The smell of art

Dear Artist, Lori Deal of San Jose, California wrote, “I bought an acrylic painting on Craigslist. It’s a jazz musician playing a saxophone but it smells badly of cigarette smoke. You can smell it when sitting a few feet away. I wonder if I can place it in an enclosed bag with some sort of deodorizer to neutralize the odor? Otherwise, I will probably hang it in the garage. Any suggestions?”

Jazz Man
acrylic painting, 36 x 36 inches

Thanks, Lori. This is an entirely new spin on “That painting stinks!” Odoriferous patina such as yours reminds me of my misspent youth in those smoky jazz clubs in LA. How much do you want for it? Give the front of the painting a quick wipe with well-diluted dish soap, and then wash it off with clean water. You don’t want to get the back of the canvas wet, so expose the back to sunshine for a week or so. A light spray around the stretchers with Fabreze should finish it off. You and your guests can then move near to it with impunity. Back in my cigar days, gallerists gathered around my shipments to revisit the memory of my outstanding Cubans. Now that I’m reformed, my dealers tell me I’m not so much fun anymore. Odour might just be the unsung silver hammer of art. Who can resist the magnificent waft of a new oil painting? (Acrylics and watercolours are at a disadvantage here.) Back in my oil days, there were folks who came into my studio and actually paused to savor the Rembrandtian atmosphere. Were those flexing nostrils, I wondered, part of my sales team? Who can resist the frying of onions at hot dog stands? Taste, it turns out, is 80% smell. Even though we humans have a fraction of the capabilities of many other animals, smells can have an effect on what we buy, how much we spend, and where we gamble. In a study in Las Vegas, gambling went up 50% when a pleasant scent was sprayed around slot machines. Researchers at Chicago University found that 84% of shoppers were willing to pay higher prices when shoes were displayed in a room with a pleasant aroma. One of the problems in online vending is the inability of customers to sniff the stuff before they get it. Hold on, though, it’s just a matter of months before the particular smell of an Amazon book comes slyly out of your computer. Best regards, Robert PS: “Every book has its smell. A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. A really old book smells like ancient Egypt.” (Ray Bradbury) Esoterica: Peppermint, strawberry and lavender smells have been found to help in concentration. In a Japanese factory study, spraying the scent of lavender during tea breaks improved production. English schoolchildren tested better when exposed to the aroma of fresh strawberries. Anecdotally, a sweet-smelling studio makes for better art. I use an exhaust fan. Fresh air may be the sweetest of all.   Removal of cigarette odor with American spelling by Sally Browning Pearson, Port St. Lucie, FL, USA  

“Royal Casino”
by Sally Browning Pearson

You can remove the odor of cigarettes (also other things) by enclosing the painting in a plastic bag with a couple sheets of newspaper crumpled up. Not the shiny ad parts, just the newsprint with black ink. Seal the bag well, leave it overnight or two and remove. Voila! No odor. If the newsprint does not work, try an ordinary dryer sheet like you use in the laundry room. Same process. There is 1 comment for Removal of cigarette odor with American spelling by Sally Browning Pearson
From: Anonymous — Aug 08, 2013

In college they’d joke, “Is this the work of a serious artist?” NO not if the artist did not think enough of his or her own art to NOT smoke around the artwork.

In fact, it’s best not smoke at all if possible, since smoking is so bad for everything and undermines our precious fine motor skills. The dirty film and odor is the final bit of damage from a destructive way in it all….not counting the guaranteed earlier death of the artist. of course.
  Removal of cigarette odour with Canadian spelling by Peter Haynes, Dashwood, ON, Canada   Febreze is terrible, terrible stuff. Loaded with nasty chemicals. Vinegar is a decent way to deal with odours and ground coffee is very good at absorbing odours. After washing the front of the painting as you suggest, they could try putting the painting in a bag with a lot of coffee grounds and leaving it for a few weeks. Baking soda is also another great thing for sucking up odours. Your comment about sunshine is spot on. UV tends to neutralize a lot of chemical odours.   Eau d’atelier by Ray Hassard, Cincinnati, OH, USA  

