Oil paints are beautiful to the eyes but for the nose… eh, not so much. Let’s just say, it’s an acquired taste. So, why does oil paint smell like fish, anyways? It boils down to their composition. Oil paints incorporate a lot of vegetable matter, such as poppy oil, linseed, or safflower and the pigment components are heavy metals in most cases, so that doesn’t help it much when it comes to smelling fresh and pleasant at all.
In this article, I’ll tell you a little more about that smell, as well as what you can do to help improve things, and when a bad smell might mean bad news about your paints. Let’s talk stinky oil paints and what you need to know about them!
Why does oil-based paint smell so bad?
Oil paints have all that vegetable matter in them, so that is the main reason that you get the smell, but you also have to factor in the metals and other chemicals added in to make those amazing colors. Even as they dry, oil paints release something called VOCs or ‘volatile organic compounds’, The reason there is a fancy term for it is that the EPA recognizes the dangers of paint fumes, along with other causes of VOCs.
Probably the best comparison would be if you’ve ever stored an opened bag of fertilizer in an enclosed space – it stinks. That ‘stink’ is VOC and VOCs are quite capable of making you dizzy, giving you headaches, and can even make some people pass out. Skin irritation is not uncommon either if there are a lot of VOCs involved, so you always want to make sure that you are painting in a well-ventilated area so that you aren’t breathing in a lot of fumes that your body might not be so happy about.
So, when you paint, be sure to put a fan nearby or open the window and let some fresh air in. Those bad smelling paint fumes are not good for you, but a little improved airflow can help to minimize any ill effects.
How do you stop oil paint from smelling?
When you are painting or waiting on your paintings to dry, there are a few things besides improving the air circulation which you can do to help minimize the smell that the oil paints are producing. Try one or more of the following to see if it helps:
- Baking soda – Baking soda is not just good for keeping the fridge smelling nice. You can open a box and put it in your art room and it will absorb some of the odor and make your art room smell a wee bit better in the process.
- Charcoal bucket – Charcoal also draws odors, so you can put some in a bucket and drape a damp paper towel over the top of the bucket and simply leave it out overnight. Repeat the process the next evening or as-needed, as this should remove a good bit of odor as it works.
- Salt the room – Salt can absorb some odors and will also remove a little moisture from the room, so your paints will dry faster. Spread some salt around the room and on top of your tarp if you are using one and this can help with the odors as well.
- Scented candles – Candles will burn off some of the fumes produced as the paints dry and if they are scented, then you’ll also get a much nicer smell in the room. If you use baking soda while you are painting, then remove it and place a few candles in bowls of water afterwards, you can make a huge difference in how your art room smells!
Can you use paint that smells bad?
Oil paints generally smell a little, so the answer is usually going to be ‘yes’. That said, if your paints are smelling a little worse than usual, then you need to look for a few things to determine if it has possibly gone bad. Keep in mind, it’s probably fine – oil paints have the longest shelf life of just about any kind of art supplies, lasting 30 or 40 years easily. That said, look to see if it’s clumping or dried out in parts first.
Next, try stirring it well to see if it briefly comes together and then separates again quickly. Again, it’s rare with oils, but they can occasionally go bad. I’ve only seen it happen a few times, though, so with any luck it’s not something that you are going to run into.
If your paint dries out, you might be able to salvage it by adding it to a clear oil medium after powdering it up nicely with a mortar and pestle, so even if you think your paint is bad, be sure to do a little research before trashing it. You might have a little more mileage on it yet!
Some final words on smelly oil paints
Today I’ve talked about why oil paints have that fishy smell and it’s all about the ingredients. Oil paints have a lot of vegetable matter in the form of linseed, poppy, or safflower oil and also contain heavy metals that are mildly or even largely poisonous. While this is a great recipe for a beautiful painting, it’s unrealistic at best to expect it to smell like roses.
If you would like more tricks for getting rid of that oil-painty smell, click here to check out a 3rd party link on the subject. While it’s listed chiefly as a way to remove spray paint smells, I’ve checked out the tips inside and they should work wonderfully with your oils as well.
Until next time, keep your art room and your compositions fresh!