Genesis heat set oils review

Genesis heat set paints are a patented variant of thermoplastic paints such as Plastisol, which were developed to stay wet indefinitely until set with heat.  Artists might know them from silkscreen work, where they are used widely to prevent drying of paint in the fine mesh screens.  The Genesis paints are the only type I am aware of created specifically for artists. They are oils, in a sense, since they include a synthetic oil, but are chemically more akin to acrylics.  In spite of any similarities, they are not at all compatible with either acrylics or oils.   They have not been widely adopted by painters, but are now used extensively in the decorative arts, particularly in the world of “reborning” (dolls made to look like newborns).

Some artists rave about heat set oils on the Wetcanvas forum, while others rave just as much against them, questioning whether they should be allowed to be called artist oils when they are a synthetic product. AMIEN, the art materials resource, has been unable to get any information about their longevity beyond what is in their marketing materials (not unusual among artist materials — you trust the maker or not, basically.)

They were invented by a couple of artists in Hawaii, and the patent is available online at http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5700858/description.html, plus some narrative info about how they were developed at http://www.thomasdeir.com/genesis.html. Based on that, they are a combo of pre-existing Plastisol compounds and their longevity should equal that of Plastisol and the pigments used. I can’t find out much more than that.  It is unfortunate that the maker has been very close with testing information. Their official statement about longevity is marketing doublespeak (“have been formulated to have  archival properties” or something like that, turning warning lights on in my brain).

Colors / Getting Started

Their color system of numerous tints of each color is probably aimed at reborners; the darkest color  of each tint range is pure pigment (with the exception of Pyrrole red 03, which is pure pr255); the rest are not necessary for painters. The range of colors is pretty well chosen, with generally lightfast and nontoxic pigments. (I have an earlier post on the pigments used.)  There is some difference in consistency between colors; I’m not sure if this is poor quality control or necessity.  You can make your own paints (quite cheaply) using the thick medium and dry pigments; in my limited experience this works well.

Getting set up is expensive even if you buy only their pure colors (comparable to starting with oils). On sale, they cost about $10/jar at jerrysartarama. As of June 2013, 1/3 oz. tubes of limited colors are available very cheaply at www.amaco.com; this might be a good way to try it out, as would buying some thick medium and mixing your own if you are willing to work with dry pigments.  To start cheaply, I would suggest a limited palette. There are instructions online for using a 5-color set to mix a wide range of colors; that might be a good starting point, or any limited palette. Small paintings are much easier than large for testing the waters, thanks to the difficulties of heating large canvases.

The other startup cost is a heating method.  Their blow dryer works for small areas; you can probably use a much cheaper one from a hardware store if you check its temperature output (1000 w). It’s time-consuming to use the blow dryer, so you may want to invest in a toaster oven plus oven thermometer or a propane catalytic heater plus infrared laser thermometer (see heating section below).  The easiest startup would probably be a yard sale toaster or convection oven.

Surfaces

From my experience, I suspect the range of desirable surfaces is much more limited than for oils, since I have tried a few that didn’t work well at all. A discount acrylic-primed canvas roll worked okay, and Fredrix Universal-primed canvas works well, but a Strathmore 400 series Acrylic Canvas pad was a disaster (paint got gummy and couldn’t be moved around), as was painting on sanded copper without a primer (not surprising I guess). Arches Huile worked nicely, but only when I learned to apply a couple of coats of gesso. If you prepare your own canvas, you may have to experiment to see which acrylic primer (gesso) works. One acrylic primer I tried didn’t work well — also hard to move the paint around. Right now, I’m sticking to Fredrix canvas, Fredrix gesso and Arches Huile. Failed experiments are making me wary of trying much else.

Update: I think that there are two distinct problems with surfaces.  If you pay attention to these you can use a good range of surfaces.

