If you paint with oils, you will know all too well that you not only need a solvent to thin your paints and mediums but also as a necessary tool to keep your brushes clean. With so many options on the market, it can be hard to know which is best - especially with such a huge array of white spirit, turpentine and citrus-based options now available! In this comprehensive guide, we will talk you through everything you need to know on our hot pick product of the month: Zest-it, as a safer alternative, as well as running through more traditional options such as white spirit and turpentine.
Zest It - A Gentler, Non-Toxic Citrus-Based Solvent
A Brief History of Zest It
- Zest It is a non-toxic and more environmentally friendly alternative to turps and white spirit. Zest It was founded by artist Jacqui Blackman in the 1990's when she began suffering from headaches and sore throats as a result of prolonged exposure to turpentine whilst running oil painting workshops. Due to the number of solvent thinners used in class causing these unwanted side effects, she wanted a solvent to find a better class environment for workshop painting. There was nothing currently on the market that was able to clean lots of brushes as well as being safe to both people and the environment, non-toxic, and pleasant smelling. After identifying this gap in the market, citrus-based Zest It was born, with its first product 'Oil Paint Diluent and Brush Cleaner' sold in 1995.
- Zest It’s name originated from the citrus peel oil which is a key part of the product, with the zest referring to its fruit ingredients and 'it' referring to clean it - birthing this fun and catchy name. The orange-scented solvent was taken to many landscape oil painting workshops where it was received well from participants. It made group painting conditions so much better with most feeding back positively, as both a diluent and brush cleaner.
- Zest It was the first serious competition that the 'turps' industry had encountered as an alternative environment and health concerned artists who wanted a more natural product. Within the 1990s, flammable solvents, like white spirits and turps were starting to become actively discouraged within public settings such as schools and colleges, so Zest-It's arrival came at the perfect time!
Why We Love Zest-It
Zest It's Safe Oil Paint Diluent and Brush Cleaner is far safer option for oil painters than regular Turpentines & White Spirit and removes colour, thinners and mediums from skin and brushes effectively. As a citrus-based solvent, it is non-aromatic and non-flammable, as well as being much kinder to skin. To add to this, we really like it’s uplifting citrus scent and find it a joy to work with.
It removes colour, thinners and medium from skin and brushes effectively, as well as thinning oil paint and improving transparency. On top of this, it also blends coloured pencils and pastels on paper. We highly recommend this biodegradable product for artists working in shared studios, schools and colleges or for those allergic to conventional thinners.
White Spirit tends to be less flammable and toxic than turpentine and is made of petroleum distillate. White Spirit is known by a number of names across the world, and is often referred to as ‘Mineral Spirits' but generally, if it has the word 'mineral' it is referring to what we know as 'White Spirit' in the UK.
The Cons of White Spirit
White Spirit can often have a strong smell and can potentially cause unwanted side effects such as nausea or dizziness. Similar to turps, we would only ever recommend you use higher quality white spirits such as Bartoline, as this is recommended for paint thinning as it will not affect drying time for the majority of oil based paints. Regular household white spirit has more impurities and also contains residual sulphur, making it far less suitable for artists and definitely not studio friendly. Similar to turpentine, we would only recommend using the white spirit in a well-ventilated space.
What’s a Safer Option?
Another safer option to explore and highly recommend using, is a low odour solvent such as Winsor & Newton Sansodor Low Odour Solvent, as although Sansodor makes a viscous mixture, it evaporates slowly and is far less hazardous. We have also found that it is less deteriorating in storage and has minimal odour. We particularly recommend this product if you come into close contact with your solvent whilst working with it as this type of solvent has been refined further to remove toxic aromatic compounds.
Turpentine's use for oil paintings dates back hundreds of centuries to 1180 - 1400 when the first oil paintings were being created, and small amounts of turpentine solvents started becoming available, and despite it being toxic it is still widely used today.
How is Turpentine Made?
Turpentine is slightly thicker than white spirit and is made of pine tree residue, meaning good quality turpentine will have a pine smell. Turpentine is made by bark being removed from trees which cause them to secrete oleoresin, and the raw oleoresin is then purified using a distillation process that is carried out in a copper still.
What are the cons of using Turpentine?
Turpentine is flammable and emits vapours that can irritate the skin, eyes and lungs. We would advise only artists turpentine for your oil works as household turps can produce a tough gum-like residue that can cause yellowing or prevent your painting from drying.
Our Top Turpentine Recommendations
Rectified Spirit of Turpentine (check out C Roberson Rectified Spirit of Turpentine), which is the highest-grade turps will have the most pleasant pine-like smell, whilst Winsor & Newton Distilled Turpentine is highly extremely effective in reducing the consistency of your colours and also at removing paint, as well as damar varnish, from your tools.
Even when using artist quality turpentine solvents for oil painting, it is best to use these in well-ventilated areas and to be on the safe side, not in non-public spaces for other people's safety.
Ultimately, the choice of which solvent you use depends on how you like to work, where you work and your personal preferences. We highly recommend making sure you thoroughly research and/or read our online product descriptions before first-time use to ensure you create a safe painting environment. Alternatively, feel free to pop into our friendly store and chat with us, we are always more than happy to help!