4 Key Differences Between Traditional Oil Paints & Water Mixable Oil Paints

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The main difference between traditional oil paints and water mixable oil paints lies in, obviously, the chemical formation of them. But, of course, if you are just starting out with water mixable oil paints, or thinking of it, then you will only need to know about the practical uses of them. Here are 4 key differences that you should know of when using them as a painting medium.

1. Water Mixable Oil Paints Are Less Toxic

Whereas painting with traditional oil paint is a process that requires the use of solvents and chemical oils, an emulsifier has been added to water mixable oil paints, which allows them to be hydrated with water for a cleaner, safer painting process, which can be done without the use of noxious chemicals.

While this does not degenerate oil painting in the least, it is altogether a different experience than painting with traditional oils. It can also be more accessible to painters that seek to branch out of acrylic paints and into oil painting, but are wary of the possible dangers that come with traditional oil paints, such as chemical inhalation, and are interested in a paint that is easier to work with and dries more rapidly.

That being the case, there are some considerations to be aware of in how water mixable oil paint behaves on the canvas, and those considerations are exactly what we’ll be going over with here.

2. The Drying Time Is Faster With Water Mixable Oil Paint

The second thing to consider with water mixable oil paints is that the drying process is completely different to what you might have heard about with oil paints, or have gotten used to yourself. Traditional oil painting is typically a process that can take many sessions, largely because it hinges on many delicate layers of semi-translucent pigments suspended in an oil emulsion. These layers take a very long time to dry, and, because of this, it is taken for granted that oil paint on the canvas can simply be scraped off if you are unhappy with it, or reactivated using careful application of turpentine.

As opposed to this, water mixable oil paints can be used straight from the tube, and cure through oxidation. While they still remain workable for as much as two days after being applied, their drying window is much shorter than that of traditional oil paints, and, once completely dry, water mixable oil paint cannot be reactivated using more water. So, if you’d like to make changes, make sure it is within the drying window, and check frequently.

3. Easier Cleanup With Water Mixable Oil Paints

Another upside of painting with water mixable oil paints as opposed to traditional oil painting is the cleanup. By virtue of being water-activated, mixable oil paint is also water . soluble, meaning that, whereas traditional oil paints stick to your hands and clump on your brushes unless treated with extreme care, you should be able to rinse both your hands and your painting tools with warm water and soap, and be left no worse for wear because of it! Just make sure to have moisturiser on hand to keep your hands from drying out from the recurring washes!

4. In Painting

If you’ve gotten used to painting with traditional oils before transitioning to water mixable oil paints, one thing you’ll notice is that, when applying thin layers for underpainting that are highly diluted, your water mixables will behave more like watercolour than oil paints, or even acrylic.

Often, the layers will lighten as they dry, and go from bright and shiny, to more matte. This is because water is, in and of itself, a looser and more runny medium than turpentine, and it is exactly turpentine that the water replaces in the painting process. This being the case, much like turpentine, the more water you use to dilute the paint, the matter the layer will be and the faster it will dry.

If you’d like a process that resembles more what you’ve grown to expect from the traditional oil painting process, there are several water mixable paint thinners available on the market that should resolve some of the texture disparities, at least for the thin washes.

While it may seem that water mixable oil paints behaves completely differently to traditional oil paints at first, there are several rules that still apply to them. Key among those rules of thumb is the classic “fat over lean” approach to oil painting, which dictates that more flexible paints, with higher amounts of oil as opposed to turpentine – or, in this case, water – should be painted on top of “leaner”, or more watered down layers, so that you add volume as you add layers. With water mixable oil paints, this can be more of a learning process, since you’re adding water rather than turpentine, but you can adjust the flexibility of your paints through adding mediums, just as you would with traditional oil paints. Through the careful and ginger application of mediums, such as small amounts of linseed oil, walnut oil, or more artificial mediums, you can layer paint with a higher oil percentage over layers with more water, to achieve the same “fat over lean” painting process, and largely using the same basic materials that you’re familiar with.

While some painters report that painting with water mixable oil paints doesn’t achieve quite the same opacity and finished result that a traditional painting would, my favourite thing about water mixable oil paints is that they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive! Because of how flexible they are as a painting medium, they can be painted in conjunction with traditional oils, as well as, in the case of most paints available on the market, with watercolour and acrylic. With ease, you can use a combination of water mixable oil paint as a baseline, with added instances of traditional oil paint to add a more buttery and full-bodied texture, especially at the final layers of the painting.

As an overview, it is important to remember that water mixable oil paints are neither entirely unlike traditional oil paints, nor completely the same. The painting experience itself is very similar, with many of the same methods and techniques applying to both. However, the drying process is faster than you might expect, and the cleanup much easier. As a safer and more approachable version of oil paints, these water mixable paints are no substitute for the traditional form, but are a new art form all of their own.