Top Tips on Using Water-Mixable Oils

Water-mixable oils have been around for well over a decade. They have grown hugely in popularity and still gaining ground. Why? because artists are realising that water-mixable oil is real oil paint not a cheap or lesser medium. By adding an emulsifier along with the pigment and oil carrier enables the easy clean-up and use of water as a thinner. Such a straightforward principle to achieve so many benefits.

Benefits of water-mixable oils

  • No nasty odours in use – no need for toxic diluents such as white spirit or turps
  • Reduced risk to asthma, and migraine sufferers
  • Just water to thin in most circumstances
  • Convenience of cleaning – soap and water for brushes, palettes, clothes and hand washing
  • No loss of quality compared to traditional oils, stable, light fast
  • No price premium to pay
  • Widely available
  • Great choice of colours and brands
  • Range of mediums for glazing, enhancing flow, texture and bulking, quick drying
  • Application as traditional oils (no special methods)
  • Good base of users (plenty of feedback via user-groups and clubs)
  • Environmentally friendly

I have tried them all and have been painting with them for well over ten years. My choice is Cobra Water Mixable Oils by Royal Talens of the Netherlands. In my opinion these are closest to traditional oils and the quality and light-fastness cannot be beaten. That’s not to say other makes are not good, just that this brand suits me. Water-mixable oils have been improved over the years, many suffering from a sticky feel on the palette but this slight drawback with modern formulas, has disappeared.

I suggest you try a few brands to see which you prefer. It may be that if you tried them longer ago than seven years, you’ll be surprised how they’ve improved.

What colours should I buy?

Your palette make up is an extremely personal decision. It took me years to come up with a standard set of colours I could use in most conditions. If I test out paint from manufacturers I usually stick to the three primaries, plus white to see how they work in practice. It’s the least expensive way of having enough paint colour to discover if they suit.

With Cobra I use eight colours as my basic set. Titanium white, Permanent yellow or Cadmium yellow light, Cadmium orange, Pyrrolle red, Madder lake, Sap green, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine.

I mix all my own umbers using the three primaries; Yellow, Cobalt and Pyrrolle in various % to gain browns, umbers and subtle neutrals. I use white mixed with a little yellow to lighten rather than risk the colours going chalky. If I need a black or near black, try ultramarine, madder lake and a touch of sap green. If you need a warmer black add more red, a cooler one add a little yellow and white. Do go carefully, add just the tiniest amount may modify it enough.

I add other colours as I need them such as yellow ochre for painting flesh, it mixes well with white and red to produce a credible face colour. Cerulean blue, especially good for Mediterranean seas and is warm in tone. Try to avoid using too many colours and being confused by what they do. The fewer you have on your palette the more you will learn about colour mixing.

Top tips on using water-mixable oils

Don’t use too much water – all you need is a damp brush. Don’t think, as in watercolour you need to flood the paint or canvas with water. Think of just helping the paint along, there’ll be plenty of moisture with the oil.

Lay out your palette in a chromatic way, from light to dark. Keep your reservoirs of paint to the edge of your preferably wooden palette if not plastic. This will leave you plenty of room to mix in the centre. Always lay out your palette in the same order as this will bring you more confidence as your brush won’t have to search for the colour, it’ll be there where it always is. This ‘palette discipline’ will also help to keep your paint clean and unsullied by others.

The drying time of water-mixable oils is very similar to traditional oils and is affected by how thickly it’s applied. With clever application, it can take weeks rather than months.

Varnishing is always a great idea but wait six months after the painting was completed. Varnishing, whether using a brush or aerosol will protect your work and lift the contrast slightly. It is important not to rush this process as the paint must be bone dry otherwise it will trap any moisture and the painting will be ruined after a year or more as the oil can’t oxidise to enable total hardening.

Additional learning

To continue in your discovery of these amazing paints, consider purchasing Max Hale’s DVD ‘First-steps in water mixable oils which is available on our website. In the DVD, Max demonstrates four different paintings for over two hours. You can also see learn more about Max and his artwork through his website


4 Responses

  1. I’ve just used water mixable oils for the first time and am concerned regarding the drying time. Can you let me know what I should allow for. I normally use Acylics which are obviously very quick drying and something I’m used to.

    • The drying time will depend on how thick your paint is, but the Cobra paints are usually touch dry in 3-5 days. You would need to wait around 6 months for them to be fully dry before varnishing though.

  2. Can you mix conventional oils with water based oils .For instance could i start a painting using say oil paint mixed with liquin and finish it off with water based oil paint ?

    • Hi. Yes you can mix traditional oils with water mixable oils. If you’re mixing colours using a traditional and water mixable oil paint, the paint will become less and less water mixable the more traditional oil paint is added. You can use them to build up a painting in layers but should, as always, abide by the oil painting rules.

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