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Page
History of Oil Paint

History of Oil Paint

Painting has a very very long history indeed, apart from cave paintings and the like, (which we will leave to another art history essay), prior to the Middle Ages, the primary painting medium was egg tempera.  This difficult and temperamental medium was replaced by oil paint as the principal medium around 1500. You may not know it, but every single existing panel by Michelangelo was actually egg tempera.

Now anyone who has used oil paints, will, no doubt know how beautiful, vibrant and unique they are to use. But what do we know of the history of this wonderful medium? 

In 2008 some cave paintings were discovered in Afghanistan that looked very different from the cave paintings that we have come to know. Scientists analysed these paintings, and it was discovered that they dated from 650 AD.  The scientists found the paint was made up of a pigment mixed with a carrier base of walnut and poppy seed oil.  As far as we know, this is the oldest recorded use of oil paint, which means oil paints were actually used about 800 years before we had initially thought.  

Experts agree that the practice of oil painting was adopted around the end of the Roman Empire, with olive oil used as a binding agent to prepare the pigment, but the excessive drying time was long and tedious.  In Japan parilla oil was used as a binder, but again was less than perfect as it discoloured very quickly. 

Great advancements were made by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck.  Van Eyck’s real achievement was the development of a stable binder of mainly linseed oil together with mineral pigment.  Van Eyck kept his oil paint recipe a secret.  It consisted of ground glass, calcined bones, and selected mineral pigments that were suspended in linseed oil that was boiled for weeks.  Van Eyck kept his secret up until 1440. He died that same year – so he really had a monopoly on his paint. 

Not only did he develop oil paint that is not unlike the one we use today, but he also developed the method of how to use his paint.  This is known as the Flemish technique.  With this technique a painting had an increased brilliance, translucence, an enhanced intensity of colour, and of course, great archival qualities.

After Van Eyck's death and the secret was out, technical advancements continued to be made.  Antonella da Messina introduced lead oxide that improved the siccative [drying] qualities, and Leonardo da Vinci improved the preparation of oils by cooking them at lower temperatures and added bees wax, thus preventing the medium being too dark, as had previously been the case.  Again this was kept as a closely guarded secret by the Italian ateliers for three centuries, thus warranting their supremacy and radiance in Europe.

It sounds strange that there would be so much secrecy regarding the recipes, but obviously there were no art shops and essentially an artist had to produce their own paint, or get his apprentice to do it.  As a matter of interest, apprentices were taken on at the age of 12, and an apprenticeship on average lasted until apprentices were in their mid-20's.

Each following generation fine-tuned the medium and experimented with differing oils, mainly to provide the medium with a faster drying rate. Oils like tung oil, soybean and many fish oils were used, but none really surpassed the standard formula. The paint remained relatively unchanged until the 1930's.

This era was characterised by the introduction of alkyd resins.  Alkyd resins are oil modified polyesters mixed with vegetable oils. This paint, cross linked more aggressively [binds together] and didn't have a tendency to yellow.  This had been the big problem with oil paint since it had been first invented.  Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Picasso experimented with this paint with great success. 

The last and latest change to the oil paint medium came about in the 1980’s when chemists worked out how to change the linseed oil carrier to be hydrophilic. This basically means oil paint became soluble, and dissolved in water.  With this new medium, painters could enjoy the qualities of oil paint without having to use turpentine or solvents.

If you are interested in this type of oil paint Joe has created a lesson using Mont Marte H2O Water Mixable Oil Paint.  If you would like to check this out, it will be attached to the May Creative Connection.

So oil paint still has a big future, and is, and will continue to be, enjoyed for many years to come.

 

References:

  1. Barry, Carolyn. "Earliest Oil Paintings Found in Famed Afghan Caves". National Geographic Society. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
  2. "Rediscovering treasures of Bamiyan". BBC News. 17 July 2008. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  3. Afghan caves hold world's first oil paintings: expert – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
  4. Earliest Oil Paintings Discovered.
  5. www.cyberlipid.org/perox/oxid0011.htm.
  6. Wikipedia.  History of oil paint.