• Michael Skalka

Oil of Spike

Updated: Feb 25


Psychologists say the sense of smell can connect us to memories embedded in the dark recesses of our brain. As a child, perhaps your aunt’s perfume filled your nostrils as she greeted you with open arms, giving a hug that could cripple you if you were not prepared and braced for the event. The odor of pine combined with a mildewed mop is one nearly every school aged child knows all too well.


Scents were also a byproduct of the nature of things around us. Your mother’s stews and sauces all had an aroma, that if smelled now, would bring you right back to your kitchen, sitting in your familiar spot with the nearly forgotten sounds and sensations of your sibling kicking you under the table.


Art scents can be wonderful as well. Art material smells must have been the inspiration for the saying, “All Things in Moderation.” For in truth, so many of the odor generating materials artists use, in large quantities, are dangerous.


In a large museum where artists gain permission to copy master works of art, a trip to the galleries on a day when a copyist is working can be quite delightful. As you approach a room where an artist is working, the first smell is the faint odor of turpentine. In only a few parts per million, the smell speaks of a painter at work. It is the smell of chemistry meeting creativity. Get a bit closer to the copyist and the undertones of linseed oil combine with the pine-based solvent.


Other painting solvents and mediums have distinct odors. The one that comes to mind is Oil of Spike. It is a relative of the lavender plant that is commonly used for a wide range of purposes. Oil of Spike derived from the species, Lavandula latifolia, yields oil that has found its place as a solvent. It has a very strong odor and a small amount will fill a space with a lavender/camphor-like smell.


Oil of spike has also been used in perfumery as well as the medicinal field. It was one of the ingredients in recipe for liniment used to treat horses. It was also used to alleviate saddle sores.


It is similar in smell, but far more pungent and coarser than the oil obtained from the broad-leaf lavender Lavandula Angustifolia that most of us are accustomed to finding in our local garden stores or see growing in field in the French countryside. Lavandula Angustifolia is the lavender used in perfumes, soaps and expensive bottles of aromatherapy liquids.


An important concept to remember is that just because oil of spike smells pleasant, it should not be used in a poorly ventilated area. It needs to be respected as a solvent that has components that should not be allowed to reach high saturation levels in the air of a studio space. A large percentage of Linalool, Eucalyptol and Camphor gum makes up the components of Oil of Spike and while they are touted to not have published/documented threshold exposure limits, they are listed as having skin irritation and sensitivity issues related to them, so adequate ventilation is a good practice to follow when using this solvent. Further, the safety documentation cautions against direct exposure, especially by skin contact. Treat oil of spike as one would treat other solvents, with care and respect.


In the late nineteenth-century, George Field speaks of oils of both rosemary and thyme as being numerous but not any better as a diluent or solvent for painting than oil of spike or turpentine. What an amazing smell must have come from studios using any of these aromatic oils.


The Syntax of Color

Original Grammar of Color Essay

Vol: 1 No.12 (Published 05-19-05)

(Edited 2021)

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