  • One is pure incompatibility caused by an acrylic sealant or primer that is softened by Genesis and basically never dries again completely, even when heated. Arches Huile without added gesso is like this; the surface remains a bit tacky after heating, and stays that way for years as far as I can tell.  Whatever they use to seal Arches reacts with Genesis paint. (Polymer clay artists talk about this problem; they warn about some acrylic varnishes and paints that will remain soft and gummy on polymer clay, which is a plastisol product like Genesis.)  I always test a new canvas by thoroughly drying a small thick patch to see if it dries completely. If not, use at least two coats of gesso (one may work if you are very careful with full coverage, but two at cross directions is reliable). Let the gesso dry very well before painting. I have tried several gessos and think Fredrix is the best for Genesis, but Golden gesso also works.  I am basically coming to the conclusion that at least two coats of additional gesso are the best and safest practice on most surfaces for Genesis.
  • The second problem is a combination of canvas absorbency and the time you leave the paint on the canvas before setting. The thin synthetic oil in Genesis (actually, a plasticizer) will soak into an absorbent canvas over time, leaving the paint underbound and weak. This can happen on some surfaces overnight.  The symptom is paint that seems almost dry and cannot be moved easily, even when you try to work it.  It may seem a bit chalky and even flake off.  If you set it, it may seem okay, but it might lift in patches when you work on subsequent layers.  The safest thing is probably to scrape it off when this happens, but it is possible to add a little thick medium until it is workable again.  The only way to avoid this is to seal absorbent canvas with extra gesso, or be in the habit of heating your work frequently (at least by whatever time it takes for your canvas to cause the problem).  I suspect some artists may never see this problem because they heat-set frequently.

Handling

Overall, their claim that they act like oils is mostly reasonable, though they are not identical, and the more I use them the more I think they should be treated as their own unique medium.  I have tried a number of mediums with some claim to oil-like handling (Golden open acrylics, Atelier Chroma acrylics, casein), and this definitely is the closest.   I have found Genesis’ claim that the paint doesn’t darken on drying to be pretty true so far, and this plus their long working time makes them much more like oil paints than any acrylic formulation I have come across.  Water miscible oils are closer as long as you avoid water during painting.

Their biggest handling difference from oils is that they are thixotropic, meaning that their viscosity varies depending on how much you work them and how long they have set after working. Generally they start out in the jar as a pretty dense paste, then if you work them with a palette knife or brush they get much more buttery, sometimes approaching a unique consistency I might describe as liquid glass, which I really like. (A hot studio seems to make this more likely.)

Thixotropy is an interesting property in paint, and sought after in some situations  such as wet-in-wet layering of oils, where a tendency to set up can let you overbrush, glaze or scumble without waiting for the oil paint to dry thoroughly. This is difficult to achieve in oils without additives.  In heat set paints, it’s kind of redundant since you use heat when you want to set it, so mostly I consider this a bit of a downside. Some combinations of mediums, surface, and handling can get you in a gummy mess when the paint sets up a bit on the canvas.

Because of thixotropy, I find it hard to get a luscious oil paint feel that lasts. You can work the paint on the palette or add a medium to get it to feel juicy, but it’s pretty fleeting.  If you add too much medium, the paint handles like thin and rather greasy frosting that gets tacky until it’s set. Working back into thick wet paint on the canvas doesn’t feel the same as with oil paint; instead of combining fluidly it drags slightly.   I’m not a big impasto painter;  others may have found ways to work with this.  Overall I would say it works best for thin painting approaches or impastos that are dried immediately and then overpainted. On the other hand, palette knife painting might work very well because the knife can be used to loosen the paint as well as move it around.

Currently, there is very limited ability to manage the handling property of the paint.  There are 3 mediums available: the thick medium (binder that can be mixed with dry pigments to make your own colors),  thin medium (that weakens the paint film and should be used sparingly, no more than 40% or the paint may not ever dry), and glazing gel (can be used in any proportion but has a greasy feeling in large amounts). The paint can also be thinned with odorless mineral spirits for washes; my limited experience is that this works but you can overthin and have trouble getting the paint to set.  Other than the mediums, the only thing I have come up with is to add calcium carbonate as a transparent white, which works quite well. The satin varnish can also be used as a paint modifier, but the one time I used it as a varnish it seemed to yellow the colors significantly and leach whites. Unfortunately, I get the feeling Amaco (the manufacturer of Genesis) is not doing much development anymore.

