Get the lead out

OK, the title of this post is a bit of misdirection. I mean to say ‘get the lead in.’ 

Quick-drying oil is very important for oil painting. Not only do quick-drying oils enable artists to finish paintings quickly, drying oils improve the way paint handles. It gives artists more control over the paint–an altogether good thing. 

There are many ways to make oil drying. Boiling oil creates a faster-drying oil. Housepainters used cheap, thick boiled oil to speed drying time. The quick-drying qualities are affected by how high the temperature is and how long the oil is heated. It’s also common to add drying agents to further increase the oil’s siccative (drying) qualities. The black oil used by artists is produced by adding litharge (sugar of lead) to boiling oil. 

There are also ways to make oil drying without using heat. One of the best oils is sun-thickened oil. Sun-thickened oil is made by putting oil in a shallow tray and placing the tray in the sun. The process takes several weeks to complete. Sun-thickened oil is thick and honeylike. It handles much better than stand oil (which I never use). Sun-thickened oil is very light and handles superbly both for impasto and glazing.

Even though sun-thickened oil has been used since ancient times, it’s difficult to find today because it’s slow to make and requires a suitable environment. If you live in a sunny, dry place, why not make some yourself?

A quick-drying oil that you can make anywhere is lead oil. Leaded oil is made by placing the oil in a lead or lead-glass tray. Lead is very siccative. Over time, the lead in the tray infuses the oil with its drying qualities. Rublev sells a version of this but it’s easy to make at home, and unlike sun-thickened oil, it can be made anywhere. I’ve made it in the past and today I’ll demonstrate how to make it yourself.

Making lead oil

Start with good linseed or walnut oil. Use the best oil you can find, such as cold-pressed oil. A pint should be enough. 

Next, buy a thin sheet of lead. You can buy lead sheets at metal suppliers or even on Amazon. I saw a 12″ by 36″ sheet online for $22.00. A sheet that size is enough for two batches,

Here’s a sheet I bought. Lead is very malleable. This sheet is thin enough to cut with scissors.


Here, using scissors, I cut a piece large enough for one batch.


Next, I fashion the sheet into a shallow tray. I crimped the corners together with my fingers. The tray doesn’t have to be pretty. The jar contains the linseed oil I plan to use.


Here is the oil in the tray. The tray is in an out-of-the-way place that I can cover.

I’ve covered the tray and labeled it to remind myself when I started the process. I’ll retrieve the oil in about 6 weeks. I want the oil to be pretty thick.

The oil produced by this process is clear (though not as clear as sun-thickened oil) and very drying. It’s tighter than sun-thickened oil–a little goes a long way.


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