Every artist no doubt has their preference, but some things are just mandatory, and others should never be used. Let’s talk about paint bases first.
Egg tempura: Don’t go with the cheap tempura that they give preschoolers. Egg tempura is a combination of egg yolk (white discarded), pigment, and vinegar. The amount of pigment used depends on how intense you want the color to be. Obviously a small amount of yolk and a giant amount of pigment won’t produce good results. Therefore your pigment should be approximately equal to or one third the size of the yolk. Yolk and vinegar when mixed should be equal amounts, and they should be combined before adding the pigment. Egg tempura is a very old media, and easy to work with.
Oil base: Oil can be mixed at home or store bought. Winton/Winsor and Newton are less expensive than other store bought oil paints. Oil base is not as easy to work with as tempura, but it is more versatile than any other media. Oil can be used with any technique, even techniques meant for other paint bases. Oil takes a long time to dry, which means you can work with wet oils long after they are applied. However, you may need to wait several hours, or days even, before doing finishing touches, because wet oils don’t allow fine details without corrupting the colors. In truth, you may find yourself more smitten with studying oil painting rather than using it on your own time. Oil requires quite the cleanup; it’s messy and it gets in places without you realizing until it is too late. But you know someone is an experienced oil painter when they get it everywhere – on clothes, furniture, the easel, brush stems, the ceiling, the walls… it’s a sign of enthusiasm.
Water base: Water base comes in two ways: Watercolor, which is water and pigment mixed together. The other is water and linseed oil mixed with pigment. Water base and water mixable oils are not as blasphemous as some master painters make them out to be. It means you can thin your oils with water, to an extent, thus eliminating unnatural paint thinners altogether (trust me, we will discuss paint thinners next). Watercolors must be studied carefully. It often involves building up many layers of washes, basically a thin layer of paint. After it dries sufficiently, thicker coats can be applied. Watercolor does not have to be completely opaque, you can keep even your final layers transparent and achieve a very skilled effect.
Animal skin: Knowing how to make animal skin based paints will make you feel like an accomplished painter. Animal skins need to be boiled at specific temperatures, and then mixed with pigment as quickly as possible. This is also a base for making your own gesso (primer). Here’s a recipe for it:
Plastic base: Also called acrylic, this is the paint that gives most painters hell. Acrylic dries super fast, faster than watercolor even. So you need to paint fast, because you don’t have a lot of time to stand around like you do with oils. It also dries shiny, rather than matte, which some artists prefer. A shiny surface makes it difficult to photograph paintings without a really great camera. This also means that brush strokes will be very noticeable based on how the light hits them. Acrylic needs to be applied to canvas in the same direction, otherwise it looks sloppy. Acrylic serves one purpose in my paintings – to be a background that I will completely paint over with oils later. I consider acrylic a poor paint media, and unworthy of its existence.
Thinning paint is essential to painting. There’s little point in taking paint straight from the tube to cover a background. On a 36″x36″ canvas, you really wouldn’t want to use half of your tube of burnt sienna or yellow ochre to cover it. Applying any thinner to a small dab of your paint and putting down a few layers over time is faster. If you use oil to cover large areas without thinning it you will exhaust yourself. “Dry” oils, in other words straight from the tube don’t spread evenly or nicely and they take on a crayon look. Unless you are reproducing a painting by Van Gogh, you don’t want the crayon look.
Turpentine: The infamous paint thinner that smells horrible but breaks down any paint extremely well. It is toxic if ingested or inhaled, and might cause skin irritation. Turpentine, odorless or not, MUST be used in a well ventilated space. A room with a ceiling higher than 15 feet, and wider than 10 feet, is open enough to prevent serious harm from fumes, even if no windows are present (though the door should be left open). Turpentine is hazardous, so it needs to be stored in an empty oil drum after use. It CANNOT go down the sink. If you paint outdoors, you should not use turpentine. When used properly, turpentine is safe, but not beneficial to the environment.
Turpenoid: This supposedly safer version of turpentine isn’t actually safer. It cannot go down the sink either, and must also be stored in an oil drum. Turpenoid quantities larger than one drop will irritate your skin. It can also be absorbed moreso than turpentine into your skin, which is not good. Smaller containers of turpenoid natural do not provide ingredients lists on their labeling. Anything that doesn’t give you ingredients is questionable. The teacher I have for my painting course this semester requires us to use it, and she doesn’t even know what’s in it. Turpenoid doesn’t need as much ventilation, but it does smell, and inhaling it will give you a nasty headache. All I know is it contains some level of pine tree oil. I also know pine tree oil is toxic for reptiles, especially snakes (I own a boa), therefore it is not environmentally friendly or biodegradable in my book.
Mineral spirits: It has a lower toxicity than the first two on this list. I’ve never used it personally. It will irritate the skin, and it is known to cause damage to the central nervous system just like turpentine and turpenoid (and most chemicals for that matter). Can’t go down the drain, therefore it’s a hazard.
Liquin: Technically speaking, it’s a paint thinner, with a perk. It helps oils dry faster (24 to 48 hours usually). It contains petroleum, but unless your skin is super sensitive it won’t bother it. Don’t eat it obviously, and don’t put it down the sink. However, it can be wiped off with a paper towel and go in your trash barrel. Liquin works like most thinners and thins paint without using a lot of it. Liquin Original is for basic thinning of paint, and Liquin Detail is for thinning paint but giving it a “thick” apparance when you are doing finishing touches. Liquin is flammable, so DO NOT use a hair dryer to dry your paint. You’ll set your canvas on fire and that’ll be embarrassing. I recommend Liquin more than any other paint thinner.
Brushes are a strange thing. Regardless of what people think, any brush can be used with any paint. All brushes shed their bristles, natural bristles more than synthetic obviously. You can use oil with a horse hair brush (sumi brush) for washes and just make sure you clean it very well. Some painters have every kind of brush imaginable, others use only a select few. Van Gogh used mostly small pointed brushes. Salvador Dali used “round” tipped brushes for soft and smooth surfaces. I use everything. Fan brushes are also really annoying, because you can’t have one size, you need at least a small, medium and large. Some fan brushes come with thicker bristles, some with fewer bristles. A large fan brush in a small area will get you a big blob. A small fan brush in a large area won’t do anything but make a baby blob. And then there is my weird favorite that most painters kind of hate: That giant fluffy brush that looks like it can apply makeup. Ya know, this one:
The fluffy brush is the most wonderful brush ever. Sweep it over multiple colors and they blend together perfectly. If you want soft clouds, use this brush. Sunset, use this brush.
Cleaning off brushes can be a very involved process. Water base cleans off with water even when dry. Acrylic won’t, so you need to soak your brushes and rinse them repeatedly while painting. Oil can be washed off with Liquin, turpentine, turpenoid and mineral spirits. I find the safest approach is dish soaps, like Palmolive and Dawn. Dish soap is supposed to go down the sink, and it chemically breaks down oil paint. Dish soap should not be used as a thinner during painting though, since it does its job too well. Dish soap also removes that oily or sticky feeling from brushes after use, and removes most stains. It will take the fluff out of your fluffy brush, but the brush will do what it’s supposed to do just as well.
I hope this is helpful to anyone who was curious about these items, or is new to painting (or even not new).