Oil Painting: History, Famous Paintings in Oils
In its simplest form, oil paint is a mixture of three things: pigment, binder and thinner. Pigment is the colour element, while the binder (the oil) is the liquid vehicle or carrier which holds the ground-up pigment to be applied to the canvas or whatever support is to be painted.
A thinner is usually added to the viscous pigment-oil mixture to make it easier to apply with a brush. Thus for example, one of the simplest oil paints might contain a mixture of red iron oxide (the pigment), linseed oil (the binder) and turpentine (the thinner). Oil paint may also contain a number of other additives, to promote drying, appearance and other actions.
What Sort of Oil is Used in Oil Paint?
Unlike tempera, acrylic paint, watercolour, or gouache, all of which dry by evaporation, oil paint dries by oxidation - meaning, the oil reacts chemically with oxygen in the air and gradually changes from a liquid to a gel and finally becomes hard.
What Types of Oils are Used in Oil Paint?
The most popular type of oil used in painting is linseed oil because (unlike other vegetable oils like olive or canola oil) it dries by oxidation. Linseed oil is not the only drying (or siccative) oil: safflower, poppy seed, or walnut oil may also be used, depending on the sheen, drying time and other effects required by the painter. However, linseed oil tends to dry faster and, in the process, forms a more flexible paint film that can be reworked more easily. Note also, that pigments do not dry at the same speed: charcoal black oil paint, for instance, tends to be slower to dry while red/yellow ochre hardens much faster.
How is Oil Paint Made?
Nowadays, very few artists use hand-made oil paints; most prefer to buy formulated brands. But the basic manufacturing process is relatively similar. First comes the grinding of the pigment in oil. The oily paste is thoroughly milled to disperse the pigment colour particles throughout the mixture. Then the thinner and perhaps an additional siccative (drying agent) are added.
How Did Artists Manage Before Modern Paint Tubes Were Manufactured?
It was only during the 19th century that industrial manufacturers began to produce a proper range of fine art oil paints. Until then, artists made their own paints, which had to be produced fresh each day. Most Renaissance or Baroque painters, for instance, worked for severals years as a pupil (apprentice) in the workshop (atelier) of a master artist, where they studied the skills of drawing (disegno), painting (colorito) and also how to make and mix paint. Knowledge of colour pigments, their properties (hue, permanence, chroma, lightfastness, compatibility with other pigments, drying attributes), and how to make them into oil paint was an essential part of every painter's art training. Even the grinding of a pigment required skill as the particle-size needed to be fine and regular, and a small number of pigments can be damaged by incorrect grinding. In addition, it was important to know the correct binder-to-pigment proportions (which may vary from 10 percent or less, to as high as 150 percent), and also whether or not a particular pigment requires the addition of a siccative or extender before being ready for use.
On the whole, making and mixing oil paint was a messy, time-consuming business and one can only imagine the difficulties Paolo Veronese faced when painting his huge highly detailed oil canvas Wedding Feast at Cana (1562). Mixing and maintaining both the consistency and colour of his oil paint for more than a year must have been extremely difficult, even if he had pupils to help him.
Was Oil Paint Expensive to Make?
Sometimes, Yes. The oil itself was not expensive but some pigments were. The three costliest pigments used in Renaissance art were gold, ultramarine (from the semi-precious Asian stone Lapis Lazuli) and red Lac (from India). In fact these three colours were so costly that typically their use would be stipulated in the painting contract issued for the commission in question.
By comparison, contemporary artists, who rely on modern standardized professional quality oil paints (out of a tube) that can be quickly and easily mixed with other colours on a palette, face an altogether smaller set of artistic challenges.
What are Extenders?
For centuries, painters have added extenders or fillers to their oil paints in order to make expensive pigments go further and thus reduce the cost of their artist materials. Nowadays for example, barium sulfate and alumina hydrate are common extenders, being considered as the white pigments: Pw21, Pw24. Adding either of them to oil paint, increases the quantity of paint, without affecting colour, as neither has any significant tinting power.
What Are the Advantages of Oil Paint?
