So you want to get started on oil painting. We salute you! Though many see oil painting as an art medium for intermediate artists, we beg to differ. The advantages of painting with oils are endless. Its versatility, color intensity, and slow drying time all add up to a rich painting experience. It's easy to get lost in the flow of oil painting-you'll get what we mean when you try.
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Since it's a slow-drying paint, oil paint affords you the luxury of time when blending, layering, and glazing colors over a canvas. Not to mention the rich and true color that doesn't change even after it dries.
But of course, with great paints come great responsibility. You might be wondering: How long does paint last? Do artist oil paints go bad? And how long is my paint really good for? Well, lucky for you, oil paints can last you a long time. Still, there's always a risk of your art materials going to waste if you don't care for and store them properly. Here's a guide to making sure these woes don't become your reality.
But first, some oil paint 101
Basically, oil paint is made up of pigments suspended in oil. The most popular oil used is linseed oil. Oil paint has a thicker, buttery consistency and it dries much slower without losing its intensity of color. The synthetic or natural oils that bind the pigments lend to the slow drying time-both on canvas or even in a tube. That's why oil paint is such a good option for long-term art-making.
Unlike other water-based paints like acrylic and watercolor which dry by evaporating, oil paints dry by oxidation. This means the oil in the paint reacts to the air, causing it to harden and lock in that color you've put down on your surface. However, over time it can become brittle and crack-as we see in many classical paintings that survived the test of time. This should clue you in on how to store your oil paints: heat and air are the enemy.
We often associate oil paintings with the Renaissance era, when it was most popularized. Notice how beautiful and rich classical paintings still are in color? That's because the pigment stays preserved. But back then, artists had to make their paints by hand, grinding pigments with oil or animal fat to create a paste-like consistency. It was quite a messy affair, so we're fortunate now that we have them in tubes! If you're looking to start on your oil painting journey, we have some curated oil painting palettes for your different painting styles from portraiture to impressionist painting!
So does oil paint have a shelf life?
In theory, oil paint won't go bad if properly sealed. But oil paints can harden up in their own tubes if left unsealed. And the linseed oil in the paint can expire. On canvas, they can even develop mold or mildew if badly stored.
However, you're granted quite a long life span for your paints. If kept properly, your precious tubes of oil paint can even last you decades. In fact, oil paints can have a shelf life of 15 to up to 40 years! That's why seasoned artists have grown to love this medium for painting!
How can you tell if oil paint has gone bad?
The main problem you'll likely encounter is your oil paint drying out. This can be a huge pain, having your beloved paint tubes turn hard as rocks with the paint impossible to squeeze out.
Besides that, linseed oil can expire as it's organic matter. It can go rancid, causing your paint to smell different. You'll find that oil paint has quite a strong and distinctive scent, but if it starts to smell off, that's probably a sign that it's gone bad.
Old oil paint can also start to separate. This doesn't mean it's gone bad. In fact, it'll happen from time to time depending on how long you've shelved your paints. If you notice oil leaking out of the tube or the binder separating from the pigment, don't worry. Just remix them once on the palette. But if you notice that, after stirring your paints, the consistency isn't the same as it used to be, or if it separates again quickly then it's time for a toss.
You might be wondering, do artist oil paints go bad this way? Since these are specially formulated for archival quality, you'll find that artist oil paints last much longer.
Can you reactivate oil paint?
With its unique chemical makeup, oil paint can "go bad" in some ways, be it hardening in the tube or developing an off smell. But that doesn't mean you've got to throw it right away. You might think there's no more use for oil paint that's gone rock hard. But there is a way to save that tube. You can definitely extend its shelf life with a solvent like turpentine.
If you didn't know, turpentine is a type of paint solvent. It thins and dissolves oil paint, making it a must-have for cleaning your oil paint brushes. Turpentine also speeds up the drying time since it dilutes the oil paint and evaporates from it. You can read more about solvents in our guide to cleaning oil paint brushes!
Since turpentine thins paint, it can work to reactivate and soften dried paint in a tube. Just open up the tube, put the dried paint in a container so you can mix it with the solvent. Work your way up until the paint returns to its normal consistency or close. Start with a small quantity of solvent to paint so you don't overdo it. The key here is less is more. It's easier to dilute than to thicken the paint. Make sure to do this in a well-ventilated space since turpentine is toxic. And don't leave the turpentine container open, get what you need and then seal it right away.
We do caution against reactivating old and hard oil paint, just so you can avoid the dangers of using old paint like inhaling possibly toxic fumes. Alternatively, you can use other non-toxic solvents to reactivate your paints. That, or invest in good quality oil paints that are also non-toxic-our oil paints here on Zen Art Supplies have got you covered!
How to store oil paints so they don't go bad
Again, a tube of oil paint can last you decades if you take care of it properly. And that means making sure you store it well. Properly store your oil paints in a cool, dry place. Double-check that the paint tubes are tightly sealed to keep them from drying out or leaking.
As we mentioned, over time, the oil and the pigment can separate. It's unavoidable. Since pigment is denser than oil, when the two separate the pigment will be at the bottom. So in the long-term, you'll want to store your oil paint tubes cap-side down. That way, you end up squeezing out more pigment than oil.
Do you paint outdoors or in natural sunlight? Once you're done painting for the day, make sure to store your paints away from natural sunlight. Extreme heat can affect the composition of your paint over time.
Say you're done painting but you've still got some leftover oil paint. Obviously, you can't put it back in the tube anymore. So what can you do with unused oil paint? Don't leave it out on your palette to dry. Especially if you've spent a good time mixing unique colors together.
You can put plastic wrap or aluminum foil over your palette instead of just leaving the paint out in the open air-though this can get messy. Some artists transfer their oil paints to air-tight containers and put them in the fridge or even freezer to keep them from drying out.
Good luck on your oil painting journey!
We'd love to hear back from you! How long have you been oil painting? Are you a seasoned artist or a beginner? If you're just about to start with oil painting, don't fear! Invest in a good selection of oil paints, like the ones we have here on Zen Art Supplies so. Plus, they're non-toxic so you won't worry about the solvent fumes. Make sure to follow the tips we mentioned in this article so they can last you a long time! Read more of our oil painting guides on the Zen Art Supplies blog for more tips and guides!
We'd love to hear back from you!
Don't hesitate to ask any questions you might have and to share your thoughts and suggestions. Just comment down below! Join our friendly art community Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook. You can share your art and ideas, watch LIVE tutorials, and be inspired to paint!
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.