“November Morning Haze”
original painting
by Ray Hassard

In today’s odorless world, our ecology is better, but the tradeoff is often the loss of a powerful sensual element. Artists of a certain age will probably recall walking into a studio in an art school that had 50 or more years of turpentine fumes in the wooden floors and walls, not to mention pencil shavings, newsprint paper and charcoal aromas, cleaning supplies, heat from old radiators, and probably blood, sweat, and tears from all the students who had passed through. It was especially potent over by the sink where we all used to dump our used solvents. If someone could bottle that and produce eau d’atelier, I’d probably buy a bottle! There are 7 comments for Eau d’atelier by Ray Hassard
From: Susan Holland — Aug 05, 2013

You are describing Tyler Art School in Elkins Park in about 1957. One of my favorite places in the world. Oh the poor plumbing.

From: Anonymous — Aug 05, 2013

Or you could be describing Gebhart Art School, probably much more so before it moved from over the bus station! They endeavored to clean up the act, even changing the name, presumably to attract those suburban students who were still college material, as was I in the 70’s.

From: Jeanette Rybinsky — Aug 06, 2013

You could also be describing the basement of Sangren Hall at Western Michigan University in the 1970s. The art department was located there, and I used to walk through it just to smell it. Such good memories!

From: Ellen Armstrong — Aug 06, 2013

Yes, Jeanette, I was thinking Sangren at WMU also! My daughter always comes into my studio and says, “Love the smell in here!”

From: Beaman Cole — Aug 06, 2013

Many, many artists do not seem to know that solvent in never “used”. It never goes bad. You NEVER dump solvent. Used solvent is put back into a container and left still on a shelf for a day or two. The paint settles out to the bottom and the remaining solvent is perfectly useful. Use a two jar system so that you give the paint 48 hours to settle. After your first use or two the settling action gets even faster. A gallon of solvent should last an artist for several years as the only loss is what is on the brush after cleaning.

From: Darrell Baschak — Aug 06, 2013

I follow Beaman’s practice of re-using the solvent used to clean brushes. I’ve also discovered that the sediment in the bottom makes a lovely underpainting , usually a greenish cast.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 06, 2013

In the old art department building at the University of Miami in the late 50’s, the accumulated and wonderful smells of art making were enhanced/intensified by the old “masters” cooking up their secret recipe of boiled oil. OMG

  You fill up my senses by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Lavender Along the Fence”
oil painting, 6 x 12 inches
by Diane Overmyer

As artists we are all visually oriented, but here you hit on one of our other five senses. The filling of the senses is one of the reasons why I love plein air painting so much. I hate to say it, but I have a few plein air pieces that will always bring to mind the smell of country living, in the not so pleasant sense! I have other paintings, however, that filled my sense of smell with much delight! Nothing beats the smell of an approaching rain storm, fresh cut grass, or spring flowers. These kinds of memories all add to the plein air experience! No photo, no matter how accurate, will bring those smells to you. As a real nature lover I enjoy taking it all in as I am working! One of my plein air friends took this a step further this spring when we were painting with a group of artists at a lavender farm. My friend had had a great time but when asked about her painting, she said that she didn’t get it finished because her senses were so filled! She instead had delighted in taking in the sights, scents, sounds (bees buzzing) and feel of the field. She had gone as far as picking some lavender and crushing it in her hand, tasting a bit of it and then mixing the remainder into her paint. I don’t know if the lavender scent will be noticeable to anyone else, but I bet she will be able to smell the lavender for as long as that painting is in her possession! (RG note) Thanks, Diane. Your friend may be on to something. It’s reported that Oil of Spike Lavender was the medium used by Leonardo. The early Dutch painters often wiped it over the entire canvas in preparation for painting. Oil of Spike Lavender was the medium of choice from the fourteenth century on. It has an appealing scent, and only a small amount is needed to make things flow. There are 2 comments for You fill up my senses by Diane Overmyer
From: Anonymous — Aug 06, 2013

Oil of spike lavender is not a drying oil; it evaporates, rather than forming a film. It acts more like a solvent than a medium, and can be used to thin a medium, or regenerate a dry surface.