The main advantages of oil paints are their flexibility and depth of colour. They can be applied in many different ways, from thin glazes diluted with turpentine to dense thick impasto. Because it is slow to dry, artists can continue working the paint for much longer than other types of paint. This provides greater opportunity for blending and layering. Oils also allow the artist to create greater richness of colour as well as a wide range of tonal transitions and shades. (See also: Titian & Venetian Colour Painting 1500-76.) In fact oil colours do not change noticeably after drying, and it is possible to produce both opaque and transparent effects, as well as matt and gloss finishes. In the hands of Old Masters like Rubens or Rembrandt oils permitted stunning effects of light and colour as well as much greater realism.
How is Oil Paint Applied?
Methods of application are varied and flexible. Oil paint can be applied to the chosen ground with almost any implement including a brush, a palette knife, a cloth - even a toothpick. Brushes used include red sable, weasel hair, ox-hair, pig/hog/boar, as well as a range of synthetic brushes. The support is usually canvas, board, panel or prepared paper, although contemporary artists like Willem de Kooning have used bed-linen quilts, metal and rubber, as well as a range of "found" objects.
Traditional oil painters typically started with a charcoal or chalk drawing over which they built up the paint in layers, taking care to ensure that each layer applied contained a little more oil than the last in order to facilitate drying and prevent flaking. Numerous additives (eg. waxes, resins, varnishes) were mixed with the paint to vary its luminosity, sheen and other properties like its capacity to conceal brushstrokes. Initial drying can take up to a year or more, after which a resin or wax varnish can be applied. However, museum curators do not consider oil paintings to be thoroughly dry until several decades have passed.
When Was Oil Painting First Invented?
No one knows when oil paint was first invented. Oils had been added to paint mixtures long before the invention of oil paint as an independent medium. The earliest known example of oil painting is recorded as early as the 11th century, but the practice of easel-painting with oil colours grew out of 15th-century (quattrocento) tempera painting methods. It occurred largely as a result of improvements in the refining of linseed oil and the availability of new colour-pigments and volatile solvents after 1400, all of which coincided with a need for an alternative medium to pure egg-yolk tempera in order to meet the creative requirements of the Renaissance.
For many years, the first use of oil paint was attributed to the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, and his brother Hubert. It was their painting skills, it was said, together with their expertise in oil colour pigments, that convinced first the Dutch then the Venetians and then other Italians that oil was superior to egg tempera. Although it is true that the Van Eycks revolutionized the practice of oil painting, and brought it to an early peak of perfection, they did not invent it. Instead, its origins are older and more obscure. The 12th century treatise of Theophilus (the pseudonym possibly of Roger of Helmarshausen, a goldsmith and Benedictine monk) mentions "grinding colours with oil" and instances, as mentioned above, have been dated to the 11th century.
How Did Oil Painting Develop?
Leaving aside the question of who actually invented it, the development of oil paint totally transformed Early Renaissance painting, thanks to the efforts of the a number of painters (including the Van Eycks) working in Northern Europe and Italy during the first half of the quattrocento. These artists began experimenting with the use of oil as a pigment binder, and as the advantages of oil paint over tempera became more evident it became the natural preference of more and more artists. In any event, by the end of the 15th-century, tempera - the main method of panel-painting - had almost disappeared. Thereafter it was employed almost exclusively in frescoes, usually in Italy where it was suited to the warm dry climate. Certainly by the time of Leonardo's High Renaissance masterpiece Mona Lisa (1503-6), oils were the standard medium for easel-type works, particularly portraits - see also sfumato shading technique - although many Italian artists like Raphael (1483-1520) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) himself continued to use a combination of oil and tempera (eg. Da Vinci's The Last Supper, 1495), though not always successfully from a technical viewpoint. See also our list of the Greatest Renaissance Paintings.
Who Were the Earliest Oil Painters?
Among the artists of the Northern Renaissance (Flanders, Holland, Germany), pioneers of oil painting included: Robert Campin, Master of Flemalle (1378-1444; see his The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen, 1430, Hermitage, St Petersburg); Jan van Eyck (1390-1441; see his Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on oak panel, National Gallery London); Roger van der Weyden (1399-1464; see The Descent from the Cross, 1435-40, oil on panel, Prado Museum Madrid); and Dieric Bouts (1415-75; see Hell, 1450, oil on wood, Fine Arts Museum Lille), among others. Most of their pictures belonged to the genre of Christian art, in the form of altarpieces. See also: Flemish Painting (1400-1800) and Flemish Painters (1400-1750).
