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Oil Painting History of Oil Mediums

Brief History of Oil Painting

Michella M. Ames

      The Mediterranean societies of antiquity, most notably the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Romans used a paint that consisted of a mixture of beeswax encaustic, mineral pigments like iron or copper and tempera. vegetal like flax, walnut and poppy seed oil were known to these cultures, but there is no specific indication that they were used in paint.

      This method of paint creation, as with so much ancient technology, was lost in the intervening years, the final blow to paint creation likely being the fall of Rome. Thereafter the encaustic paint was replaced by oil or tempera paints.

      Tempera paint is a mixture of an organic binder such as whole eggs or animal glue, water, and vegetal essential oils. It has a thinner consistency than oil paint and dries much quicker.

      Oil paint on the other hand, uses oil as a binder. In Italy during the time of the Renaissance, the most commonly used oil for this purpose was olive oil as it was inexpensive and readily available. However, it had an excessive drying time that was especially tedious in the case of figures. So tedious in fact that it lead a German monk by the name of Theophilus to warn against the use of oil paint recipes including olive oil in the 12th century in his book Schoedula Diversarum Artium.

      Among other techniques was the use of a drying oil as a varnish on paintings, such as the technique referred to by 5th century medical writer Aetius Amidenus. In the 8th century, the Japanese mixed lead with Perilla oil, and in the 14th century, Italian artist Cennino Cennini used a painting technique that involved covering tempera paintings with light oily layers.

      According to Le vite de piu eccelenti pittori, scultori e architetori, Firenze, 1550 (Lives of the Artists) by Giorgio Vasari, the oil painting technique was invented –or rather reinvented- in Europe by the well-known Flemish artist Jan van Eyck in or around 1410. He was not the first to use oil painting, but rather was the first to make use of a stable varnishing utilizing siccative oil, namely linseed. Walnut oil and poppy seed oil were also in use, but were not as quick-drying as linseed oil. These oils allowed for much faster drying of paint on canvas under the sun. Jan van Eyck kept his secret until about 1440, a year before his death.

      After van Eyck, several painters made improvements on the formula, such as Antonella De Massina (1430-1479), Michelangelo, Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Titian (1488-1576) among others. These secrets remained in Italy throughout much of the Renaissance, thus creating the supremacy among Italian Renaissance paintings. 

      Today, linseed oil is still the preferred oil in the creation of oil paint, and can be easily made at home.

 Oil Painting Vs Acrylic Painting

  • Today's oil types have been around about 500 years and are still present and viewed throughout the world. Oil paints generally come from linseed oil (a vegetable base) The film of oils harden after it is applied to canvas and exposed to oxygen, however the film on oils dry much slower than other mediums. Hardening slows as it begins to harden, and never completely dries (under normal conditions).  

  • Acrylics have been around for a little over 50 years. In theory acrylics should last 500 years, acrylic is softer, more flexible and less brittle than oil especially over time. If a painting is kept indoors and at temperatures above freezing the changes that cause hardening, are very slow.

  • Pros and Cons. Acrylica paint dries almost immediatley and is more difficult to work with. therefore we do not recommend the painting of human subjects due to the amount of time an artist spends in the facial areas. Acrylics resist cracking better than that of oil paintings. However, acrylic paintings become very brittle if the temperature decreases below freezing and can be damaged beyond repair if freezing does occur. There are no known cleaning agents for acrylic paintings. Plain water will damage an acrylic painting. Acrylic paint films are porous and softer than the film on oil, making dirt more likely to stick or embed in the layer. Acrylics tend to carry electrostatic charges on their surfaces which attracts dirt. Protective framing is suggested for an acrylic painting. It is suggested not to clean an acrylic painting even with a brush. When using air pressure at an angle to dust your acrylic painting, do so with caution as to not embed the dust into the painting. Even though it is easier to dust an oil painting. You should always consult an expert on cleaning any type of painting. Most artists agree that an oil painting provides more depth to a painting.  There are many discussions on this topic found in discussion forums and encyclopedias on the internet. We have listed only a few known important factors.