Flake White, Cremnitz, Underpainting White

Ceiling fan, open windows: drying out the toxic off-gassing.

A late post, with an update on the nasty oil painting incident of last week, an incident which is still giving my body some fits.

It all started last Monday, when I was reworking the big desert canvases, painting the stretched sides and tweaking within the body of the image. I had a big tube of flake white, unopened, and since I was running out of titanium and was working on some of the coolest area of color, I thought I might as well use the flake white.

Flake white, as it turns out, is the industry’s name for a combination of lead and zinc white oil paint for artists. Lead white, which was very popular in house paints, is now banned in the US and has to be cleaned up as a hazardous material if it’s found on housing stock. But its toxicity was confined, I thought, to lead dust (as generated, for example, by sanding) and lead flakes — particles, in other words, not gases. Moreover, last Monday I didn’t even realize that flake white was a lead paint, just that it was a cooler,white than titanium and more opaque than zinc.

I was using an alkyd medium, Winsor-Newton’s Liquin, with the flake white, in part because of the thick consistency of the paint. I did not become consciously aware of the change in air quality until Wednesday, although I did find myself changing shirts more often because they “smelt funny.” On Wednesday I walked into the studio and thought, “oooo, ugh, I need to air this place out.”  The studio was rebuilt from the studs out and is very energy efficient, i.e. very air-tight.

Thursday, I fanned the door vigorously a number of times, but the smell seemed to be getting worse. Then I turned on the ceiling fan and opened one window a crack. By Thursday afternoon, I decided that I needed to open a high window or two and use the ceiling fan on reverse to rid the place of fumes. By Thursday night, I had a face rash, a cough and even with a three-hour afternoon nap, felt generally wretched. And it dawned on me that the studio may have been the source of this reaction.

When I thought of the odor, I realized I had had the same odor occur at least once, perhaps twice, before, with an oil paint called “underpainting white.” I don’t remember the brand but I was using it as a quick drying under-cover white, over an couple of masonite boards that I was recycling. That was a summer experience, so I opened all the windows, set the paintings outside to dry, and thought I  may have just used the paint too thickly or too much all at once.

But lead white dries faster than any of the other whites, and my suspicion is that that particular “underpainting” white used lead white as its base (other “underpainting whites use alkyd bases and titanium white, which should be perfectly non-toxic). Another term for all-lead (no zinc) white oil painting for artists is Cremnitz. No artist’s paints made in the US use lead at all, but of course, many oil paints are manufactured outside the US and are readily available within the country.

Besides the lead paint, the other factor that may be contributing to the toxicity is that I am using an alkyd medium rather than linseed oil as my painting medium. My suspicion is that it’s the combination of the alkyd medium (sold under various names, Galkyd and Liquin coming most readily to mind)  and the lead white that caused the toxic off-gassing. I have found nothing in the literature to confirm this but anecdotally, at least, I believe that’s the case. Alkyds combine a polyester and a linseed-like medium for faster drying. My chemistry is insufficient to make any data-based comments, but my experience tells me that the combination seemed to be the source of the worst odors.  Ultimately, I may have to change to acrylics because I suspect I have become sensitized to oil painting elements that could give me trouble in the future. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m having an exhaust fan installed in the studio and will turn it on overnight during the cold season as the heat turns off. I will also use it during the day if I detect anything that feels dangerous. I never use turpentine, which is, according to Gamblin, the real source of toxicity in oil painting. I use only Gamsol odorless mineral spirits, and those I only use for cleaning brushes. I keep the containers closed when I’m not using them and will further my efforts to keep them from off-gassing from rags, etc. The odorless mineral spirits are not totally non-toxic (and not totally odorless, either) but still they can cause problems.

So, I’m issuing this warning for anyone doing a search on flake white, cremnitz, and even some underpainting whites: beware. They can cause problems, particularly if combined with an alkyd medium. A pretty good discussion of studio toxicity can be found on the Gamblin website, although Gamblin has a vested  interest in prmoting its own products as safe.

On a happier note, we delivered the quilting frame to its new home. I even found the installation manual (one flat sheet of paper, photocopied, from 1992). The frames fit nicely into the Honda, which we patted and praised for its excellence performance and perfect size.


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13 Responses to Flake White, Cremnitz, Underpainting White

  1. This post was such a confirmation for me. My eye swells shut lately when I paint. I have recently used flake white with Galkyd. I never had a problem with simple linseed oil. Thanks


  2. June says:

    thanks, Dan. I’ve been using Liquin over the summer, plein air, and not had trouble. But this winter I will try other galkyds — or (alas) return to walnut oil. I used the walnut oil last winter, as well as installing an industrial fan in the studio. That was fine, but I miss the faster drying of the galkyds. This is especially the case because I’ve been painting, again, in the desert, where I’ve gotten used to and enjoyed a fairly fast tacky surface to play with.

    Thanks for the advice.


  3. Dan Spahn says:

    I think the problem is the Liquin. I tried to use it, but the fumes from the Liquin alone burned my eyes. I switched to Galkyd Lite and have no bad reactions. Switch to Gamblin.