In Italy, Early Renaissance oil painters included: Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427; see Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, 1423, oil on panel, Louvre Paris); Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69; see Virgin and Child, 1452, oil on panel, Palazzo Pitti Florence); Piero della Francesca (1420-92; see Battista Sforza and Federigo da Montefeltro, oil on panel, Uffizi Florence); Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516; see The Pesaro Altarpiece, 1473, oil on panel, Museo Civico, Pesaro); other important Renaissance oil painters included Antonello da Messina (1430-79), who introduced oils to the Venetian Renaissance, and Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).
Oil Painting During the 16th Century
If during the 15th century, artists used oil paint on panels in the traditional tempera-style of linear draughtsmanship, 16th century painters - especially in Renaissance Venice which emerged as the principal oil-painting centre in Italy - rapidly learned how to exploit the basic characteristics of oil painting, particularly in their use of successive layers of glazes, while linen canvas replaced wooden panels as the most popular support. Among the foremost exponents of oil painting in the 16th century included colourists from the school of Venetian Painting such as Veronese (1528-88), Titian (1487-1576), and Tintoretto (1518-94) - see also: Legacy of Venetian Painting - the painter and architect Giulio Romano (1496-1546), the nervous Florentine Mannerist Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557), the devotional religious artist Antonio Correggio (1494-1534), the extraordinary portraitist Arcimboldo (1527-93), and the supreme exemplar of Mannerism - the Greek painter El Greco (1541-1614), noted for his intensely expressive Biblical art, for which his style of Mannerist painting was seen - in Spain at least - as eminently suited. See also Venetian altarpieces of the High Renaissance and Mannerist periods.
Oil Paint-Pigments (c.1400-1600)
Colour pigments used in oil painting did not change much during this period. In fact the colour palette of the Renaissance remained the basic model well into the 17th century. Red pigments included Vermilion, Carmine, "lac" and the vivid "Dragons Blood" (from an Asian gum resin). Earthy hues included Venetian Red, a bluish tone of Red Oxide. Renaissance blues included Ultramarine, Azurite and Egyptian Blue, as well as the plant dyes Indigo and Madder. Green pigments were Verdigris, Green Earth, and Malachite, while yellows included Gamboge, Naples Yellow (Giallorino), and the traditional Orpiment. Brown hues were obtained from clay pigments like Sienna and Umber, whites from Lead White, Gypsum, and Chalk and blacks from Carbon Black (charred organic material).
Oil Painting During the 17th Century
Seventeenth century painting in oils included several differing schools. (1) The dramatic, even theatrical European-wide Baroque style practised by history and mythological narrative painters like Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Diego Velazquez (1599-1660); (2) A quieter Dutch Baroque school of easel-painting, known as Dutch Realism (1600-80). The latter is exemplified by the chiaroscuro and 'personality' of Rembrandt's portraits; the exquisite still lifes of Jan Davidsz de Heem, and the Dutch Realist genre painting of Jan Vermeer. (3) A third style of Baroque painting, classicism, centred on Rome, was exemplified by the allegorical works of Nicolas Poussin (1593-1665), and the Italianate narrative landscapes of Claude Lorrain (1600-82). (4) The unique naturalist style pioneered by Caravaggio (1571-1610), and eagerly seized upon by the Counter-Reformation Catholic authorities due to its down-to-earth imagery. An important centre of Caravaggism, during the early 17th century, was Naples. See also: Painting in Naples (c.1600-1700), and, for more detail, Neapolitan School of Painting (c.1600-56).
All these famous painters exploited the merits of oil painting to the full - Rubens in his sweeping brushstrokes, energetic compositions and realist anatomy; Velazquez in his unique fusion of grandeur, realism and intimacy; Vermeer in the cool colours and "look and feel" of his narrative genre works; Poussin in his realistic figures and colours. In addition, it seems highly unlikely that the extraordinarily lustrous still lifes and intimate interiors of the Dutch Realist School could have been produced in any other medium but oils.
Oil Paint-Pigments (c.1600-1700)
During the Baroque period of the mid-seventeenth century, colour-makers discovered an improvement on Egyptian Blue called Smalt, in which they replaced copper with Cobalt. Aside from this, there were no major developments in the production of new oil colours. But artists did find new uses for established pigments. The colour palette of Jan Vermeer, for instance, included a virtuoso use of Ultramarine blue and Naples Yellow, as in Lady Standing at the Virginal (1670, oil on canvas, National Gallery London).
