Although oil is not the only material to have played a key role in artistic painting, it is probably one of the crucial ingredients in paintings done not only in Western Europe but in other areas such as the Mediterranean and Japan. Oil painting, though, refers to more than just one type or oil, to the exclusive use of oil alone, or to the use of natural oil, per se.
In fact, many different types of “oil” have been used since the beginning of the art (going back to 20,000 years and beyond, if cave drawings/paintings were to be included). Additionally, different ingredients (more specifically, pigments) have been added to the oils in order to achieve different effects—mainly, reduced drying time, preservation of the work (by covering paintings and not just being the base of paints) of art and over-all improved visual appearance.
Finally, oils have been put through different processes (mainly, heating) in order to achieve desired effects.
A Brief History of Oil Painting
Interestingly, the art of oil painting goes way back (and, possibly, further) to Paleolithic times. A key component of painting mixtures, binders have been analyzed to determine, for example, what Australian Aborigenes and the early artists of Fontanet cave of Ariege (in France) used in their crude paintings. Some substances found in such examinations may have included blood and vegetal oils.
More recent ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman civilizations, however, used mixtures of encaustic bee wax, iron/manganese/copper oxides and tempera. The vegetal oils most probably used back then included walnut, flax and poppy-seed.
As for “tempera,” it was generally a versatile mix of organic-medium binder, vegetal essential oils and water. The organic binder later used by Italian artists, in fact, included protein rich animal by-products—i.e., milk, animal glues and whole eggs.
With the fall of Rome and other ancient civilizations, some techniques were forever lost, not having been properly preserved through literature or other means. Thanks to some persistent artists, however, oil and tempera painting was preserved, albeit in new, innovative forms. For example, olive oil was experimented with, but it took too long to dry.
The more modern version of oil painting, one might say, was invented (or re-invented) by Jan van Eyck around 1410. Although he was not the first to use oil paints, he did create a relatively stable varnish using the quick-drying linseed oil; it was the primary binder for the mineral pigments. Other oils used included walnut and poppy-seed, although they were not as quick to dry.
Van Eyck’s “wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife” is a classic example of what the new oils and pigments were capable of producing. The oil not only preserved the work but made it possible present lights and shades in ways that would later be further enhanced/explored by some of the greatest artists to date, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Manet, and others.
In time, additional materials and techniques would be added, such as the adding of lead oxides (or litharge) into pigments to improve drying time. Heating techniques were experimented with and bee wax, walnut oil, mastic dissolved in turpentine were also added to some mixtures. Not only quicker drying effect but ability to polymerize with painting bases (usually canvas) was achieved.
Eventually additional pigments and even more-quickly-drying oils (tung, perilla, oiticica, soybean, sunflower, dehydrated castor, and fish) were introduced. In fact, something known as the “iodine number” was used to determine/mark different capacities of drying oils. These oils have allowed the fusing and blending of paints and pigments in ways that have exploded on campus, thus making possible the many interpretations by great artists, especially the masters of Italy and France.
Today, modern oil painting rests on the technology developed over centuries by people who, although they did not fully understand the chemistry, did a very good job of taking out the kinks of oil painting. Ultimately, they provided the best possible mixtures of pigments, oils and other additives used today and purchasable at local art supply stores.
The Main Types of Oil Painting Techniques
Brian Thomas has grouped European oil painting into four main categories: Line, Form, Tone and Color Designs. Although they overlap somewhat, each refers to a particular historical period. In fact, each of the periods so delineated features certain styles, practices, materials, tools, techniques and, more importantly, the set of artists who exemplified (if not defined) the period.
This “design” is represented by the earliest artists known (from 1400 on)—i.e., Jan van Eyck, Canaletto and Holbein. Their paintings featured:
- The modeling of shade and light in opaque pigments (e.g., oil/egg emulsions)
- The use of transparent glazes
- The use of half shadows and subtle use of light
- The interpretation of form by contoured lines
- The blending of flat patterns and realistic renderings
This art work used both the subtle and the intricate, the decorative and the descriptive, and the pious as well as the decadent. The artists featured include: Giotto and Carvallini, Masaccio, Piero dell Francesco, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pollaiuolo. The art form was marked by:
- Close observation of nature
- Use of tonal gradation for the placing of figures in “real” settings
- The use of nudes as strong figures
- The general use of blue skies
- The use of moving/monumental “tableaux-vivants”
The contrast between light and shade was emphasized by these artists living between the 16th and 19th century. These greats included Giorgione, Titian, Caraveggio, El Greco, Hals, Rembrandt, etc. This design featured:
- The use of oil on canvas for the avoidance of the corrosiveness of sea air
- The rich use of landscapes
- The emphasis of tone over all else
- The extolling of feminine beauty
- The use of greater realism
- Poetic expression without equal in the history of art
- Masterful use of painting techniques
Provided by such greats as Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh, this is perhaps one of the most daring of all the designs and it is the closes to what artists delve into presently – i.e., the heavy emphasis on color, creativity without too much relevance on technique or methodology, and high experimentation.
Although it is difficult to “paint” an accurate picture of what oil painting is all about in a short article, it should suffice to say that it is an art that is still developing, has been around for a long time, and still has unique “places” that can be explored. As such, oil painters of today, building on what has already taken place, can take painting to even greater plateaus of wonder than have already been “exposed.”