From: Diane Overmyer — Aug 08, 2013

Thanks for the additional information Robert. The lavender farm we were painting at is called Lavender Hill and it is in Niles, Michigan. They had lavender oil for sale there. I may have to called and ask if it was from Spike Lavender, if so I might pick some up to add to my Gamlin medium when it gets too stiff. (thanks to the person who shared that additional bit of information!)

  Nosing out the memories by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic  

wood sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

Research shows that smell is the fastest way to bring back the past and is sometimes used to help amnesia patients. (Think — baking cookies, garlic in hot olive oil or stuffed turkey full of sage dressing.) I know that walking a waterfront and smelling the ropes has me mentally tripping back to my years on ships. As a young midshipman in Copenhagen I spilt a half litre of Tuborg on my dress blue trousers. For years every time they got wet they smelled of beer. Happy reminder of a happy time. Now, I sell hand turned wood and very often at a fair people’s first reaction is to sniff. The wood smell is gone but I do use a lemon oil based wax. I have thought of carrying along a bag of shavings. Lori Deal of San Jose is obviously not a real jazz fan. Yes, cigarette smoke stinks but it is part of the whole experience. If she put some Miles Davis on the stereo and sat back and relaxed it would all fit together. There are 2 comments for Nosing out the memories by Norman Ridenour
From: Glanit — Aug 06, 2013

I love the wit and charm of this beautiful sculpture. The laces are so clever and must have been difficult to do. Such a clever idea

From: Diane Overmyer — Aug 08, 2013

I do not believe in ghosts, but several years after my grandmother died, I walked into a dark room in which the clothes closet door had been left open. The air on the back of my neck stood up because I felt like my grandmother was actually there in the room with me. When I flicked on the light and saw the open closet just two feet to my right, I realized that I was reacting to the lingering smell of her favorite perfume on her favorite wool suit. If the light had been on in the room I doubt if I would have had the same experience.

  B. O. Plenty by Leslie Pierce, Austin, TX, USA  

“No strings”
oil painting, 24 x 24 inches
by Leslie Pierce

Two years ago I was selected to hang 15 paintings in a local restaurant in Austin. I was directed to the two rooms closest to the kitchen. Fast forward three months as I packed my car full of paintings after the show came down and noticed a very peculiar smell. The smell followed me back into my third floor apartment. The next day my whole apartment was filled with this unpleasant waff. Eventually I determined the smell was a cross between musky old house and Mesquite wood and it was embedded in my paintings! I have hung in all sorts of alternative venues before but never had this. I left the paintings by open windows for several months and the smell finally vanished. I sold them after they had been aired out. It has just dawned on me that the initials of the restaurant are B.O.   Into the ozone zone by Mark Winkelstein, Herndon, VA, USA   I once worked in a laboratory and had a boss with an acute sense of smell. One day he called me into the office to discuss an issue of an odoriferous pong emanating from under the floor boards in the cabin of his sailboat. As the technical “go-to-guy” welcoming a challenge away from the day-to-day drudgery, I investigated a number of options and decided to give an ozone generator a try which seemed to appeal to a chemist’s sense of science, not to mention his sense of smell! Basically ozone is a molecule consisting of three atoms of oxygen which makes it unstable but useful in the fact that the extra oxygen molecule is free to combine with the molecules responsible for odors and renders them neutral. While the ozone generator worked in this case, each case would obviously be unique. Ozone can be an irritant to mucus membranes, so general use as an air purifier might be a health risk.   Varnishing acrylics in oil by Sandy Tippett, Perth, Western Australia  

