Early on in learning to paint with oils, I began experiencing headaches and dizziness from the turpentine fumes. Odorless Mineral Spirit was not much better, and Liquin was the absolute worst. Even with an open window right next to me I would be sick within minutes. I worried that I wouldn't be able to continue painting with oils, since the indirect painting method I learned required thinning the paint a lot. Glazing layer upon layer meant that without solvent, too much oil would be used. Now, I'm working from a room in my home, and have a beloved dog, so turpentine is even more out of the question. Additionally, washing my brushes in the kitchen or bathroom sink means I'm trying to cut out as many toxic pigments as possible. This left me with quite a task - to figure out how to produce the effects I wanted without the traditional materials I had been told were absolutely essential.
What Mediums Can I Use?
There are some alternatives to turpentine and OMS out there that you might be able to tolerate. I love Chelsea Studios Spike Lavender mediums. I use the Lean and Fat mediums, as well as pure Spike Lavender oil in lieu of turpentine, and am also trying Rosemary Oil (similar to the lavender solvent) from Art Treehouse. I put these each into their own brown glass dropper bottle, so never have to have a solvent jar open while I work. Using them in this way is tolerable for me. However, if I need to do an imprimatura (the ground color) or use more than a few drops for larger work, I am quickly overwhelmed by the smell. These all smell VERY strong. I have invested in a high quality air purifier from Alen Air - the one designed for Heavy Smoke has extra filtration for VOCs. It's worth it for your health if you want to keep painting with oils but don’t have an exhaust fan. These days I am trying casein or acrylic for the imprimatura. Another option is to get a pre-tinted gesso, such as these from Michael Harding, to avoid the need for imprimatura altogether.
Other mediums for alla prima techniques include M. Graham's Walnut Alkyd Medium and Gamblin's Solvent Free Gel, mixed together. I learned this combination from Kristy Gordon, who uses it in all her incredible large and elaborate masterpieces. The masterful fantasy artist, Annie Stegg, also uses these mediums. My problem with the Walnut Alkyd medium is that I tend to use too much of it, as I like to paint in layers rather than all at once, and this may cause yellowing in the future. It's still a good one to try, though!
I have been using Art Treehouse's Bio-Thinner for laying the imprimatura and for when I begin with decalcomania - I don't know how archival it is, but the company told me it creates a strong film for the initial layer. It is completely nontoxic and I have no reaction to it. I would not use it to thin paint on further layers, however. I also use it to clean my brushes.
The Lead White Dilemma
I love lead white. It's one of my favorite pigments to use, and it's a general cure-all for many problems I encounter in my process, easily creating transparent, ghosty effects. Of course, it is highly toxic, but I’m not planning on eating it and I’m very careful in my use of it. I wear Nitrile gloves while painting with it, and wash my hands after removing the gloves. Be sure not to let any pets or children near it. So far, my only other real substitute for lead white in an underpainting is tempera grassa. I did
( EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT WHITES, CREATE GLAZES ETC WITH THEM, SHOW THE PHOTOS)
Making an Underpainting without Turpentine
So, without lead white or turpentine, and not being able to tolerate a lot of any other solvent, I thought I would stick to acrylic underpaintings on panel. It turns out, I'm not a huge fan of this either. So far I’ve basically ended up painting over the acrylic underpainting entirely with oils, rather than doing any glazing, which is ok but not the solution I was looking for.
Another option is to tone the panel with Casein, and use white and brown casein from tubes for the underpainting. I use Richeson's Shiva Series casein. You can also use egg tempera for this.
Alternatives to Toxic Pigments
I recently bought Winsor & Newton's new Cadmium-free Red & Yellow. They are imitation pigments. Any pigment that says "Hue" is an imitation and non-toxic. This also means that the paint won't have the same properties as the original. At this point, it's a risk I'm willing to take to see how it turns out. So far, I will say, the cadmium-free cadmium doesn’t handle quite the same as the real deal. The Cobalt imitation from ___ is one I use often, but the color is slightly warmed than real cobalt.
I like to use either Turpenoid Natural or BioBased Artist Rinse & Thinner from Art Treehouse to clean my brushes. I wash them in a Silicoil jar, then rub them on artist's soap and rinse with warm water.