View Full Version : Spike lavender oil

Ron Francis
03-25-2019, 05:23 PM
For those of you that use Spike Lavender, here is a facebook post from Tad Spurgeon.

"I wanted to explain what has come out of looking at the spike lavender situation more closely in the last few weeks. Spike lavender has a long history of use in oil painting, we are told that it was distilled by Durer and Leonardo, probably because it is a strong enough solvent to dissolve sandarac for use in a medium or as a varnish, similar to the way damar varnish has been used more recently. Spike lavender has become focal recently because it has been marketed as a "safer" alternative to more toxic traditional solvents. The price of spike lavender varies widely. Spike lavender sold to painters tends to be inexpensive, whereas spike lavender sold as an essential oil can be relatively expensive, about 500 dollars a pint, when it comes with an analysis that proves it is actually spike lavender. And this is the crux of the problem. The MSDS of "spike lavender" from companies in Europe, compared to the ingredients that are in real spike lavender, shows that these materials contain little, if any, genuine spike lavender. It is chemically impossible. The older method, documented since the 17th century De Mayerne Manuscript, of cutting real spike up to 75% with turpentine has given way to more sophisticated methods of compounding spike in three ways: 1) from various other solvents and a little cheap lavandin, 2) from synthetic versions of its major components, or 3) from other essential oil components that are less expensive. For example, if you mix camphor and eucalyptus oil with a small amount of the cheaper lavandin, this produces a strong solvent that has the characteristic camphoreceous lavender smell of spike. Some variation of this last method is the one that is used by the recent American companies that are marketing spike as a "safer solvent". While these companies have all produced elegant MSDS sheets to go with their product, there is no actual analysis of the product in them. Because, in America, this is not required. So, what is being sold as spike lavender in this situation? The buyer cannot know unless they have the product professionally analyzed. And the sellers are quite careful not to actually claim that their product is 100% spike lavender. It would have been far wiser to have come up with a different name for this solvent altogether. So, there are several points here. First is the basic fraud of calling something a false or misleading name. But, unfortunately, this is something that is endemic in our culture at this point. We need to require genuine MSDS files with these products. Second is the misleading way the "safer alternative" approach markets their product as Mother Nature's gracious solution when it is in fact thousand of times more concentrated than the flowers from which it is made and comes to them in a 55 gallon drum. Is this natural? It is true that the neural toxicity of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from solvents like turpentine or D-lymonene is considered greater than the toxicity of FOCs (floral organic compounds), but this is like saying that wine is safer than cognac because it contains less alcohol, when the health issue is how much alcohol is ingested, and for how long. The same is true of FOCs. And, as the recent report on lavender essential oil causing the growth of breasts in adolescent boys suggests, there are lots of things about essential oils that we still don't know very much about. Finally, who needs a solvent this strong anyway? The only real reason to use it is to dissolve resins like sandarac or Manila copal, and specialized resin varnishes like these, while interesting historically, are not exactly necessary to make quality oil paintings. Everybody is different, and every body is different, but this hopefully gives you more reliable information with which to make decisions about spike lavender."

Harold Roth
03-25-2019, 06:52 PM
This is absolutely correct. There is no regulation of the essential oil industry. Adulteration of essential oils is absolutely rampant. I knew it was a problem with certain oils, especially more expensive ones (like, say, narcissus), that are pretty much 90% adulterated with either synthetic fragrance chemicals or fractions of various essential oils. But I really had no idea just how prevalent it is. I recently bought a copy of the most authoritative book on essential oils, Steffan Arctander's "Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin." This thing used to cost hundreds, but they've finally put out a reasonable paperback. He goes through I think about 200 different essential oils that he worked with and tested from all sorts of samples and sources, and the vast majority he has found adulteration of some kind.

This recently happened when there was a shortage of myrrh essential oil, often used in perfumery, due to social upheaval in the countries that produce it. The stuff being widely sold contained no myrrh whatsoever.

I can just imagine the pressure on spike lavender oil now.

03-25-2019, 08:24 PM
Some twenty years ago, there was an issue with a few wines from Austria (not Australia) being sweetened with something related to ethylene glycol. More recently, and probably re-occurring now and then, are olive oils diluted with other vegetable oils (yet marketed as EVOO).

Then there's the old joke: The three wise men brought fake gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If it had been real, then J.C. would have been rich.

But natural or not, I am fond of pointing out that the plants and animals that died millions of years ago, whence come coal and petrochemicals, were not intentionally trying to poison us later. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that most contemporary natural plants are here to do us a favor.

03-26-2019, 10:53 AM
Ron Ė thank you for posting this.

Several months ago, I spent some time (3-4 hours) looking up the MSDS sheets for different brands of artistís spike oil. The ingredients were very different, and the degree of information listed was different. One brand had no MSDS sheet, since it was, according to the manufacturer, harmless. That one really stumped me, as I thought that MSDS were required by US law. Harold and Pinquino, I agree!

My conclusion about spike oil was that I didnít want to spend more time investigating, and that I couldnít come to any reasonable conclusion about safety without spending more time. I have never used spike oil, and if something has a very noticeable odor, I donít want to use it unless it makes my paintings come to life (and only talent and hard work do that). Spike oil offered me no advantage in my painting. I was only looking into the product because folks here at WC have such different opinions about it.

My observation about many of the WC oil painting technical discussions is that people often take a personal experience with a specific product made by a specific manufacturer, and inappropriately apply it to an entire class of products, such as all spike oil or all cadmium paint. Then some want to defend their choice and argue about it! The discussions would be useful if the specific product, method of using, and other specific details were given. Also useful would be if we acknowledge the limitations of our suggestions. The devil is always in the details.

Every so often, I reread my copy of Monona Rossolís ďThe Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide.Ē You could probably find it in your local public library.


03-26-2019, 11:41 AM
This is a timely thread for me.
Blue Ridge is out of my favorite De Mayerne medium so today I expect delivery of Natural Pigments' Balsam Essential Oil Medium, containing spike oil.

03-27-2019, 06:31 PM
I've used Oil of Spike Lavender as the solvent ingredient in my recipe for oil painting medium for years, and I'm quite sold on it. It has helped me to create an oil painting medium that performs perfectly for the way I oil paint, and like no other medium that I used prior to it ever did.

03-27-2019, 09:34 PM
Thank you, Ron, for posting this!