Dad’s cigars

I understand completely with what you say about enjoying the smell of an oil painting.  Fortunately for us using acrylics we do get a small taste of that wonderful smell when we seal or varnish our work. Many times I have had people walk past soon after I have finished varnishing one of my acrylics and tell me how much they love the smell of an oil painting, how an oil is the only ‘real’ painting and what a good artist I am with how brilliantly I capture true colour with the oils I use! Of course I stand there and lap up all the kind words they say about my work deciding not to burst their bubble by telling them it is an acrylic! There is 1 comment for Varnishing acrylics in oil by Sandy Tippett
From: Wilf Grieder — Aug 07, 2013

It’s foolish in this day and age to varnish acrylics with an oil varnish. The proper acrylic stuff is widely available.

  The loss of smell by Russ Henshall, Pulham Market, Norfolk, UK   When I was in my late 30’s I fell out of a tree. For roughly 4 years after that nasty blow on my head, I had no senses of smell or taste at all. I can tell you first hand that lack of this sense is devastating. It is not just that one cannot taste food or smell it either. The whole world is amazingly ‘flattened,’ Things I had always taken for granted were no longer there to appreciate. Silage, roses, even manure had previously given me a full picture of my surroundings. Five years elapsed before my sense of taste and smell returned. I was so grateful I can tell you! Musty libraries, freshly washed clothes and (wonder of wonders) the first glass of good ale were miracles. So the moral is, ‘Do not fall out of a tree.’ As my then fiancé thought at the time, ‘He lost his sense alright for climbing that tree in the first place.’ How often we lift an item up to our nose to smell it, check it or fancy it? There are 2 comments for The loss of smell by Russ Henshall
From: tatjana — Aug 06, 2013

climbing trees is a wonderful thing!

From: Peter Perry — Aug 07, 2013

The moral, “do not fall out of a tree” reminded me of the quotation that the anti-paper lobby is using these days: “Research has shown that trees live longer when they are not cut down.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The smell of art

From: Mike Barr — Aug 01, 2013

Although I paint mainly in acrylics I love the smell of oils. Often I go up to paintings at openings and get up close and breathe in – specially when I can see thick luscious paint. The habit came unstuck a few yeas back when a Monet Haystack painting was on loan to the South Australian Art Gallery. I’d read that there were pieces of straw in the painting – I got up close to look at and smell this classic work but set off the vicinity alarm. A small tour group shook their heads at me and the tour leader gave me a telling off. I slid out of the gallery under the watchful eyes of security.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Aug 01, 2013

A good work of art should appeal to all 5 senses…although some are too “loud”, others have just the right tactility, and some can even invoke a Pavlovian response. I still love oils; one reason may be that the effect of the paint and standard medium on my olfactory nerves activates a bit of art-school nostalgia.

From: Mary Harris Cutting — Aug 02, 2013

In addition to your good advice, Robert, a few years ago a skunk got in my house and sprayed everywhere. I am an acrylic painter and so I used the standard skunk solution on most of my paintings and it worked very well. It is: equal parts of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda with a large squirt of dishwashing detergent. Then I used a sponge to wipe them down. That’s the lucky thing about acrylic in that all of my paintings held up fine with this washing. One of the many reasons I love acrylic!

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Aug 02, 2013

As a student, I painted in oils but had to switch to acrylic due to an allergic reaction. Now, I miss that smell of an oil painter’s studio and love to visit my friends when they are painting in oil.

That oil and turp smell takes me back to wonderful days of painting. Acrylic companies should put an interesting aroma in their product.
From: Bob Ragland — Aug 02, 2013

People get the art they deserve. A local artist needed the sale.

People who buy on line, take a chance. Too bad the buyer didn’t find a painting locally. People do get the art they deserve!!!!!
From: Linda Thoman — Aug 02, 2013

“After The Funeral” by Agatha Christie and the toxic painting come to my mind. I live with a person who is very allergic to the toxic stuff that is in cigarette tar. Like any oily stuff, this substance can be almost impossible to completely remove – especially if it has deeply permeated. If it I couldn’t live without this image on my walls, I’d reproduce the painting and get rid of the original!