  4. Rama says:

    I tend to agree with some of the comments here — that it wasn’t the paint that was the problem since Flake White is really just inert lead pigment ground in linseed oil. Alkyd mediums like Liquin and Galkyd contain significant amounts of mineral spirits or other solvents to keep them from drying out in the bottle. That along with other chemical agents like siccatives, etc., that are components of the medium would be the likely culprit. Using large amounts of any alkyd medium in an enclosed space would cause the symptoms you describe. Also, keep in mind that OMS is still a toxic substance, although with a lower threshhold than turpentine.


  5. June says:

    Thanks, Don, for the comment about the desert paintings themselves. The experience of painting these was pretty wonderful. The situation of the studio, a big isolated ex-barn, which had good facilities as well as facing south, meant that I could keep the doors open to the view while working protected from the Nevada sun and wind. (Also the south face meant that the sun warmed the studio interior, which was basically unheated.). I lucked out finding this residency, almost by chance.

    I love the desert, although it’s too harsh for permanent living for my aging body. But to go back for these painting excursions has given me great adventures.

    Thanks again for your comments.


  6. Don B says:

    Also June for your info I use the walnut oil to clean my brushes as well. Works good but you need to do them a couple times to get the paint out. With Walnut oil you are basically painting the veggie oil route. I have heard olive oil works pretty good for cleaning as well.

    The thing to remember when brush cleaning with these is if the brushes sit for a couple days then they get “thick” so if thats the case just hit them with the soap and water after cleaning.

    Regards, Don B

    I love all that desert action by the way. Makes me want to go out there!


  7. June says:

    Thanks a lot, Don,

    This is what I’ve been hearing from a variety of sources — that the solvents in the Liquin may have been the problem. It’s a relief to hear that — lead poisoning was not exactly a happy thought. (although sensitivity to the solvents isn’t all that wonderful either….)

    I will try the alkyd walnut oil, I think, when things settle down a bit. For now, walnut oil — and I’m told safflower rather than “baby” oil — to rest my brushes in should cut down on the other big source of solvent (the odorless mineral spirits that I used to clean brushes before). I have to solve the problem of keeping the brushes in the oil without turning their noses up. But I will persevere.

    And you are right about those Honking Big Canvases. They were right in my face!


  8. Don B says:

    Hi June,
    I don’t think it was the paint, I would look at the Liquim as the problem. Liquim and the Galkyd have the same issue in my opinion with vapors etc. Looking at the size of the painting you were working on that’s a hell of a lot of liquim floating around. Both are good products but I think both have solvents in them that are bad for you. On large painting, you are putting out a lot of solvents (think the entire surface area of your canvas right there in front of your face).

    I switched to the alkyd walnut oil from Graham and have had no issues now. I still use a bit of the Gamblin Galkyd sometimes but only a drop or two at a time for touch up.

    The Walnut oil leaves a very nice finish but takes a while longer to dry. Very safe to use though.

    Hope this helps.
    Cheers, Don B


  9. June says:

    Hi Birgit,

    I feel rather stupid about this event; I have a separate studio for painting because Jer reacts negatively to any hint of solvent. And I just forgot to be alert to what was happening. The sun-thickend linseed oil is highly recommended, although I hadn’t realized you could make it yourself. The only cold-pressed linseed oil variety I could find was Winsor-Newton and it was priced at $50 compared to $11 for a similar regular linseed. There were “refined” versions of linseed oil available but I was skeptical about them. My reading indicated that most manufacturing of the oil makes it more brittle and likely to yellow (which is why “cold-pressed” is so good).

    I bought walnut oil because the store I was in (I didn’t shop around) didn’t carry any linseed oil I could count to be cold-pressed (except for the pricey one). I don’t know about adhesion to dry paint. I’ll have a bit of a learning curve to deal with. But better than that physical reaction — for sure!

    Thanks for checking in. I also will be using baby oil and soap to clean my brushes from now on.


  10. birgit says:

    I am not using solvents for my oil painting. (Having used nasty chemicals in the lab, I prefer not to pollute my home with them). I thin oil paint with linseed oil, the cold-pressed variety. I use the oil at different viscosities. I increase the viscosity by putting glass jars into the sun, only lightly covered to keep out the bugs. Putting the linseed oil into the sun has the added benefit that the oil is bleached.

    The downside of using linseed oil is that a fresh paint layer will not adhere to already dry paint. The dry paint has to be roughened. Karl uses coarsely ground Sienna which he then wipes off. I use sanding sponges that I buy at the paint store.


  11. terry grant says:

    Yikes. Very scary indeed. I had no idea one could react so violently to elements used in oil paints and solvents.


  12. june says:

    Thank you very much, Jamee, for this tutorial. I had already read most of it on your site, which is full of great information, and I’m happy it can be presented here for even wider distribution. I think in addition to the exhaust fan, I will go to the baby oil/soap brush-cleaning method. That will further reduce the dangers of solvents.

    I was also interested in your comments on the water/oil paints; I tried one of the water/oil mixes at one point and didn’t like it much so I won’t bother trying again.

