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Introduction to...Oil Paint & Oil Painting

14 Feb 2021 5:02 PM | Lesley Samms (Administrator)

Oil paint as a medium has a fascinating and extensive history.

As a product, the medium is made using finely ground minerals and botanicals (called pigment) that are suspended in drying oils. The most popular oil is linseed oil as it dries by oxidation, but poppy seed, walnut or safflower may also be used.

Interestingly, not all pigments dry at the same rate! Ochres and reds dry faster than most black paints, for example!

The facility of oil paint is astounding. Many artists favour its ability to fuse tones, as well as its ability as an opaque, translucent or transparent medium, being each within its range. For this quality, the oil paint itself can be loosened to a more mobile quality by the artist, adding a painting medium such as turpentine or oils.

Good oil paints offer extended working time, depth of colour (high concentration of pigment), stability in its suspension and permanence on the painted surface. Oil paint dries slowly allowing the artist the opportunity to continue manipulating it.

The earliest oil paintings used oil that may have been extracted from poppies or walnuts and were used to decorate ancient caves in Afghanistan, around the 7th Century CE.

There is evidence of oil paint being used outdoors on surfaces like Shields around 1125, as oil paint was more durable than traditional tempera paints (pigment mixed with egg).

Many argue that the Dutch artists, including Jan van Eyck, led the way to the prominence of Oil Painting throughout the 15th century.

[1434] The Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck

This dominance of medium spread throughout Europe, including to Italy, where Renaissance painters began exploring the use of layers and glazes, still used today - think Bellini, Titian (below) and Rembrandt!

Oil painting remained quite unchanged until the 19th Century when John Goffe Rand invented the paint tubes we know today. Before this, oil paint was confined to studio works due to the pigments lack of portability. With paint tubes came new ways of working, including 'plein air' (painting outside), a way of working common in the Impressionist movement!

Famous Oil Painters throughout the centuries include:

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Thomas Gainsborough

John Constable

Artemisia Gentileschi

Frida Kahlo

JMW Turner

Many of our PURE Artists also favour oils, including:

Dani Humberstone

Edith Barton

Frances Featherstone

Oil paint was and remains so common because of its great versatility; drying slowly, the medium allows subtle rendering as well as longer working times. Artists are able to manipulate the medium for long periods of time, compared to other paint mediums such as acrylic or watercolour.

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