UPDATE: I have started to use polymer clay mediums to modify working properties. (I talked with Amaco and they agreed it should be okay to do this, since they are all plastisols.)  Many polymer clay mediums are dilatant, almost the opposite of thixotropic, so you can control this property if you dislike it. I have a post with more details about this.

I have done about a dozen small paintings with them now. I would say overall that they have a slightly greasy rather than oily feeling, but once brushed on surfaces they handle well, and really stay workable as long as you want them to, though you deal with some  setting up from their thixotropic quality.   The big advantage to them, in my opinion, comes in playing around with indirect layering, using heat to move on to the next layer within minutes.  One of my recent paintings was done with 6 or 7 layers in about a day. This totally changes my willingness to tackle that approach.

Glazing, though, is one aspect of indirect painting where Genesis is problematic; the glazing gel can get too greasy and tacky if you add too much.   It seems easiest to glaze if you do one pass and then set it immediately.  I will experiment with different medium mixes and update; perhaps thinning medium helps. I have had better luck with scumbling and dry brush as ways to interact with previous layers; these are fun and suit my dry brush temperament.

UPDATE:  I now often use a custom-made medium, about 6:4 Translucent Liquid Sculpey : Sculpey clay conditioner.  I mix this with Genesis for a more fluid paint. The TLS (as polymer clay artists call it) even strengthens the Genesis paint in my opinion.

There are ways to speed up indirect painting with oils;  I have been looking into the use of self-refined oils that dry quite fast (see www.tadspurgeon.com). For work involving glazing or where longevity is a legitimate concern, I think that approach is better and much more flexible, but for learning, the heat set oils are outstanding.

Drying

When you want to dry a layer, you use a high heat blow dryer or heater/oven. For larger paintings you can use a radiant heater, your kitchen oven (if you dare), a convection oven, a propane catalytic heater, a silicon heating blanket or similar. (Patrick Ching in Hawaii has the most practical advice I have found on heating). The paint has to reach 250-280 degrees to set fully, so your hair dryer isn’t hot enough.   I am cautious about any toxicity in paints; I have not discerned any odor or nausea from the drying, but I like to avoid any questionable exposure.   Genesis says that their non-toxic rating includes the heating, but you’re also heating canvas, acrylic gesso, hardboard, whatever. I just try not to take chances, so I am currently doing the heating outdoors with a Coleman Black Cat catalytic heater.

Heating is problematic; if you don’t get it hot enough long enough you may not be setting the paint, and on the other hand it is possible to make the paint smoke if you’re too hot.  The temperature range has to be controlled in a narrow range, which is not as easy as they like to imply unless you use an oven.   I bought  an infrared laser thermometer to gauge temperature more accurately; this is well worth it to learn the correct distance from a heat source to the painting.  I think if you want to use this professionally on canvases larger than toaster oven size, you will need to invest time and money into making a drying box where you can control the process; Patrick Ching has an example at http://www.patrickchingart.com/d/d/genesis-artist-oils.html.  As of June 2013, Amaco.com also has the discontinued 24″ x 24″Genesis oven for about $400. Getting a good heating setup is probably the biggest downside to Genesis, and is probably crucial to make paintings that have a chance to last.

UPDATE:  I learned from polymer clay artists that small convection ovens are a good way to heat canvases up to 12×12. It’s important to get an oven thermometer and check different parts of the oven, making sure no part of the painting overheats too much.  I pre-heat for at least 5 minutes (important in some ovens that turn the elements on full blast until it reaches the desired temperature) then bake for 15 minutes generally. I got mine on sale for about $50, and of course use it only for this purpose.  Polymer clay artist really taught me how important careful consistent heating is.  I no longer consider anything completely set with just the blow dryer, though I use it for quick fixing. I bought the $400 Genesis oven and use it for larger canvases.  It is now only available from Kingslan.com as far as I know. Mine works fine, but smells really bad, apparently “a known problem”, as Amaco told me.  I use it outside.