    I would suggest to you, as well as to Winsor-Newton and others carrying the alkyd medium, that it may react to elements within the oil paints in unexpected ways. Only chemists could carry out the tests to find out.

    Your flake white substitute seems a good way to proceed if I were to decide I couldn’t paint without flake white — an unlikely event at this point in time.

    The incident involving flake white truly frightened me — I have been a long time advocate of oil painting as a manageably safe activity. The energy-saving studio construction undoubtedly contributed to the problem, but the reaction I had was not like any other I’ve ever experienced except the last time I used the combination of a lead-containing paint and the alkyd. I’m a relatively healthy individual without many allergies, so my body’s reaction seemed quite unusual and scary. Even today, I’m still feeling the effects. I’m approaching the studio with great caution, continuing to air it out while the paint from last Wednesday dries. So it might be worth running more tests on various elements that seem harmless unless combined with an alkyd medium.

    Thank you again for your extensive comments. I appreciate the time and effort you took to respond to my post.


  13. Dear June –

    I am sorry to hear you are having reactions to your painting materials.
    Installing an exhaust fan is good next step, it is important to exchange the air in your studio at least once a day.

    In regards to your painting materials causing the odors and reaction I can only give you information and advice based on our products here at Gamblin if you have questions regarding the health and safety of other products I recommend contacting them directly. Here at Gamblin we are dedicated to creating products that are safer for artists than traditional painting materials.

    Our Alkyd mediums like Galkyd dry through solvent evaporation over oxidation like regular oil paints. We only use Gamsol in our mediums. Gamsol is the safest solvent on the market, it is a pharmeticutal grade, will not absorb through healthy skin, and has a very low evaporation rate. PEL (permissible exposure level) is a measurement of how much solvent is considered safe to work around. The higher the PEL, the safer the solvent. For turpentine, the PEL is 100 parts per million (ppm) and for GAMSOL, the pure 100% odorless mineral spirits from Gamblin Artists Colors Co., the ppm is 300. (Gamsol is so pure that it is used to clean machines that process food.) People with sensitivities to solvents may experience a reaction even to Gamsol.

    I can recommend a few options to help you decrease the vapors in your studio while continuing to paint with oils. You are already practicing some good habits like installing the exhaust fan and keeping your solvent covered when not in use, here are a few other tips.

    TO DESIGN AN OIL PAINTING STUDIO WITH THE LOWEST LEVEL OF SOLVENT: Remove turpentine, mineral spirits, and painting mediums that contain dammar resin and turpentine from the studio. Make painting mediums by

    1.Use a mixture of linseed oil (refined, cold pressed or stand) and OMS. Cold pressed linseed oil yellows dramatically.

    2.Use SMALL amounts of linseed oil. Using large amounts of oil increases
    yellowing, slows down drying time, and may cause wrinkling (too fat).

    3.Use a small amount of OMS only. Using large amounts of solvent will cause paint films to be too weak (too lean).

    4.Use alkyd resin painting mediums, which thin color quickly, speed drying time, and produce flexible paint films.

    Gamblin Galkyds can be thinned with OMS. Contact manufacturers about solvents to use with other alkyd painting mediums.

    CLEAN UP: Use only odorless mineral spirits for brush and studio clean up. After clean up, let OMS settle and then pour off clear solvent into a clean can and reuse clear solvent. OMS can be used until the solvent will no longer clear.

    VENTILATION: Regardless of the solvent you use, work in a well-ventilated space. Change the air in your studio at least once a day. Set up a fan so the air moves between you and your easel or painting table toward a window or door. If your ventilation is poor, walk outside every few hours and change the air in your lungs.

    TO DESIGN AN OIL PAINTING STUDIO WITH NO SOLVENT: Remove all solvents and painting mediums that contain any solvent.

    1.Consider using no mediums. Instead, use oil paints right from the tube with a knife or stiff bristle brush.

    2.Thin oil colors with SMALL amounts of linseed oil. Using large amounts of oil will increase yellowing and may cause wrinkling (too fat).

    CLEAN UP: For brush clean up, wipe excess paint from brushes with a rag. Use mineral oil (such as Baby Oil) to loosen paint in the bristles then wash with Ivory soap or brush cleaner until water runs through brushes free of color.

    For palette clean up, try a non-solvent cleaner. Follow directions and wear gloves. Non-solvent does not mean non-harmful.

    A hundred years ago, painters did not have a choice of solvents. Painters today do. I encourage you to use traditional oil paints and painting mediums made with OMS rather than the “new” water/oil paints for two reasons. First, history has demonstrated that chemical additives can ruin oil paint films as they age. Second, oil painters who carefully using a solvent-based art making system wash nothing down the drain and into the watershed.

    If you have any further questions about our materials please feel free to contact me directly. You can also find the Health and Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for every product we manufacture on our website: http://www.gamblinartistcolors.com/



    Jamee Linton-Kelly | Product Specialist | Gamblin Artists Colors Co. | 503.235.1945 x-30 | jamee@gamblincolors.com


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