When Paint Won’t Dry

person holding white plastic container
person holding white plastic container

This winter I have a studio full of sticky paintings. I’m going to break some rules. **I mention some products below, but I don’t get any money for them, so I’m not even giving you a way to click thru. They’re easily Googleable. Love Ya!

But first. I sold this gigantic painting before I went full time. I posted it to social media, and a friend asked if she could buy it. She had grown up in New Orleans, as did I, but we didn’t know each other there. She didn’t realize the painting was gigantic. It’s 2ft x 4ft. It was such a fun and cathartic piece to do. No rules, I just painted what I wanted to paint.

This painting is relevant because it was a Christmas gift for her sister and it refused to dry. It took months. I think a total of 11 months before I could ship its big ass self to Texas.

I have about 10 oil paintings in my studio right now that have steadfastly refused to dry. This has made me start looking at ways to speed things up. There are buyers who have already put their money down and they want (and deserve) their paintings. But a challenge with oil painting is that sometimes oils take a long time to dry.

Why won’t these suckers dry?

The two main reasons are weather and color. In humid, cold weather paint dries slower. And certain paint colors dry more slowly than others. (I’m looking at you, Titanium White). Different brands use different bases in their paints, so that has an influence, too.

Thing One: Should you turn on a fan?

Mm hm. This speeds it up a teensy tinsy itsy bitsy bit, but if the weather is wet or wet and cold, it doesn’t do a lot. Also, the fan blows bits of dust and pet hair around where the sticky paint grabs it. So, that’s fun.

Here’s the thing with oil paint drying. Unlike with water-based paints which dry when the water content evaporates, oil paints don’t have much water in them. They dry when the oil interacts with air in a chemical process called oxidation. While moving the air in the space can help, mostly, the oil in the paint has to undergo a transformation into the permanent painted surface you want it to become. That’s done by natural science. That’s not something I am allowed to change directly.

Thing Two: Water-Soluble Oils are NOT the answer

I painted Bourbon-Orleans, the painting above, using water-soluble oils. I had not painted in oils for a long time when I discovered what sounded like a dream for oil painters. Oil-based paint that you can clean up with water. How handy!

Unfortunately, the oil-base that adapts the oil to make it water soluble is sticky. Once you open and reclose the tubes the oil seeps out and makes the outside of the tubes sticky. This makes the artist’s hands and everything they touch sticky. And the paint dries very slowly and stays sticky on the canvas for a very long time. It does not dry quickly, it is sticky, it is messy, it is gross. Once it dries it looks a lot like regular oil paints, so there’s no worry about the finished product that I know of, but prepare to be sticky during the process. Everything will be sticky.

Oil Paint has a bad reputation for being hard to clean up. That isn’t true. Do you know how they clean the heavy crude oil out of fur and feathers of animals that get trapped in oil spills? They use water and Dawn dishwashing liquid. The dish soap breaks down the oil, and the water rinses it away. The same thing applies to cleaning up oil paint. You can clean up oil paints with soap and water. This astonishes people. Why use sticky water soluble paints that won’t dry in this millennium when you can use regular oils and clean them with soap and water?

There are special brush soaps specifically intended for use with oil paints. Master’s Brush Cleaner and Conditioner is a tried-and-true product. Rub the soap into the bristles, then rinse it out with water. Trekkell has a nice brush restorer, although I rarely remember to use it. You can just use dish soap. There’s also a weird magic out there that someone tried so I didn’t have to. Murphy’s Wood Soap. No lie. The stuff made for wooden furniture and floors. The stuff works great on paintbrushes, and it also smells good.

Confession: Most days I just clean my brushes in solvent (I use Turpenoid Natural), wipe them well on paper towels, and voila, I’m done. If they start to get stiff, I might soak them in Murphy’s Wood Soap for a while.

Thing Three: Drying times

Rules for paint drying change with the seasons. In fact, they can change in the same season. The rules are very lax. Okay, who am I kidding? The rules change constantly. In the summer I send paintings out within a month of starting them. Often even less. The surface is dry and they’re safe to ship. But in the winter, it can take weeks or even months. In Pittsburgh everything depends on humidity. Pittsburgh is an extremely humid city. It’s surrounded by 3 rivers that are insistent on keeping oil paint wet. Cold and humid is the worst for paint drying. It takes forever. I’m currently waiting for about 10 paintings to dry so I’m trying some things.

My plan is to create a document that ‘splains lots of things to buyers so they’re not alarmed if it takes some time, including the whole drying issue. They include:

  1. I can’t predict how long it will take for paint to dry.
  2. If it’s humid, especially if it’s also cold, the paint may take a long, long time to dry.
  3. Anything I do to speed up the drying process will be criticized by other artists. (Not your problem, but true.)
  4. Commissioned artwork is worth waiting for.

Thing Four: There are some things that can be done.

LIQUIN: Liquin is a frequently-recommended medium for getting oil paints to dry faster. However, it changes the texture of the paint, smoothing it out, so it depends a lot on your style as to whether it will work for you. It does make oil paint dry a bit faster, and it’s a really good product, but the dry time still isn’t crazy fast.

There’s also the problem of packaging. Lids on products by Liquin’s manufacturer, Winsor & Newton, are notoriously hard to remove, and when you have arthritis in your hands, as I do, getting the lid off ain’t gonna happen. Some of their larger bottles have lids I can manage by using pliers to pry off the plastic safety cap that goes over the inner cap, but it’s a real pain.

TURPENOID GEL MEDIUM: This is a product I’ve been experimenting with and I’m pleased. Turpenoid Gel Medium is rarely recommended at all in artists’ forums, but I’ve tried it this week, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t do the trick. It’s truly fast drying. It is said to be a stable product, and it allows you to retain thick brush marks with an impasto painting style. The website recommends testing it if used over an existing artwork, before painting the whole thing. The primary recommendation is to use a small amount to mix with paint as you work, which for some reason, does not require advance testing.

I have done the above-mentioned testing and have applied it to a couple of paintings that need to get off their butts and dry. I am getting the kind of results I want. I hope to get these paintings on the road in the next week or two.

TURN UP THE HEAT: Drying paint in a heated room can help. But here’s the problem. I hate manufactured heat. It makes me cranky. Yes, we use the heater in our home, but I avoid the space around the vents when it cycles on. So I’m not going to be able to work in a heated studio. (My studio is a bedroom in our house.) Also, using a space heater that is unattended isn’t a great plan what with inherent fire hazards in studios. And another thing. My cats are usually sitting in front of heater vents.

This was just a little insiders’ peek at the woes of oil painters. It’s an ongoing experiment!

Onward and Upward,