Cleaning

Brushes clean up with odorless mineral spirits or isopropyl alcohol (the 90 percent solution, not 70 percent), then dawn soap and water;  you can also use the thinning medium as a non-toxic brush cleaner.  You really can leave the brushes without cleaning for quite a while since the paint doesn’t dry, and the ability to leave paint mixes on your palette for days or weeks is really great.

Toxicity

Non-toxicity is a moving target, and people have different sensitivity levels so it’s hard to give firm advice on that subject, but they get pretty high marks for a non-toxic system in my opinion. I feel I can handle these without any toxicity I’m aware of (unless high emfs from blow dryers worry you).  As mentioned above, I take heating outdoors and I mostly clean brushes with the thinning medium or rubbing alcohol and dawn soap. Rubbing alcohol seems irritating, but can be dispensed with. I haven’t noticed any smell or irritation from the paint, but I use plastic gloves routinely while painting and cleaning.  There have been issues about plastisols containing endocrine disruptors. The polymer clay vendors removed the problematic plasticizers, and I assume Genesis did also since they are not listed as hazardous.

Longevity – Unknown

Given their recent origin, it is wise to assume they will have long-term conservation issues (to be fair, so do oil paints). I would guess they are reasonably durable, say for 25-50 years, and possibly much longer. My experience is that the paint film is not nearly as hard as dry oil or acrylics, and probably needs a varnish layer or glass framing for protection.  Their literature backs this up, saying that the paint films remains flexible, allowing you to roll up canvases.   Over a long time period, the paint must harden, so it’s going through some kind of polymerization with unknown consequences.

I made some test swatches of the mediums and satin varnish and heat set them.  If you rub your finger or a cloth across them, it affects the sheen slightly, which means to me that the paint and varnish are still absorbent, so dust and pollutants will adhere over time.  (It’s possible I haven’t set them long enough, but their blow dryer was used so it seems others might have the same problem.)  Genesis says that water-based varnish can be used as a final coat: their air-dry varnish, removable with ammonia; or water-based polyurethanes, which I understand are effectively permanent so not a great solution. Some kind of varnish is probably advisable to create more robust protection, but differential drying characteristics may be a problem.   If you are willing to frame under glass, this weakness shouldn’t be a problem, but few people want to do that with an oil-like medium.

Another unknown is what happens to the substrate after repeated exposure to heat. I can’t find info on this so far, other than to caution about any substrate with sap, such as pine.

I have learned that many mediums once thought durable have problems. Acrylics turn out to have a porous surface that should probably be varnished in a complicated two-step process, and there are any number of ways you can screw up an oil painting so it starts to disintegrate within 25 years (google zinc white on canvas or Odd Nerdrum’s disintegrating paintings done with some weird resin medium). I’m not sure this should keep many people away from Genesis. If you are truly concerned about this, paint on rigid surfaces and frame under glass; I am beginning to think that is the best advice for any medium, even oils. On the other hand, it’s far more important for artistic development to paint like crazy, and Genesis might be really good for that for some people. Few of us will ever have to concern ourselves with whether our paintings will last for the ages. My feeling is that if you sell your work for the cost of an auto repair, as the vast majority of artists would be delighted to do, it should last at least as long as an auto repair! Just kidding, but keep the durability issue in perspective.

So why Genesis?

1. Some artists might prefer its handling for their process. They might like thixotropy, fast layering of paints combined with open time, the endless palette, no brush cleaning (which are mostly really awesome features in practice).  It is really wonderful to just stop working and walk away, then return the next day or a week later and go to work as if you had never stopped.

It’s an interesting and valid medium in its own right, not just a substitute for oils. Surprisingly, one thing is has over oils is that oils can dry TOO fast for some processes.  If you could use an endless working time, this is it, provided the thixotropic qualities work for you and you use a gesso that is not too absorbent.

2. Its particular nontoxic features may work for some people when oils and water media don’t.

3.  It could be highly useful in illustration fields where speed and reproduction matter more than longevity.

4. It has unique and very useful features as a training medium for people whose long-range goal is to paint in oils. It can speed up the process of learning to use indirect methods dramatically.