Waiting for oil paint to dry can try an artist's patience, especially those who are used to faster-drying paint such as watercolor or acrylic. In this article, we will look at 9 different techniques to make your oil paints dry faster.
As stated above, oil paint dries through a process of oxidation. It actually doesn't dry as does acrylic paint when the water evaporates from the pigment. Rather, oil paint undergoes a chemical reaction that causes the oil to harden.
Painting in a dry, well-ventilated area can significantly speed up the drying process. Exposure to natural light is also said to help. Having a fan run in your studio or on your painting, opening the window (provided it's not humid out), running a ventilation fan (always a good idea when using solvents), and running a dehumidifier can help speed up drying. The constant exchange of air aids the chemical change.
If you run a fan that hasn't been used in a while, be sure the clean any dust off of the fan blades, especially ceiling fans. You don't want all that dust circulating in the air and getting into your painting.
You have to be careful with this one, but it works and works well. Exposing your painting to heat can significantly speed up the drying process. The higher the heat, the quicker it dries. The opposite is also true, cooler air will slow down the drying process (see my article on storing unused oil paint in the freezer).
There are different ways to heat up your painting. One safe way is to stick it in a window on a warm, sunny day. Both the light of the sun and the warmth will speed up the process. Another is to just set the thermostat to a higher temperature in your studio overnight, or during the day if you like it hot.
When I used to do summer plein air events I would place a completed painting that was done on linen glued onto plywood in the back window of my car. However, I learned the hard way that you must be very careful with this process. Sometimes the inside of my car got so hot that the linen began to separate from the plywood, and the plywood warped. Keep in mind that many painting panels are made with heat-activated glue.
Some advocate using a heat gun on your oil painting. I have never tried this as I usually work wet on wet, but they claim it works. If you use a heat gun, be sure to keep the setting under 130 degrees Fahrenheit as higher levels could result in yellowing or even cracking the paint. Move the gun slowly over the painting keeping it several inches away. Be sure the gun never touches the painting during this process.
I've experimented with other heating methods that I will not mention for fear of inspiring you to accidentally set your house on fire. Just be certain that if you use any kind of heating technique, don't go overboard and keep it safe. Better to wait a few days for paint to dry than to ruin your painting or burn your studio down.
Now we move away from environmental factors and onto technical and chemical methods to speed things up. The first being paint application.
Thicker paint takes longer to dry. Oil paint drys through a process of oxidation which changes the paint's chemistry when it's exposed to air. The thicker the paint application, the longer this process takes since the entire mass of paint is not evenly exposed.
There are numerous ways to thin oil paint. Solvents are probably the most widely used method, but you can also use different types of oils, dryers (discussed below) and thin paint application. Bear in mind that if you thin your paint with oil, you will extend the drying time rather than shorten it. You can also thin the paint by just scrubbing it aggressively onto the canvas with a bristle brush without using any thinners (AKA tube consistency).
When painting with thin layers, always make sure the initial layer is the thinnest and has the least amount of oil content of any subsequent layers. This is the thick over thin/fat over lean principle which must be followed if you want to avoid having your painting crack, ghost (produce dull spots, learn more in my other post), or worse.
When painting in layers, I'll start by applying a very thin layer of paint with maybe just a touch of Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits (see Resource Page for more info on Gamsol). Slightly thicker layers can be added with tube-consistent paint, leaving the thickest for last.
The great thing about this approach is that the initial layer of thin paint will speed up the drying of the subsequent layers. In many cases, it's the initial layer that takes the longest time to dry.
Knowing this you can tone your canvas with maybe a warm earth tone like Transparent Red Oxide, let it dry, then start painting. If you apply thin layers of paint, many times they will be dry within a day or two depending on other variables which we will discuss below. Just be sure to follow the thick over thin/fat over lean principle.
If you have sensitivity or health issues with solvents, check out my post Oil Painting Without Solvents-What Artists Need to Know.
Chemical drying agents such as Galkyd, made by Gamblin, or Liquin, made by Windsor & Newton is a great way to speed up the drying of subsequent layers of paint. Notice I said subsequent because these products and others like them have a petroleum distillates base which acts like oil and therefore must follow the fat over lean principle described above.
Dryers are used by adding a small amount into your paint mixtures prior to applying them onto the canvas. Thin layers of paint can start becoming tacky within an hour, while thick strokes of paint may still take one to several days to dry.
Gamblin makes several different versions of Galkyd with different rates of drying. These dryers also give the paint a glossy appearance. Just be sure to use them as instructed since they generally do have some toxicity.
I've found that Walnut Alkyd, made by M. Graham is probably the fastest of all when it comes to drying time. The nice thing about walnut alkyd is that it's non-toxic, boiled walnut oil. Whenever I want something to be dry the next day, this will be my best bet.
NOTE OF CAUTION: be sure to clean your brushes thoroughly after using any chemical drying agents. Failing to do so will leave you with hardened, unusable brushes. If this happens try Turpenoid Natural for cleaning and restoring your brushes. See more information on this and the mediums mentioned above on the Resources Page.
Linseed oil dries faster than safflower oil and walnut oil, and poppy oil dries the slowest of all. Most oil paint is made with linseed oil but some manufacturers may use safflower oil in their white paint or in light-valued cool colors since linseed oil has a tendency to yellow after it dries. This will cause these colors to dry at a slower rate.
Some manufacturers may use strictly walnut oil or even safflower oil in some or all of their pigments. M. Graham for instance uses walnut oil almost exclusively in all their pigments. It's a wonderful, high-quality paint, but it's not going to dry as fast.
