Oil Paint is a very exciting and versatile
medium. A new artist is presented with endless possibilities for
creating art with oil paints. Oil Paint can be applied in a thick
buttery fashion or thinned down to a watery consistency. It can be
applied with a painting knife or with various brushes. You can paint
with oils straight from the tube or mix them with an assortment of
exciting mediums to create beautiful effects. It is because of this
versatility that oil painting is such a popular choice amongst new
Oil painting is a difficult medium to master
and can confuse and intimidate beginners. Many artists get
discouraged and quit far too early.
Oil painting is almost as old as civilization
in world, dating back to the ancient Mediterranean Greeks, Romans,
Chinese and Egyptians. Their techniques of mixing encaustics (wax)
and natural minerals are well documented. Basic colorants were those
found naturally in their landscape. Those minerals initially
included copper, manganese oxide and iron and the wax was most
likely bees wax. Oils such as flax oil, walnut and poppy seed were
used in culinary applications, but there is no evidence of them
being used in paintings of this period. Tempera (dry colorant made
of minerals and oxides and then combined with binder and water) was
combined with essential oils to make a more resilient material.
Often the oil was used as a covering over a tempera work to
stabilize the art. The tempera binders used by Italian artisans
included such things as whole egg, milk or animal glue.
By the end of the Roman Empire and up to the
Renaissance (15th century), these ancient techniques were all but
abandoned. At that time Italian and Greek artists used olive oil in
their secret process of creating oil paints. This secrecy of the
Italian and Greek formulas allowed their dominance of the painting
world for nearly three centuries. The use of olive oil did, however,
greatly lengthen the drying time of the paint. During this time,
drying oils - those that aided in hastening drying times - were
introduced. Some of the early examples included linseed oil, with
poppy seed and walnut oils being used to a lesser degree. All these
oils were aided with the heat of the sun for speeding the drying of
the paints. Some choices were less inclined to crack, yellow and
darken than the linseed oil.
One of the first examples of this radical new
technique is van Eyck's famous painting Giovanni Arnolfini and his
Wife – The Wedding Portrait (1434). This painting clearly displays
the effect of multi layering (what is now referred to as glazing)
and the visual brilliance it projects. The layers of oil, dried
between applications, allowed for pigments to float and create a
translucence and color intensity not before seen. From this time on,
it is oil paint and the results it gives that make paintings in that
media so appealing. Leonardo da Vinci improved the technique by
slowly boiling the oil with an addition of bees wax. The resulting
media did not darken as much as the components without wax. Other
artists such as Tintoretto and Rubens studied earlier formulas and
created their own, proving that artists were personally responsible
for calculating and formulating their own paints.
While it takes far more than technique to
create a masterpiece, the methods of the time have endured with
gradual modification/alteration and are researched and practiced by
artists to this day. How oils are made today is also similar to
their original components but they are far more refined and
scientifically calculated. To insure a stable compound and colors
that can be trusted from tube to tube/purchase to purchase, those
calculations are closely guarded and monitored for extreme quality.
Non-edible oils are the backbone of formulas that can stand the
elements and give workable performance to even the most
discriminating artist. Today, specialized oils such as bladderpod,
sandmat, ironweed and calendula plant extracts are used to increase
resistance and to decrease drying time. The superior drying
qualities, along with non-yellowing appearance and enhanced surface
strength, made these oils more appealing.
Although the luminosity of oils is never
questioned, there are certain qualities of working in oils that are
worth consideration. The media is still slow drying when compared to
almost any other media. That can be a good thing if working in
abbreviated sessions is your style. Quick painters must develop a
way to continue their approach. Oil is easily blended with paint
that is already on the surface. Until dry, reworking is easy and
often becomes a "style" all its own. On-canvas blending is part of
the beauty of this soft, malleable paint. Vivid and dynamic colors
are possible in oil, more than almost any other media. Air does not
cause an evaporation of oil paint as it does with water media.
Instead, oils oxidize into a dry, strong surface. As an oil painting
dries, the molecules of the paint bond to form a permanent and very
resilient surface. It can be said that an oil painting never stops
Pigments used in oil paints can be toxic.
Copper, arsenic sulfide and others of lesser danger are components
in the creation of oils. The thinners and cleaning materials,
turpentine and odorless mineral spirits, are toxic if mishandled.
Therefore, always exercise caution and never eat, drink or smoke in
the painting studio.
In summary, if you are not an oil painter, it
is a medium that is well worth trying. The luminous qualities, the
translucency possible and the colors available are very exciting and
offer much experimentation. And remember to thank all the artists
from centuries ago for all they contributed to today's materials.