“Oil paint is sensuous and I find it highly seductive. Like life.” ~ Ann Dettmer
Oil painting fascinated, captivated and mentally kidnapped me from the first time I learned about it. It’s unlike any other art medium available. The above quote from Ann Dettmer perfectly describes how I feel about it. It is the most archival painting method available to artists and the most complicated to use correctly and master.
The oldest oil paintings known in existence were found in 2008 in caves in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. These paintings date from 650 A.D., they were made using walnut and poppy seed oils and painted with a multilayered structure. 1
Later during the 12th century there is evidence that Christian monks used the oil painting techniques in their artworks and 12th century German monk Theophilus Presbyter recommended linseed oil for the preparation of pigment mixtures but spoke against use of olive oil due to its very long drying time.
In the 13th century, oil was used to detail tempera paintings and in the 14th century, Cennino Cennini presented a painting technique utilizing tempera painting covered by light layers of oil.3
Traditional oil painting in the art form as we know it today began to emerge in the early 15th century around the year of 1410. The invention of the art of oil painting is often credited to North European painter Jan van Eyck although it is a common misconception. It is true however that the Van Eyck brothers were one of the earliest painters to use it for very detailed panel painting. Through the use of glazes as well as wet on wet techniques they were able to achieve remarkable results and visual effects. Jan Van Eyck himself was the first artist to produce a drying oil mixture which could be used to combine mineral pigments.3 He wanted to mimic nature in his paintings and found it difficult to do that with the painting techniques available which utilized egg as a final binding agent. He began to use oil in place of the egg and soon achieved the detail he sought and remarkable colors to go with it. His painting “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife” is one of the earliest examples of his artistic brilliance and one of the most original and complex paintings in Western History. He is considered one of the best early North European painters and through his mastery of the technique was known as the father of oil painting.
After van Eyck a number of painters succeeded in improving the oil paint such as Antonello da Messina who added the iron (II) oxide to the oil/pigment mixture to increase its siccative property. The paint had honey like consistency and improved drying time. The mixture was known as oglio cotto or cooked oil.2
Leonardo da Vinci later went on to improve the oil paint further by cooking the oily mixtures at low temperatures after adding 5-10% beeswax which prevented darkening of the paint.3 He is known as one of the greatest oil painters of all time and the most diversely talented person to ever have lived. His painting Mona Lisa is considered the most famous painting in history of art.
17th century oil painting was ruled by two schools of thought, the baroque style and Dutch realism. The Baroque style stressed anti-reformation and mythological narration of paintings and Dutch realism emphasized landscapes, genre paintings and portraits. The prominent artists of the century were Rubens, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Jacob van Ruisdael. The oil paint pigment was improved by replacing copper component with cobalt to bring blue color in the paintings.5
In 19th century a number of innovative oil painting techniques came to life thanks to the improvements in pigments and manufacturing of oil paints. For the first time, oil painters were free to paint outside, movement known as plein air painting with the introduction of collapsible tin oil paint tube by American artist John Rand in 1841. Impressionists benefited from improved quality of oil paints and thanks to developments of new pigments and artificial colorants the century witnessed increased role of colour in oil paintings. John Singer Sargent, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse are three notable masters of the 19th century.4
Astonishing six hundred years after its initial development the oil paint remains as the most universal medium for all sorts of artistic ambitions including plein air and studio painting. It is used across all the painting genres including portraiture, figurative painting, still life and landscapes as well as in abstract and representational art.4