Oil Painting During the 18th Century
The principal schools of oil painting during the eighteenth century were the light-hearted Rococo - exemplified by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Francois Boucher (1707-70), and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), and the more serious, heroic style known as Neoclassical art, whose exponents included Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). (See also Neoclassical Painting.) Both styles benefited significantly from the luminous glow and realist effects of oil paint. Landscape painting became a serious genre for the first time, and is represented in 18th century oil painting by the famous Venetian Canaletto (1697-1768), known for his architectural views of Venice and his unique green-blue colour palette. Famous portraitists of the time included Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), whose portraits were considerably enhanced by the realism obtainable from oil paint.
Oil Paint-Pigments (c.1700-1800)
New pigments added to the eighteenth century colour palette included: Prussian Blue, the first modern, synthetic pigment and a cheaper alternative to the prohibitively expensive Ultramarine. It was employed by such masters as Jean-Antoine Watteau; Turner's Patent Yellow, named for the inventor rather than the English watercolourist artist, JMW Turner (1775-1851); the beautiful copper blue pigment Bremen Blue, developed in the latter part of the century; Cobalt Green, a semi-transparent, bright green colourant developed in 1780 by the Swedish colourmaker Rinmann. At the end of the century, a clutch of new pigments appeared, including Mars Reds (synthetic red iron oxides), a range of Chrome colourants (orange, yellow, and red), and a family of natural pigments made from lead chromate, notably yellow. Some 18th century artists however, fell foul of unreliable pigments which were prone to fading or cracking: several of Joshua Reynolds' works, for instance, deteriorated rapidly due to his use of bitumen.
Oil Painting During the 19th Century
The beginning of modern art, the 19th century witnessed a number of innovative styles of oil painting, all of which were greatly enhanced by improvements in the quality, range, pigments and improved manufacturing technology of oil paint. Three examples will suffice. First, outdoor painting movements like Hudson River School (fl.1820-75), Luminism (fl.1850-75) and Impressionism (fl.1870s) benefited significantly from the invention of the collapsible tin paint tube by American artist John Rand, in 1841, which resulted in more pre-mixed colours being available in a medium which was convenient for plein-air painting. Second, Impressionists and other painters benefited greatly from the sweeping brushstrokes made easier by better quality quality oils. Third, the increased role of colour in fin-de-siecle movements like Fauvism and Expressionism, as well as in works by famous individual colourists like Van Gogh (1853-1890), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), was only made possible by the development of new pigments and synthetic colourants.
Oil Paint-Pigments (c.1800-1900)
More new hues were added to the nineteenth century colour palette. Cobalt Blue was discovered by the French scientist Louis Jaques Thénard in 1802; a new class of colour-brilliant Cadmium pigments became available from 1817; Ultramarine, long regarded as the finest natural artist-colour, was finally synthesized by Jean Baptiste Guimet and Christian Gottlob Gmelin in the early 1830s; the popular Zinc White appeared in the 1830s; the powerful cold green colour Viridian emerged in 1840, replacing the highly poisonous Emerald Green (Van Gogh's favourite green hue); the intense yellow shade Aureolin (Cobalt Yellow) was synthesized in 1848 by N.W. Fischer; Mauveine, the first aniline dye, was created in 1856 by Englishman William Henry Perkin; the greenish-blue Cerulean was released in 1860 by George Rowney, to the delight of landscape artists painting skies. For an explanation of modern oil paintings, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).
Oil Painting During the 20th/21st Century
Six hundred years after its development, oil paint remains the universal medium for for all forms of pleinairism and studio painting. It is used across all the painting genres, including history, portraiture, genre-painting, landscape and still life, and in both abstract and representational art.
Acrylics (appearing in the 1940s) are undoubtedly the closest rival to the medium of oils and are a popular painting medium with many of today's contemporary artists, but oil's glossiness and workability gives it a distinct edge. Whether this will be the case at the end of the 21st century, is anybody's guess.
Oil Paint-Pigments (c.1800-1900)
New pigments formulated during the twentieth century included: new high performance organic pigments (the Hansa colors); new improved synthetic versions of Vermilion and Titanium White; a range of Pthalocyanines (notably Phthalo Blue) which appeared in 1935, followed by the Quinacridones and the Perylenes. In addition, universal standards such as those instituted by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and the Commission Internationale d’Eclairage (CIE Lab).