The Science of Painting: Oil Paint and the Environment

My last “Science of Paint” post was on acrylic paint and its environmental impact. In that post, I promised to later write something about the environmental pros and cons of oil paint. And here I am!

One major plus side to oil paint from an environmental standpoint is that much of the paint is made from food-grade linseed oil. You may not have heard of eating linseed oil, but in in food and nutrition, linseed oil is called flaxseed oil, a term most of us have heard. Flaxseed oil takes a certain amount of processing to be used in food or in nutritional supplements and is utilized in traditional European dishes for its hearty taste. It has the highest level of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA among all vegetable oils, which may give it some benefits for brain and heart health. Overall, linseed oil isn’t of great environmental concern, which is good news for oil paint.

Poster that says 'Your country needs FLAX' soliciting linseed oil during WWII.
Perhaps if I had been around to see this sign during World War II, I wouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that flaxseed oil and linseed oil are the same thing.

However, while the oil in oil paint is a more natural binder than the plastic in acrylic paint, the pigments used in oil paints, particularly in the modern day, are not always so benign. Reds, yellows, some blues and many whites are produced using potentially toxic heavy metals. However, many of these metals are found in nature in other forms, and are present in small enough quantities to not present massive long-term environmental impacts.

The true danger in oil paint from an environmental standpoint comes from how hard it is to clean up. The paint thinners used in oil paint are highly toxic, and often give off dangerous, flammable fumes. These harsh chemicals when disposed of incorrectly leak into watersheds and can pollute waterways and groundwater. Paint thinners must be treated as highly toxic waste in disposal and should be handled with great care in accordance with local laws.

This does not bode well for artists. Acrylic paint has environmental impacts as a result of its plastic constituents, and oil paint requires toxic chemicals for clean-up. So this yields very few options. One option is water-mixable oil paints, that don’t contain plastic the way acrylic paint does, but are washable with soap and water. This is accomplished by chemical engineering of the oil binder, so the paints are true oil paints, rather than an acrylic formula under a different name. Much like regular oil paint, these paints come at a variety of price points and qualities, and in general more expensive water-mixable oil paints are likely to more closely approximate the look and feel of traditional oils.

Painting of blue and red ribbon like structures on a red and green background.
This painting was made with a strange combination of water-mixable oil paint and woodstock oil. Clearly not a sustainable mode of art creation.

Some brands are even attempting to make all-natural alternatives to artists’ paint. Natural Earth Paint is a European company that claims to produce artist quality paint “without preservatives, heavy metals, toxic solvents, plastic and binders.” However, brands like this are few and far between, and demands on manufacturing keep the price point for these types of product quite high at present. Additionally, these types of materials have not been in use by artists long enough for there to be a general sense of their quality compared to synthetic alternatives.

Much like acrylic paint, the ecological impacts of oil paint are multi-layered and complicated. At any rate, an important consideration for any artist working with any materials is to consider the impact of what they create and be mindful of their waste and disposal. Hopefully we can add artistic beauty to the world while maintaining the natural beauty already present.

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