After abandoning oil painting in my mid-teens because of the crippling migraines I got from the solvents required to thin and dilute oil paints (even in well-ventilated areas and after only 20 minutes or so), I figured that oil painting was just going to be one of those things I couldn’t do. When I read about oil sticks on an art forum, I really wanted to try them, but wasn’t willing to risk making myself sick trying. Then I saw a few people talking about Zest-It, a citrus-based solvent. As it was supposedly a lot less harmful than other solvents, I decided I’d at least give it a try.
When I opened the bottle, I immediately noticed the subtle orange-and-lemon scent; much nicer than the chemical odor of turpentine and the like. Still, what I really wanted to know was, would it dilute as effectively as normal solvents? And, more importantly, could I use it without having to spend the next 24 hours doped up on painkillers in a dark room?
I took my oil sticks to my Nan’s house, and over the course of my 3-day visit, we had a few painting sessions out on her veranda. For most of those sessions, we had the double doors open, but on one day it was so windy and rainy that ice cold water was pelting us at the table, so we had to close up the room. Even when we had the doors closed, neither of us suffered any ill effects after 2-3 hours of painting (not even a slight headache). Though I wouldn’t recommend painting with any solvents (even supposedly odorless ones) in a non-ventilated area because of potential long-term health risks, it does suggest that Zest-It is much safer to use than turpentine or other stronger solvents.
Zest-It is more expensive than most standard solvents, but among other odorless or low-odor solvents, it is actually quite cheap (I got a 500ml bottle a while ago for just under $25). The higher price compared to turpentine is still worth it for the ability to paint for hours without being struck down with a headache. It is also just as effective at thinning oil paint and cleaning brushes than standard solvents.
If you are allergic to or just don’t like using stronger solvents but still want to paint with oils, I would definitely recommend Zest-It; small bottles are only about $10 if you want to give it a try. Not only does it smell nicer than other solvents, it also seems to be less harmful.