From: Jackie Knott — Aug 02, 2013

I still like the smell of oils. I add a few drops of clove oil to my paints to keep them moist and often lift pigment from the last palette to the next. Because the paint is still workable I can use all the paint I squeeze instead of throwing away dried up pigment. The fragrance lingers for weeks and it is that lovely smell that spurs me to get painting.

When I first began using it years ago I couldn’t understand why the pharmacist asked me why I wanted so much. Apparently, it is used in aromatic therapy (whatever that is). Now you can buy it at any health food store, no questions asked. Maybe it is partially the “feel good” element of the aroma that makes hours in the studio so pleasant.
From: Melody Ranch Rogerson — Aug 02, 2013

So, this is what they mean when they tell me my picture reeks! There must be an odor pervading everything I make.

From: Asger Freid — Aug 02, 2013

The secret reasons why customers like to come to artist’s studios are the disorder and the odor. Commercial galley owners should avoid being too pristine to take advantage of this basic human need.

From: Nick Burnside — Aug 02, 2013

Frying onions are the best advertisers of hotdogs

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 02, 2013

The cigarette smell is a new one for me. Since I don’t smoke I never had that problem. But I can imagine some painters smoking while working and the odor attaching to the painting.

Personally the smell of oil paint and turps are the most appealing thing about painting for me. I happen to love these smells. It is all part and parcel of the process. Too bad turpentine is harmful because I love that smell also. (I understand what passes for turpentine is not what it used to be in the “old” day. Today’s turps are cut with harmful additives and fillers. From what I’ve read, real turp was more pure, less smelly and much less harmful.) But today, everyone is politically correct and scared to use real turp. Also one can’t find real turps anymore. Lastly, by the time I’ve sold my work most of the oil smell has dissipated.
From: Pat Maison — Aug 02, 2013

I love the smell of oil and turps big no no now, even can stand fixative spray get a little high maybe.

From: Megan — Aug 02, 2013

I think it would be better advice in the future if people are directed to take it to a painting conservator because the cleaning advice was not correct. There are so many variables to consider, in properly cleaning a painting (varnished/unvarnished? paint flaking? etc.) that there is not a one-fits-all solution without possibly damaging the work. I don’t mean to sound rude, so I hope you don’t take offense to this, but I spend quite a bit of time repairing works of which such cleaning was done.

From: Kriss Boggild — Aug 02, 2013

One of my most “successful”sculpture pieces when in art school was a biomorphic shape I made the night before the assignment was due out of the stuff I had been yanking out of my herb garden because it badly needed a trim — shades of “the cold easel” syndrome commented on in last weeks’ newsletter?! Anyway, I am sure that the piece was so well received because it was so aromatic, being composed of fresh thyme, oregano, lavender and lemon balm trimmings! During the crit, the Devine smell of the piece was frequently the subject of delighted comment!

From: Jan McNeill — Aug 03, 2013

I had a bad experience with stinky wooden frames I purchased at a discount art store. The frames were made in China and were shrink wrapped so I didn’t notice their bad odor until I got them out of the wrap to use in framing. I figured that the smell was probably a result of poor ventilation in the Chinese factory where they were made. Needless to say, I have avoided that particular store after that experience. I got rid of the odors by leaving the frames outside on a covered porch – took a couple of weeks before they fully de-odorized!

From: Merri — Aug 03, 2013

Never use Febreze on any form of anything!! Read the warnings on it and look at what it does to people and pets. It should be banned. It is highly toxic and more so than your smell is.

