When it comes to art, there are as many different mediums, techniques and approaches as there are imaginative ideas. In this short series of articles, we’re going to take a brief look at some of the different mediums used to create paintings – their history, some of the application techniques, and the famous artists that use them.
In this, Part One, we’re turning our gaze on oil paints.
Behind A Painting – A Touch of Oil
Oil paints have a long and illustrious history when it comes to materials used in artworks; they may not be the oldest known form of paint – but their use dates back millennia. In 2008 the earliest known example of an oil painting was discovered in the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan – estimated to have been created in around 650 AD, the paint contains walnut and poppy seed oils.
Painting by oils has not always been an easy method for an artist to choose as a way of spontaneously expressing themselves. Initially artists or their assistants, were required to carefully prepare their oil paints by first hand-grinding blocks of pigment, then measuring out the correct amount of oil to be mixed into it. This meant that colours had to be considered beforehand, and proved difficult to store and reuse.
One method of containing pre-mixed paint was to use a pigs bladder, which would be filled and tied off. The artist would then need to puncture the bladder, squeeze out the required amount of paint – and then mend the container, leading to much mess and paint loss as a result.
The precursor to the modern paint tube was the glass syringe, topped with a plunger – invented by James Hams in 1822.Then in 1841, John Goffe Rand invented the paint tube, which has changed little since that time. It allowed artists to purchase paint in bulk in a variety of tones and shades, and create inspirational and spontaneous works of art with much greater ease. Artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is quoted as saying, ‘Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.’
The types of oil mixed into the paint varies greatly and can then be altered further by the use of thinners such as turpentine, giving the artist a great deal of freedom in how they wish to prepare their paints and influence their final appearance upon application. Early examples of oil paint used vegetable oils as a base – such as walnut, poppy, hempseed, pine nut or castor. Linseed was not often used because of its slow drying time, although this has become a more common ingredient in modern times.
Because oil paints are created from a blend of pigment and oil, artists have found that the colours blend together extremely well, and a whole spectrum of nuanced colours can be created as a result. The slow drying time means that the works can be adjusted and redone repeatedly; although the downside of this is that a single painting can take an extremely long time to complete.
Nowadays, oil paints are generally considered safe to use, although appropriate levels of care should still be taken, especially when preparing the paints from their pigment form (a mask should be worn when doing this).
Many of the pigments used in historical paints were extremely toxic and could cause serious illness when the artist was exposed to them over long periods of time. Ingredients such as copper (II) acetoarsenite and arsenic sulphide are no longer used; but the cadmium and vermillion colours may still contain mercuric sulphide (either natural or synthetic), and some of the blue tones like cobalt or cerulean may contain cobalt compounds such as cobalt arsenate. Perhaps the most well-known of the toxic elements in these paints is lead (most commonly found in the white paint) which can cause all manner of physiological and neurological problems when the artist is over exposed. There are now heavy restrictions, and bans in some countries, on allowing or selling lead based paints.
The application of oil paints varies from artist to artist, some prefer the thicker bolder finish that comes without using a thinner, whereas others prefer to reduce the consistency down to give a lighter more delicate finish.
Many different schools of artistic approach can be achieved with oil paints – from the soft dreamlike appearance of Romanticism to the harsh and colourful lines of Art Deco or Surrealism, and everything in between. Some of the most famous paintings in the world have been created through the use of oils; such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ (displayed in the Louvre, Paris), Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ (displayed in the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA], New York), or Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (displayed in MoMA, New York).
Some famous pieces, such as Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (displayed in The National Gallery, Oslo) have been created using a blend of mediums – in this case, oil paints and pastels, to create the unique striated effect that comprises the background and sky.
With such a free and easily adaptable material, it is easy to see why there is a draw to the use of oil paints. Typically used on canvas, and generally considered one of the more difficult paints to master, oil paints are a versatile tool to challenge yourself with.
To be continued in Part 2 with – Behind A Painting – A Touch of Watercolour. Keep checking our blog page for more unique and interesting articles coming soon.
by Lynne Pratt – guest writer