvent, odorless mineral spirits will still emit fumes, however, they just won’t nearly be as pronounced – so be sure that you still seal the container when they aren’t actively being used.