Oil paint has a certain allure. I love how it looks on a canvas, but I also love working with it. As I return to making miniature oil paintings, I’ve become curious and inspired to learn more about oil painting in general. As I paint, my head spins with thoughts about painting/painters and I realized that while I’m a great admirer of painting, I don’t really know as much as I would like to know about it. The question that popped into my head recently was, what is the history of oil paint? What is it about this material that makes it so enticing to work with, and why do certain artists use it exclusively?
Let’s start with some basics of oil painting and how to start painting with oil. If you look at a cross section of an oil painting, you will see step-by-step how everything is done. First you need to select a canvas. A canvas can be the more-known linen canvas, but it can also be wood panel, fabric, or even metal. I’ve read that some artists used to use copper as a canvas, and I’m curious as to how the eventual copper oxidation would affect the mineral pigments in oil paint.
Next, you have to prime your canvas. This prevents the oil paints from absorbing into the linen or wood panel, and acts as a protective barrier between the paint and painting surface. The most-used primer is called gesso. Gesso is a fine plaster and feels like a slightly gritty material that you paint on to the surface. Once it dries, it binds to the painting surface and you can draw on it with pencil, sand it to make an extra smooth finish, or build it up to create more texture for underneath your painting. It is usually a white material, but now you can purchase gesso in any color although it will affect the color of the oil paint. I tested a black gesso recently, and it made my oil paints appear much darker, matte and saturated.
After you’ve completed your painting, you need to wait for the oil paint to dry thoroughly. Depending on the thickness of the paint, this can take anywhere from 4 weeks to months to even years. Once the paint has dried, you apply a varnish. Varnish acts as a protective layer to pollution and other outside elements. I use a thin layer of resin equivalent to 60 layers of varnish, is UV resistant and would be considered waterproofing.*
*This does NOT mean you can go swimming with my oil painted earrings. This just means that if a little moisture of humidity gets on them, they will remain protected.
Let's get into the history of oil paint.
While oil painting is mostly associated with Western art, the earliest known oil paintings have been found in Afghanistan. Do you remember that incident where the Taliban had destroyed those ancient Buddha statues back in 2001? They destroyed these murals painted with early oils as well. A team of experts have recreated these oil paintings recently, which you can read about by clicking here. These early examples of oil paintings are from around 600 CE, and it wasn’t until the 1400s that Europe was introduced to oil paint.
Below is a panorama showing where the Buddhas and caves holding the paintings were originally located before they were destroyed. You can see outlines of the Buddhas on either side of the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan. Photo source.
The primary technique used before oil painting was introduced, was egg tempera. Tempera painting is pigment mixed with egg yolk and you have to work very fast as it dries quickly. When oil paints were introduced, many painters continued using egg tempera as the base and then would paint on top of that with oil paints. They’d dilute the oil paints so that they’d be transparent over the tempera paint, but this allowed them to add a lot more details. It wasn’t an immediate transition to oil paints, which is interesting to think about. A new technology is developed, ie oil paint, and painters gradually started to use it. Eventually in the Renaissance, painters who used oil paints, used them exclusively.
Oil paint opened the doors from turning paintings flat, to finally giving them dimension and volume. It was not easy to do that with tempera, but the style that tempera created is a lasting technique. Think about the icon religious paintings. Those appear very flat but they are very stylized and that’s because the painter is still using tempera or is imitating the look.
The Renaissance is marked in the painting world by the discovery of perspective. It took artists many centuries to understand a two/three-point perspective. Art and painting during the Renaissance was influenced by a number of factors. People started to view art as investment, like the Medici family and the Popes of the time, who commissioned artworks from some of the greatest painters, sculptors and jewelers. The artists in turn wanted to impress their customer base and give their paintings a more realistic touch.
The introduction of oil paint combined with perspective changed the direction of painting technique and style. You begin to see shades applied to the portraits, more details in the textiles that they painted, and many architectural renderings (either imagined or real). There was also lots of trade happening with the East via the Silk Road and this was bringing in not just silks and textiles, but new pigment colors, new novelties like seeds from abroad and fresh cut flowers, spices, colors, flavors, and ideas.
