Better for you, better for the planet: How to choose and use our oils, mediums and varnishes sustainably

Our wide range of traditional oils, mediums and varnishes are brilliant at helping artists experiment with texture and finishes, control colour and protect their work. But they can be tricky to handle; some have odours that can take over an environment. As chemicals they must be handled with care, and packaging them safely and sustainably can be a challenge. But we’re doing everything we can to improve the impact of all our mediums on the planet including the reduction of unnecessary packaging. 


Wrapping things up for a better planet 


There’s been lots of talk about plastic and its impact on the planet. We have listened and understand it is important to reduce the amount of virgin plastic – newly created plastic – we use. From the middle of 2023, recycled plastic packaging will replace all the virgin plastic in our 75ml, 250ml and 500ml bottles of our oil colour and watercolour mediums, varnishes, and solvents. We will gradually reduce stocks of our old bottles by selling them through, and begin to introduce the new ones, so nothing goes to waste. This means that eventually 352 products will have new packaging, saving an average of 248 tonnes of plastic going into landfill every year. 

We have considered switching out plastic altogether, and using glass or metal instead. But having considered alternatives, it is clear that using recycled plastic is still the most environmentally friendly option, as long as it is made up of at least 50% recycled plastic. Making and transporting glass and aluminium packaging consumes much more energy than plastic. And should glass bottles break, not only does it mean products get wasted, it also poses a health and safety risk.



Finding the magic in what mediums and varnishes can do while staying safe 


Our oils, mediums and varnishes are all perfectly safe to use. And the key to making the most of them in terms of experimentation with drying times, different finishes, workability and flow of paint – to mention just a few properties – is to constantly play and test. With so much potential for regular daily use, we carefully follow all regulations as you’d expect, and have rigorously tested all products to keep you safe. But as with using any chemical product, there are a few basic rules to stick to. For instance, prolonged contact with your skin should be avoided, as should swallowing any of our products or even putting brushes in your mouth. It’s also a good idea to work in a room that is well ventilated so that you are not inhaling too many solvents – which can cause dizziness or nausea. 

Read on for other things to keep in mind. 


In the studio environment: 

  • Open windows and doors ensuring good air circulation. 
  • Store all materials tightly capped when not in use. 
  • Don’t expose artists’ materials to naked flames or excessive heat sources. 


While working: 

  • Avoid eating, drinking and smoking in the studio, as you risk ingesting toxic materials. 
  • Do not allow solvents to evaporate into the air; only use the smallest amount necessary for the job in hand. 
  • Clean up spills immediately. 
  • Wear an approved mask when dealing with dry pigments to avoid inhalation. 
  • Use a barrier cream, like Winsor & Newton Artguard, or surgical gloves when painting with your hands. 
  • If paint or solvent is splashed into the eyes or on the skin, wash thoroughly with water. 
  • Keep artists’ materials out of reach of children, animals and food. 


After working: 

  • Clear away all solvent and paint-soaked rags and discarded palettes. Dispose of them in an airtight, solvent-proof container or in an appropriate manner. 
  • Wash hands thoroughly at the end of your painting session. 
  • Do not use excess solvent to wash colour from your hands.



Safely dispose of products after use 


To be effective, our oils, mediums and varnishes must contain solvents and heavy metals which can be toxic, so they must be disposed of responsibly. Make sure to have a good clean-up routine and disposal system that is as ethically responsible as possible – as little as possible should go down the sink. 

Solvents – including rags that have been soaked in oils, mediums or varnishes – constitute hazardous waste. In some cases, your local council will be able to collect the waste from you (although there may be a charge for this). Alternatively, you may be able to deliver it to a household recycling or civic amenity site, free of charge. If you’re unsure, ask your local council for advice. 

Many artists spend time cleaning their palettes by scraping any excess paint off into a sealed bag for disposal. It’s a good idea to clean your brushes and then soak them in a jar of low-odour solvent, such as Winsor & Newton Sansodor. Once the pigments have settled at the bottom, you can decant the excess thinner to be used again, and dispose of the residue responsibly. 

It’s also worth thinking about how you dispose of your old oily rags. As oil dries on rags they can produce heat, with air being trapped in the folds. The presence of heat, oxygen and fuel on a combustible cloth is all that is needed to create fire. Many artists keep an airtight metal container handy to keep oily rags safely stored. These can then be transferred to an airtight sealed plastic bag for disposal. 



Learn to love labels 


It might sound obvious, but if you want to understand the materials you are using and how they may affect you, you should read the label. 

Some of our products display the Approved Product (AP) symbol. This means the materials have been certified by a toxicologist and are safe because they don’t contain any materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or pose any threat to human health. Some products have a Cautionary Label (CL). This means they are safe if they are used by artists that follow safety precautions for that particular material. 

Many of our oils, mediums and varnishes simply have a pictogram and single word on their labels. For all of our products with these symbols, we provide a safety data sheet which you can download from our website. 

Here’s what the symbols really mean: 



Avoid contact with heat, sparks or any open flame, and do not smoke while using. 

Exclamation mark

Can cause irritation to the skin or eyes, or sensitisation. It also includes acute toxic effect that might arise through ingestion, dermal contact or inhalation.

Health hazard

This symbol relates to longer-term health hazards, such as respiratory sensitisers, and could be on dusty materials, such as charcoal.

Environmental Hazard

This symbol will appear on materials that contain substances such as turpentine and zinc oxide. Any packaging with this symbol needs to be disposed of responsibly (see above).

Choosing the right oils, mediums and varnishes 


It is important to think carefully about the materials you are using. Not all OMVs are created equal, and some are less toxic and produce less odour than others. 

A solvent like Winsor & Newton’s Sansodor with a PEL (Permissible Exposure Limit) of 300 is a good alternative to mineral spirits (100-200) and turpentine (100). If exposure to solvents is a major issue, we offer the Artisan Water Mixable range of oils and mediums that can be cleaned with water. 

If you are looking for a low-odour solvent to clean material after painting, you can use the new Winsor & Newton Brush Cleaner, which removes dried oil, alkyd and acrylic colour from brushes and is water-miscible, so can be used with water.

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