What I do is take the painting and place it in a white garbage bag and dump int a big box of Arm and Hammer soda. Leave it like that and dust the painting with it. It will not hurt the painting in the least,,,and turn the bag every once in a while…..leave it a few weeks…then take it outside and break up grass pull it up by fistfulls…and lay in, making sure it is try on the painting…. lay the painting in grass if you have a safe spot…and watch it turn it…..fresh grass on it..not leaving it out in night or dampness…and it will be healed in time and fresh with no odor.
From: Alex Nodopaka — Aug 03, 2013

I appreciate the smelly problems brought on by antiques exposed to cigarette and pipe and cigar smoke artworks. My trick to break through the hazy veil is to cut an onion in half and gently rub it across the face of the offenders front and back. It has the positive acid effects of removing fly droppings and evil spectators’ spit off the artwork. As a finishing touch if one doesn’t appreciate the pizza smell is to apply a final rub of a Meyer’s lemon and of course with the advent of Fabreze is a bonus.

Now when you mention to use such dabbing in small doses is a good suggestion but if you want a nice crackilure effect apply the juices in generous portions… chuckle!
From: Bruce Doxey — Aug 03, 2013

Lori, Bounce fabric softener sheets absorb odor and as a bonus, keep bees away.

From: Ernie Evans — Aug 04, 2013
From: mckenzie — Aug 04, 2013

What you’re getting out of musty books are two important facts:

-The fact is the surfaces of papers act as a magnet of dust particulates. The three sides of books act as a preserve of dust particulate as long as they are not cleaned. -When you open a dusty book, dust particulates deposited on three sides of books are removed and are pushed up with the resulting air current directly into your nose. Cat litter is also a fantastic odor absorber. Partially fill a larger plastic box with cat litter, and place the musty smelling materials in another box on top of the cat litter. Close the larger container with a tight-fitting lid, and allow the books to remain in the container for at least a few days. This should get rid of the smell and absorb any remaining moisture.
From: Jerome Grimmer, Oakhurst, CA — Aug 04, 2013

There is a product that I have used and recommended to many people that removes ANY kind of odor instantly. I know it sounds too good to be true, but it works every time it is tried. Available in different size containers, you order it online. The shipping is reasonable and very prompt. It will take that cigarette smoke smell away permanently and harmlessly. The product is called, “Super Concentrated Odor Eliminator 10-X”, or S.C.O.E 10-X. Check it out on YouTube. An artist friend had a problem with her dog urinating in an area where she painted in her studio. The odor grew gradually more offensive to the point that the dog was banned from the room. But the odor remained and became unbearable. Instead of ripping up the carpeting, she used S.C.O.E 10-X and the odor instantly disappeared – with no remaining smell of any kind. I am not an employee nor am I being paid to huckster this magic solution. When I find something I really like because it works so well, I spread the word. Use it. You’ll thank me!

From: Comments moderator — Aug 04, 2013
From: Len Marshall — Aug 05, 2013

I like sniffing Damar varnish and Copal oil medium.

From: tamouse — Aug 09, 2013

Okay, next time I’m frying up some onions for the brats, I’m bringing in all my paintings to absorb the odour…. a sure sell! How Dibbler-esque. :)

From: Donna C. Veeder — Aug 09, 2013

Hi, Robert,

I LOVE the smell of oil painting: the turps and the oils and the room and the old tin cans I used for the turps and the oily rags, the old wooden easels soaked in oils. I miss them so much! I now do pastels and they do not really smell so good, only dusty. I think it was the stand oil smell that I loved the best. I hear it is very bad for one to breathe. Oh DRAT! Donna Veeder.
From: Carole Smale — Aug 12, 2013

I had badly infected sinuses and could not smell the food I was eating and completely lost my appetite. Good way to diet I guess. Old fashioned penicillin did the trick. It seems to be out of fashion and everybody gets dosed with expensive antibiotics with all the side affects. (I expect the hidden agenda of the medical people is to keep you getting ill). My old fashioned GP used to say use the cheapest remedy first and then use the stronger medicines if that doesn’t work.

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watercolour painting by Mary Frances Millet, NY, USA

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