The artist most often attributed as being the first painters to use oil was Jan van Eyck. This is a false claim, but he was one of the first painters to use it more heavily. As each painter over the centuries began experimenting with oil painting, they would also introduce new methodologies on how to use the medium. Eventually there was a switch from wood panel to linen canvas which was much lighter and less expensive. Canvas was also more available due to the production of canvas sails for ships.
The painting to the left (or above, however you're viewing it) is The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan Van Eyck and was one of the first paintings he did using mostly oils. You can see what I'm talking about above where the textiles are suddenly complex and rich in color and details, the faces have dimension, and the room has perspective. This painting is considered the breakthrough painting when it comes to oils. Photo source.
With each new art movement, came new ways of using oil paint. The other day I was watching a David Hockney interview and he brought up the invention of the tube of paint and how that technology gave rise to the Impressionist movement. The painters from that time period were able to be out in nature more often and carry their tubes of paint with them. They also did faster, looser brush strokes while weaving and layering colors together unlike before because the paints were already made for them. They had access to more colors, and you can compare how their palettes were brighter and varied from previous centuries. Look at the water in Claude Monet's Water Lillies painting below. There are so many more colors that add depth and give the water movement, not just because of the loose paint strokes but also in the variety of colors. Photo source.
Oil Painting Today
With new technologies like the iPad and Apple Pencil, artists (myself included) are using drawing apps like Procreate to experiment with virtual oil painting. I use Procreate to get the outlines of an image I want to use. I'll upload an image I've taken, copy it in to Procreate and draw my essential outlines for a painting. This is immensely helpful for several reasons.
The first is that I can see which details I can transfer into a miniature perspective. With miniatures, you have to eliminate a lot of details so that the wearer can see what it is you're trying to portray. The second is that I'm able to take that outline into another program, copy and paste the jpeg of my outline several times, and then manipulate it so that I see what scale I want to paint my miniature at. It's not until I print my outline in several sizes am I able to finally get a sense of the size I want to work with. Lastly, as I'm painting I can use Procreate to bring the image/outlines to the size I'm working with in real-time and I can go and forth to see where I need to fix my painting. It acts as a projector of the subject I'm painting.
Initially, I felt bad for leaning on technology to get through a process of my oil paintings. It wasn't until recently, after taking a few lessons with Alai Ganuza's 'Contemporary Oil Painting' class that I realized this is the path of the contemporary oil painter.
The thing I love most about oil painting is how it feels like it'll last forever if taken care of properly. There are things that an artist can do to preserve their work, like making sure the paints are of the highest quality, that the canvas has been treated properly, and that there is a finish like varnish to protect the paints from diminishing in color over time. Environmental effects and carefulness of the owner also ensure that an oil painting remains intact.
There also feels like there's more to learn with oil painting. We've only seriously used it for the last 500 years, and with each new art movement comes new knowledge of the medium. I'm seeing changes in sustainability of the materials used and medium, an acceptance of technology, and a push for more color.
What are some of the things you like most about painting? Is there a particular medium you're most interested in?
That's all for now. Thanks so much for reading.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "oil painting". Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Feb. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/art/oil-painting.
“Brief History of Oil Painting.” OilPaintingGuide.com, 20 June 2019, www.oilpaintingguide.com/brief-history-of-oil-painting.
Wikipedia contributors. “Oil Painting.” Wikipedia, 5 Feb. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_painting.
“The History of Oils.” Mall Galleries, 2 Aug. 2018, www.mallgalleries.org.uk/learning/resources/history-oils.
A Brief History of Oil Painting | Blog | Escape Motions. www.escapemotions.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-oil-painting.
Artsy Editors. “What Makes Oil Paintings to Be the Most Unique?” Artsy, 8 Sept. 2014, www.artsy.net/article/gucwa-vivienne-what-makes-oil-paintings-to-be-the.