Have you ever worked with oil paints, and wondered what the heck is in this stuff? You might be surprised to learn that most oil paints typically contain only two or three ingredients! Not only is formulating your own oil paint fun, but it can also yield a higher quality product that costs much less than the fancy art store varieties.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at a traditional method of making oil paint that dates back to the beginnings of the art itself.
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Step 1: Getting Started
To get started making oil paint, you’ll need:
1) Cold-pressed, raw, or unrefined linseed oil – Linseed oil tends to do much of the heavy lifting in many oil based paint formulations. The reason is that unlike most plant based oils, linseed oil is known as a drying oil. For example, if you were to spill some olive oil on your countertop, chances are it would still be wet to the touch many weeks later. Linseed oil is different in that if you were to spill some on your counter, it would dry to form a tough film within a few days.
While you’ll be able to find linseed oil at most artist supply shops, you can also find it at the grocery store as flax seed oil. Despite what the fancy artist paint brands say, flax oil from your grocery store is generally just as good as the product they sell. Just be sure that your flax oil is pure oil, as some brands are enriched with extra ground up bits of flax seed.
2) Pigment – Pigment can be found online, or at most artist supply stores. In this Instructable, I’ll be using the pigment Ultramarine Blue.
Ultramarine has been around for eons, and until synthetic versions of it were produced in the 1800s, it used to be among the most expensive pigments available to painters, where it was used to represent virtue, holiness, and despite its high cost, humility.
Ultramarine is also generally considered to be quite safe. While you can use almost any pigment you want with this recipe, keep in mind that many pigments are very toxic and may contain high amounts of lead, chromium and other nasty chemicals you don’t want to be breathing in. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the pigments you’re intending to use, and take appropriate safety measures.
3) Refined beeswax – Beeswax acts as both an emulsifier which helps the pigment stick to the linseed oil, and as a thixotropic agent which will help keep the pigment evenly disbursed throughout our paint, and prevent it from settling to the bottom of our container.
You can find beeswax at most craft stores, and it comes in either blocks or tiny pellets called prills. Either option will work just fine, but in this Instructable I’ll be using prilled beeswax since it tends to be a bit easier to melt. Just make sure you’re not using unrefined beeswax (the yellow stuff) as it will add impurities to your paint.
In this recipe, beeswax will make up about 2% of our oil base. However, depending on the pigment you choose to use, you may want to experiment with adding slightly more or less beeswax based on how readily your pigment absorbs the linseed oil. For example, with some pigments, such as flake white, you may find that beeswax isn’t even necessary at all to achieve your preferred paint consistency. But, with pigments such as Ultramarine Green, you may need up to 4% bees wax to keep the paint from feeling too “stringy.”
1) Mortar and pestle – While many commercial pigments are already ground up to a very fine powder, some natural pigments may be very clumpy. In these cases, a mortar and pestle can help you prepare the pigment for grinding.
2) Muller and glass slab – A muller is a special tool used to grind pigments into a carrier such as linseed oil. Glass is used most often because it’s not porous and easy to clean. If you don’t have a muller, improvise! I’ve had luck using the flat side of a piece of glass tile for example, or you could even use your palette knife.
3) Pallet knife and spatula – We’ll be using a palette knife to help mix our paint. A simple silicon spatula can also be helpful in cleaning up, or transferring finished paint to a tube.
4) Scale – It’s handy to either own or borrow a scale that you can use for measuring out your oil paint ingredients. This becomes especially important for keeping track of any changes you make to the recipe!
5) Safety equipment – You’ll want to keep pigments off of your skin and out of your eyes. At the very least, you will also want to wear a simple dust mask. Remember: if you want to work with some of the more toxic pigments, you will need to use a more substantial respirator.
Step 2: Part A: Preparing Our Pigment
In order to make our pigment easier to work with, we are going to start by breaking down any large clumps in our pigment, and wetting the pigment with just a pinch of linseed oil.
