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For the qualities of traditional oils without the long drying time, try painting with alkyd oi paints.

By Michael Chesley Johnson

This article is from Magazine (December 2011). If you enjoy it, subscribe for 10 full issues, or purchase the whole December 2011 issue for more instruction.

If you’re an oil painter who doesn’t like to watch paint dry, then alkyd oil paints are for you. Alkyd oil paints—or simply, alkyds—can dry to the touch in less than 24 hours, which makes them ideal for someone who uses multiple layers of glazes, paints wet-into-wet or travels to paint.

But why not just use acrylic paint? Although acrylics have come a long way since their creation in the 1950s, they still don’t handle the way oils do. Alkyds, on the other hand, are fully compatible with oil paints. Because alkyds are made with a modified version of the same oils used in traditional oil paints (such as linseed or safflower oil), alkyds can be used interchangeably with traditional oils and their related products (turpentine, mineral spirits and varnishes). And cleanup is exactly the same for alkyds as it is for oils.

A Paint for All Processes

For the studio artist painting indirectly (building up layers or glazes, each of which is allowed to dry), alkyds are great for establishing an imprimatura or grisaille. With traditional oils, each layer can take days to dry, but with alkyds, which dry in 18 to 24 hours, a new layer can be applied the very next day. For painters looking to add many layers of glazes, this property can bring to a quick conclusion what would ordinarily be a drawn-out process. Paintings that would take months can be completed in weeks or even days. In addition, varnishing can be done much sooner, sometimes in as few as three months. (Traditional oils can’t be varnished for 6 to 12 months.)

For the painter who likes to work more directly (not letting the paint dry as it is applied), alkyds offer the advantage of drying just enough during a painting session to become tacky. One problem with painting alla prima (all at once, hence, wet-into-wet) is that the surface can become so lubricated with oil paint that it’s difficult to apply more paint. Think of trying to put more frosting on an already thickly frosted cake. But with alkyds, the surface quickly becomes receptive to taking on additional paint. Also, if you like to play with texture, you’ll be able to layer paint more thickly. (Keep in mind that the thicker the paint layer, the longer it will take to dry.)

The traveling plein air painter will find that alkyds dry quickly enough to be easily managed. Even with a fully alkyd palette, your paintings will be wet when you come from the field, so you’ll still need to be careful of the rental car, but after a day or so, they can be stacked without damage. Just use wax paper to separate and protect them.

Transitioning to Alkyds

Getting started with alkyds is easy. In fact, if you use a medium such as Gamblin Galkyd or Winsor Newton Liquin, then you’re already using an alkyd. You’ve probably noticed that these two products not only make paint more fluid, but also speed the drying time. Painters who travel have long been accustomed to taking along a tube of Winsor Newton Griffin Alkyd titanium white rather than a traditional oil white; because some white goes into most paint mixtures, adding this alkyd white accelerates the overall drying. To make a full transition to painting with alkyds, however, the first step is to replace completely your oil palette.

Originally designed for house paint, alkyds are now made by several manufacturers with an artist’s needs in mind. Winsor Newton (WN), which was the first art materials manufacturer to offer alkyds, back in the 1960s, now lists 50 Griffin Fast Drying Oil Colours. For artists interested in a color-theory palette, WN suggests in its literature two options, a three-color primary palette and a six-color split-primary palette. At the time of this writing, Gamblin offers eight colors in its FastMatte Alkyd Oil Colors line. Although the company is expanding this line, these eight, which include six colors plus black and white, make a split-primary palette, too. You can also check out C.A.S. Paints AlkydPro Fast Drying Alkyd Oil Color and Da Vinci Fast Dry Alkyd Oils. With all these choices, picking a palette is easy.

As for mediums, thinners and brush cleaners, alkyds work well with all the products you’re familiar with. If you’re glazing, however, you’ll want to incorporate an alkyd medium because traditional glazing mediums will slow the drying time. Both WN and Gamblin offer several different alkyd mediums, each with varying properties for different purposes.

Simple Adjustments

There are a few painting and handling differences between alkyds and traditional oils:

  • Because alkyds dry quickly, you’ll want to put out only the amount you need for a session. The paint will become too tacky to use in four or fewer hours. Also, consider using a paper palette, which you can throw away; a wooden palette is harder to clean after painting with alkyds.
  • With traditional oils, you can save leftover paint for later use; you must discard alkyds, which will be unusable the next day.
  • If you incorporate traditional oils or mediums with alkyds, which is a perfectly acceptable practice, your mixtures will take longer to dry than they would with straight alkyds.
  • Alkyd colors tend to be more transparent than traditional oil paints.
  • Unlike traditional oils, which dry to an uneven gloss because different colors contain different percentages of oil, alkyds from the same manufacturer tend to dry to the same even finish. WN’s alkyds have a semigloss finish; Gamblin’s yield a matte finish, which helps succeeding layers of paint adhere to an alkyd underpainting.
  • Finally, although you can use turpentine or mineral spirits for alkyd cleanups, you do need to clean your brushes right away; otherwise, the paint will dry on the brushes and ruin them. If you continue to paint with traditional oils, you may want to put aside a special set of brushes that you use only for alkyds.

Indirect Painting With Alkyds

Indirect painting is the classical way of studio painting. One method is to start with a detailed monochromatic underpainting, let it dry and then apply a series of transparent glazes to add color. Each glaze must dry thoroughly between layers, or the solvent will dissolve the previous glaze, causing bleeding of color. With traditional oils, this is a long process because each layer can take days to dry. With alkyds, however, a layer typically dries in less than a day. I painted Seaside House (below) in seven sessions and as many days. Without alkyds, it might have taken seven weeks!

1. I sketch in my design with a 6B graphite pencil on Ampersand Gessobord and spray it with Golden Archival Varnish (matte).

2. Working on a paper palette, I put out a small amount of Indian red and thin it with Gamsol.

3. When the varnish is dry, I block in the large shapes with thinned Indian red and wipe out areas that need to be lighter. I also use titanium white to make corrections to the drawing. With this underpainting, I establish the value of each mass.

4. After a day, the underpainting is bone dry and ready for glazing. I create my glazes, using a soft sable brush, by mixing the appropriate color plus equal parts of Galkyd Lite and Gamsol. I want just enough Gamsol to make the mixture fluid.

5. I apply thin glazes with a soft sable brush—just coloring simple shapes in a manner rather like painting-by-numbers. Here the first glazing layer is complete.

6. The paint always dries overnight, so I continue to modify colors by adding a new layer of glazing each day. Here, on the second day, I’m applying a yellow glaze over the blue sky. I add only Galkyd Lite to the color for a mixture that’s fatter than my first-layer glazes, in keeping with the fat-over-lean principle.

7. Here’s what my paper palette looks like at the end of a session. You can see the tranparency and variety of my glazes. At the end of each day, I discard both paper and paint.

8. In addition to the glazes, I also scumbled in some passages of more opaque paint—color with white added—for corrections and to enhance the whiteness of the house. Here Seaside House (alkyd oil, 12×12) is complete.

Michael Chesley Johnson, teaches plein air workshops throughout the United States and Canada and is a contributing editor for Magazine. For more information, visit

Learn More

  • See Michael Chesley Johnson’s demonstration on direct plein air painting with alkyds.
  • See a free preview of Michael Chesley Johnson’s video download: Backpacker Painting with Michael Chesley Johnson: Oil on Location
  • See a free preview of Michael Chesley Johnson’s video download Pastel Painting on Location with Michael Chesley Johnson


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