So if you want to speed up the drying process, avoid paints that use safflower, walnut, or poppy oil and stick with paints made with linseed oil.
Alkyd paints are just oil paints made with a quick-drying oil, similar to the walnut alkyd described above. While not as fast-drying as acrylics, alkyds usually dry within a day.
The great thing about alkyds is that you can mix and match them with oil paint or do an entire painting strictly with alkyds. A painting done entirely in alkyds will usually dry overnight, even with thicker paint applications.
If you want to mix and match, a great strategy can be to use alkyds for slower drying colors like whites and cadmiums and stick with regular oils for the rest of your colors. I use this approach for painting trips when I need paintings to dry relatively fast for transportation purposes, but it can also be utilized in the studio.
If you do use alkyd paints with painting mediums, especially dryers, be sure that those mediums are compatible with alkyds.
All else being equal, certain colors or pigments will dry faster than others. Since many different color combinations can achieve the same results, you can utilize some of these faster drying colors on your palette. Also, toning the canvas with a quick-drying color can help speed up the drying time of the subsequent layers.
Bear in mind that with the faster drying colors, some manufacturers will make them with a slower drying oil such as safflower to slow the drying time.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Be sure to avoid using very slow-drying colors listed above for your initial layers of paint. Adding a quick-drying color over a slow-drying color can result in cracking.
When it comes to canvas and painting surfaces, many beginning artists do not realize that there are other options besides the universal-primed canvas you see in stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby which tend to result in slower drying time for oil paint. Here is a list of some options:
On of my favorite surfaces to paint on is Lead-primed linen. Painting on a smooth canvas that has been double or triple primed with lead white is a beautiful experience.
The surface will slightly cling to the wet paint, which makes it great for wet on wet painting, but it will not stain and it's non-absorbant, so you can wipe wet paint completely off. Despite it being non-absorbant, oil paint dries much faster on lead-primed linen than it does on universal or regular titanium oil-primed canvas.
Bear in mind that lead is toxic, so be sure not to ingest it in any way. Also, its toxic nature makes it difficult to come by and it's expensive. There are a few manufacturers that make it but it may take some research. Some vendors will say their linen is lead-primed when it's really not, so inquire specifically before buying.
Lead white also has a tendency to yellow over time. So don't be surprised if you buy some lead-primed linen and see it's slightly yellow in appearance as compared with titanium-primed surfaces.
Alkyd is more absorbent than titanium/oil-primed and lead primed surfaces. Paint will not spread as easily and it soaks in more, but it does dry faster.
There are two types of gesso, traditional gesso which is made with rabbit skin glue (poor bunnies), and acrylic gesso. Traditional gesso is meant for rigid surfaces due to its brittle nature, so only use it on something stiff like wood panels. Acrylic gesso is not a true gesso but just an acrylic primer. Glue chalk gesso-primed surfaces have an absorbent surface that will help oil paint dry faster.
This process may not speed up the drying time of your oil paint, but it can speed up the entire painting process. Many paintings are built up with a layering process which allows the artist to more easily establish color and value masses from which to work off of. Rather than using slow-drying oils for the block-in, you can use acrylics that dry in a matter of minutes. Once you are confident that the colors and values are correct, use oil paint for your final layers.
The great thing about this process is that there is less of a change of ghosting, those dull spots that happen when layered oil paints dry. This is especially true if you save the oil for your final layer. Not only will your initial strokes be thin, but they will contain no oil, so the fat over lean/thick over thin rule will be adhered to.
It's important to note that you must use a universal/acrylic-primed surface for this technique. You can always put oil-based paint over water-based paint, but never the reverse. So never use oil-primed canvas with this approach and never paint acrylic over oil.
As you can see, there are a number of factors that can influence the drying time of oil paints. So if one of the above approaches is not working, it could be due to another variable. For example: let's say you are painting on an absorbent surface but the paint is taking forever to dry. It may be that the paint is a pigment that normally takes longer to dry such as cadmium. And if that cadmium is made with safflower oil, it will take even longer.
I once used a brand of titanium white that was made strictly with safflower oil. I had a thick stroke of almost pure white paint in one spot on a painting that was supposed to go to a show. I was also storing the painting in our dark, unheated basement during the winter while it dried. Because of this combination of factors, thick paint, safflower oil, and a cold, dark environment, it literally took over a month before that one spot on the painting dried.
Other variables that can affect drying time are the brand of paint used. One brand of cobalt blue may dry faster than another brand, especially if the one brand has a lot of additives.
You also need to consider the age of the paint. If a particular tube of paint has been in a retail storeroom for years and it wasn't sealed airtight, it will probably dry faster since the oxidation process had begun prior to you receiving it; it may also be very stiff. The next time you order that same type, it may be a newer tube that will take longer to dry.
Given all the variables listed, it's impossible for anyone, even paint manufacturers, to offer 100% assurance on how long it takes oil paint to dry. The best thing to do is experiment with some of the options listed above until you determine what works best for your painting method, style, and environment.
I hope that helps. Please leave your questions, comments or experiences below. Thanks and keep painting!
Jason Tako is a nationally known fine artist who specializes in western, wildlife, plein air, and Historical Native American subject matter. He spent his learning years sketching the wetlands and wooded areas of rural Minnesota. He has been featured in Plein Air Magazine and Western Art Collector Magazine and he was the Featured Artist for the 2020 Southeastern Wildlife Expo. See his work at www.JasonTako.com and his demonstrations on his YouTube Channel.