Solvents are used to dissolve colored pencil pigment and binders to ease layering and blending. Clear solvents are recommended, solvents with any hint of color could stain your paper. Solvents should be chosen for their ability to evaporate completely, you can crush the tooth of paper if you go over the area too hard with a colored pencil while it is wet.
This section covers common solvents used in colored pencil, it does not cover the solvent as a technique.
Odorless Mineral Spirits (OMS), a petroleum distillate, have a longer drying time than Turpenoid. Some OMS have more of a smell than others. OMS are different from mineral spirits because they have been further refined to remove the more toxic aromatic compounds. OMSs are classified as skin irritants. Dizziness and headaches are side-effects fo prolonged exposure. Long-term inhalation in an enclosed space can eventually lead to unconsciousness.
These two OMS brand have virtually no odor and are widely used by colored pencil artists:
Gamsol is an excellent solvent for use with colored pencils. It evaporates 100% and leaves no residue. Gamsol is less toxic than other brands of OMS (Odorless Mineral Spirits), mineral spirits, or turpentine because the harmful aromatic solvent component has been removed. It's also useful for studio and brush cleanup.
Mona Lisa brand is reported by many artists to be an excellent solvent for use with colored pencils. It also evaporates 100% and leaves no residue. It can also useful for studio and brush cleanup.
For those who have had reactions to OMSs but would like to use a good solvent, you can try ZestIt. It will only irritate skin with prolonged contact. It has a citrus scent to it because it is made from citrus oils. If you are allergic to citrus, you will probably be allergic to this item. A new variety has been made that is citrus-free and actually has a faster dry time. ZestIt is very popular in Europe. ZestIt is available from Amazon, but it is very expensive.
Turpenoid is the odorless substitute for turpentine, which is obtained from the resin from live trees. It dries faster than an OMS but comes with many health precautions. Its vapor can irritate the skin and eyes, damage the lungs and respiratory system. When inhaled it can damage the central nervous system. Due to all of the health precautions, I really do not recommend it but if I had to make a choice, I would choose Weber Odorless Turpenoid.
Grain Alcohol (Vodka) is a solvent that people with chemical allergies can try to use. The only major concern is grain alcohol's flammability. Any type of grain alcohol can be used, but Vodka is recommended because it is inexpensive, a clear liquid, and almost odorless.
Isopropyl Alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, can be used as a solvent. It takes longer than grain alcohol to dry. Isopropyl alcohol is a skin irritant and highly flammable.
Lighter Fluid, butane or naptha types, are also used as solvents. I highly recommend NOT using it. In addition to its being highly flammable, it can cause euphoria, drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia, cardiac arrhythmia, fluctuations in blood pressure and temporary memory loss. Death can result from asphyxiation and ventricular fibrillation.
I would like to mention Bestine Rubber Cement Thinner (heptane). I never had the opportunity to use it but some professional artists preferred it over other solvents. It was a specific brand of rubber cement thinner that has been discontinued. It had the fastest dry time of all solvents listed here and was non-staining (unlike other rubber cement thinners). From what I have seen there is not another product that is identical to the Bestine brand.
Handling Solvents Safely
- Solvents should be stored in glass or acrylic jars because some solvents will eat through certain types of plastic. The jar should have a tight-fitting, screw-on cap. A lid that flips off, like the ones in plastic containers, do not provide the proper seal to keep the container closed if it is knocked over. The shape of a flip-off lid can also become distorted which could lead to evaporation.
I personally use the small jam/jelly size canning jars with a small piece of sponge inside on the bottom to give my brush a scrub on occasionally to clean it while working.
- Use solvents in an adequately ventilated area. Most fumes from the majority of solvents used with colored pencils can lead to headaches or unconsciousness if breathed in for too long. Remember, even if you cannot smell it there are still fumes present.
- Keep solvents closed when you are not using them to avoid breathing the fumes for longer than necessary. This will also save you money on solvents. If left in an open container, they will evaporate.
- Most solvents are flammable. Do not smoke or use near an open flame.
- Always read the manufacturers instructions for use, safety, and storage.
Brushes will be needed to blend solvents with. I usually purchase relatively cheap synthetic ones so that I won't mind if they get destroyed. I prefer brushes that are a little stiff. You can also use cotton swab applicators or blending stumps.