What is mineral spirits

What is mineral spirits and how is it used in oil painting? Mineral spirits, or white spirits, is a petroleum-derived solvent. It is distilled from crude oil, and is related to kerosene. Mineral spirits and paint thinner are essentially the same thing. Paint thinner is less refined than mineral spirits and has undesirable byproducts, and, therefore, costs less.

Use mineral spirits in your oil painting; only use paint thinner to clean your brushes. The products marketed as odorless mineral spirits are the most refined and are suitable for painting. Because mineral spirits is a petroleum product, care must be taken with its use; however, many find it less an irritant than turpentine.


There is a lot of confusion about the history of mineral spirits in art. Some commentators claim that it came into use during the late 19th century. Some commentators even claim it came into use during the 1920’s, dating its use in dry cleaning as its origin. But contra these claims,  Théodore de Mayerne, writing in the 17th century, mentions its use in painting. Charles Lock Eastlake, in his wonderful Materials for a History of Oil Painting (1847), maintains that its use in painting was widespread from earliest times. The fact that these authors writing hundreds of years ago are familiar with it means that mineral spirits was used in painting well before the 19th century.

Mineral spirits vs turpentine

Turpentine is a workhorse; it’s the most widely used solvent. It dries more rapidly than mineral spirits and can sustain the thinnest brushwork before running, which makes it ideal for sketching. Because it’s a stronger solvent than mineral spirits, broad areas created with it are uniform and show none of the streaks often left by mineral spirits. In mediums. it enables fine detail work in the thinnest layers.  Because it’s not as powerful as oil of spike, and dries so rapidly, it can be used over other layers without effecting them. I.use it every day.

Mineral spirits Mineral spirits is such a mild solvent, it can’t dissolve damar crystals. Because of its mildness, it doesn’t thin paint as thoroughly as turpentine. Paint layers remain open longer than those painted with turpentine. Thin layers painted with it cover better than turpentine-thinned layers. That combined with its modest solvent power make it ideal for glazing. As already mentioned, it’s more streaky than turpentine which can, in the right circumstances, be charming. Note that it runs easier than turpentine if too thin. I use it every day. My typical painting setup includes a cup of turpentine and a cup of mineral spirits.


My solvent cups--the larger two

My solvent cups–the larger two

Tip: Add some drier to your solvent. You’ll be surprised at how well it preserves brushwork in even the thinnest layers. Plus it retards running.



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