What’s in Those Old Paint Bottles & Tubes, Anyway?

I used to have a ton of fabric paint. Maybe literally a ton: I had opaque paint, transparent paint, dye-ish paint, paint pens, paint in bottles. If it worked on fabric, I had some of it. A lot of it was paint I’d been given to sample, and a lot of it I’d bought for a specific project, but you know how that goes: you need orange and blue and green, but if you order 10 items, you get a discount, so you might as well get the golden yellow and the red and. . . But it’s all good because you’ll have it on hand when you need it, right? Sure, it gets a little dried out and funky, but if you add a tiny bit of water and stir for, like, half an hour, no problem!

Well, not exactly, as I discovered when I had a brilliant idea for something I wanted to do and pulled out all the drawers of paint to pick out the colors I needed and found, well, I don’t know what I found. Some of the bottles of paint (and we’re talking The Good Stuff here) were dried up completely, with no hope of reconstitution. Others seemed salvageable, but when I started trying to mix them with water, weird things happened. Ugly, slimy, viscous things. Things that should not happen with chartreuse paint.

I bit the bullet and dug out all the paint and went through it all, and dang if I could find any that was in good shape. I ended up tossing it all, and that’s a shame: perfectly good at one time, it all had to be thrown away. I learned something, though: I don’t buy a ton of paint any more, even when I could save a few dollars. If I don’t think I’ll use it in the next 6 months to a year, I don’t get it. Plus I’ve gone through my bin of glues with the same result: most of it was so old that it was unusable. Markers? Ditto. Paint pens? Rolls of tape? (Yes, even tape will lose it’s stickiness if you keep it long enough. We’re not saying how long that might be. . . .)

This is the perfect time of year to get in there and look at your own supplies. Some of them are going to be just fine, but others? Eh. If they’ve dried out or have started to separate, if they look funny or smell funny, they’re probably not going to work the way you want them to. Some of them might be useful for something, but do you really want to take a chance on messing up a project because the paint never dries or maybe cracks and falls off, or the glue won’t hold or maybe turns a funny shade of pink? No, you don’t.  Dig out everything in those boxes and the bins under your desk and spend a weekend checking them and testing them out. Make a list of what you need—and will use this year—and buy only those. Make an effort to avoid stocking up on quantities that no one person can conceivably use in this lifetime. Note: if the buy-more-save-more offer is too good to resist, go in with a friend who uses the same products you do.


Dispose of this stuff safely and then figure out how to keep track of what you have. Use a permanent marker to write the purchase date on tubes and bottles, and keep a list where you can note what you’ve just used up and when: that way you can keep track of how long a jar of gesso or a tube of acrylic lasts in your studio. It seems like a lot of work, but knowing what you have and knowing it’s going to work the way you need it to is worth a weekend of testing and organization. Really.


Mixed Media PaintboxUse up your paint before it becomes old paint with Mixed-Media Paint Box from the editors of North Light Books. (And guess what, this book is on sale for $3.99!)





Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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