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The History of the Introduction and Development of Oil Paint

In earlier times, artists were limited to water-based paints that dried too quickly. If they were working large on a wall, they couldn’t stop for a break and they had to work bit by bit. If they were working on wood, the color was flat and lifeless.

As evidenced by the innumerable masterpieces exhibited on gallery walls of the most prestigious museums worldwide, perhaps it is the medium of oil that has created the most significant impact on the development of painting as visual art form. 

In its simplest form, oil paint is a mixture of three things: pigmentbinder and thinner. Unlike tempera, acrylic paint or watercolor, all of which dry by evaporation, oil paint dries by oxidation - it means the oil reacts chemically with oxygen in the air and gradually changes from a liquid to a gel and finally becomes hard.

It was only during the 19th century that industrial manufacturers began to produce a proper range of fine art oil paints.

Until then, Renaissance or Baroque painters, for instance, worked for severals years as a pupil in the 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 color pigments, their properties (hue, permanence, chroma, lightfastness, disegno compatibility with other pigments, drying attributes), and how to make them into oil paint was an essential part of every painter's art training. Nowadays, very few artists use hand-made oil paints; most prefer to buy formulated brands.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife ( c.1434) by Jan van Eyck.

The beginnings of oil painting are recorded as early as the twelfth century in Northern Europe.

It was the virtuoso handling of the medium on panel by early Netherlandish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden in the fifteenth century that represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century.

Because artists were troubled by the excessive amount of drying time, Jan van Eyck found a method that allowed painters an easier method of developing their compositions. By mixing pigments with linseed and nut oils, he discovered how to create a palette of vibrant oil colors. By then, Jan van Eyck had been incorrectly credited with the “invention” of oil painting.

Once this formula had been achieved, a painter could, for the first time, wake up in the morning and build on what he had accomplished the day before. And what a vast array of new effects were now available to him! A whole new library of colour, texture, light and space. 

The standard support for oil painting is a canvas made of pure European linen of strong close weave. This canvas is cut to the desired size and stretched over a frame, usually wooden, to which it is secured by tacks or, from the 20th century, by staples. To reduce the absorbency of the canvas fabric and to achieve a smooth surface, a primer or ground is applied and is allowed to dry before painting begins.

The most commonly used primers have been gesso, rabbit-skin glue, and lead white. If rigidity and smoothness are preferred to springiness and texture, a wooden or processed paperboard panel, sized or primed, may be used. Many other supports, such as paper and various textiles and metals, have been tried.

In the late 1400s, oil painting was further transformed by the artist, Antonello da Messina. He introduced yet another method which involved adding a lead oxide called litharge to the oil mixture that created a new level of brilliance.

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous artists of all time, improved oil painting even further with his boiling method used in the mid 1400s and early 1500s. This improvement discouraged the formation of dark colors and led to creations such as the world renowned Mona Lisa.


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