In this demonstration, I’m only using about three grams of pigment, which won’t get you much paint. After you have some practice, you can always scale the recipe up to make as much as you need, and any extra pigment you prepare can be stored in a sealed container.
If you’re using store-bought pigment that already looks finely ground, chances are you can jump ahead to the next step. Since my pigment has been sitting around for a while, it has a few hard clumps that I’ve broken down with the mortar and pestle.
Now, I have emptied out about three grams of pigment onto a corner of my glass slab, and used the palette knife to create a small crater in the middle of my pigment mound.
Next, I’m using a dropper to add just a pinch of linseed oil in middle of my crater. Be careful to avoid pouring on too much oil! For my three grams of pigment, I found myself only needing about 1mL of linseed oil.
Now, we're going to slowly combine the pigment and linseed oil. It’s helpful to mix your pigment by folding it onto itself using the palette knife. Keep mixing until all your pigment is wetted (weird word, I know) and you no longer see any dry powder in your mixture. The end result should be a thick, crumbly paste, which we can set aside for now.
Step 7: Part B: Preparing the Binder
Now, it’s time to prepare our linseed oil binder. Since this is just a sample, I’ll only be mixing up about 20g of binder, but you can always scale the recipe up to as much as you need. You can also save any leftover binder to use later on, just remember to keep it in a sealed container.
In this recipe, we want our 20g of binder to incorporate 2% beeswax, so we’ll start by measuring out the 0.40g of wax.
Next, we’ll add our linseed oil until we hit our batch size of 20 grams.
Now, we can heat up our mixture to about 100 degrees F, or until we can see the beeswax start to clump together. This means that the wax is starting to melt.
For this step, I’m using a double boiler to make sure I don’t scorch the wax. If you’re careful, you can heat directly over the burner. Some artists have even used the microwave, though I haven’t tried this myself.
Now it’s time to stir the wax into the oil. In the photo above, I’m using a magnetic stir plate, but mixing it by hand works just as well! If your having trouble mixing in all the wax, try warming it up again for a few more minutes.
Now that all the wax is mixed together, we should give it a few minutes to cool down before we start to grind in our pigment.
Step 13: Part C: Grinding the Pigment
Once our linseed oil binder feels cool enough to handle, we can take it back over to our glass slab.
Using our palette knife, we’ll want to put a portion of our prepared pigment into the middle of our slab, and pour just a pinch of our binder over it.
Using the muller, we can start grinding the pigment into our binder using short circular or figure eight motions.
As you grind, continue to pull the mixture out into a thin layer. Don’t feel confined to a small corner of the slab; you’ll want to stretch out the binder as much as you can, as making thin layers will help break down the pigment.
Using a palette knife or spatula, scrape the paint back to the center of the slab and have a look – is it starting to feel more like paint? The mixture I have feels way too runny for my tastes, so I’m going to add more pigment to thicken it up.
You can either add more pre-prepared pigment or, if you’ve run out of prepared pigment, it won't hurt at this point to sprinkle on more dry pigment instead. Just remember that dry pigment will take a bit more time to mix in.
And likewise, if your paint feels too chalky or dry, you can always add more binder.
Keep repeating this process until you start to feel comfortable with your paint’s consistency.
There’s really nothing scientific about this part of the process, it really just depends on your own preferences. Some artists I know prefer a runnier paint that almost spill out of the tube, while others want a paint that feels more like toothpaste.
Finally! Now that you have reached your preferred consistency, you can scoop up your paint and transfer it to a metal tube, glass gar or plastic container. Just make sure you’re able to properly seal it, and that’s not too big so as to avoid exposing your paint to excess air.
Step 19: Don't Forget to Write!
Lastly, don’t forget to share your own experiments and variations on this recipe with the community!
Future Instructables may include:
-Techniques for refining linseed oil
-Determining the quality of an oil paint
-Formulating contemporary oil mediums
Something else you might like to see? Just let me know in the comments!