The History of Oil Painting


You can walk into almost any art museum and expect to find an array of oil paintings from various artists and countries. The fluctuation of color and fluid blend of colors make this art form such a favored medium for painters. The technique of oil painting has been around for a relatively short time compared to other art forms and hasn’t changed much since its inception. Despite its unequivocal history, the art of oil painting has given birth to some of the world’s most notable artists and pieces.


The true beginnings of oil paint weren’t discovered until just recently in 2008. Historians have known for years that the medium’s uses in Europe date back to the 11th century, but its origin has now been traced back to the 7th century CE. However, the most well-known and prolific era of oil paintings derives from Europe, spanning from 1400 to the 1800s.


Like many other art forms, the practice of oil painting began with cave paintings. During this time, unknown artists utilized oil to decorate the historic cave complex in Afghanistan. This oil was most likely taken from walnuts or poppies in the area. Centuries later, artists created oil paints by combining cultivated linseed oil and dry powder pigments. These two elements were ground to produce a firm paste with a smooth consistency. If needed, liquid elements like turpentine were added to bring forth more fluid paint.


Before oil paint became the preferred paint type, many European artists used tempera, an egg yolk based paint, for their works. Oil paints were traditionally only used as primers and finishing glazes for paintings. These early paintings were created with multiple layers of paint, including both oil-based and tempera paints. Varnishes were added onto the canvas to provide a luminous glaze once they were finished. This style of painting is seen most notably in works by Venice painter Jan van Eyck.


The Renaissance gave birth to some of the most artistic and creative endeavors in human history. Just as architecture, sculpting, and poetry flourished during this period, so did the art of painting. This time period demanded a change in style and techniques in artwork that tempera-based paints couldn’t produce. Thankfully, after the 15th century, advancements in cultivating linseed oil increased the use of oil-based paints as well as the availability of volatile solvents. This led to oil paints being revered as the choice painting method by the end of the 16th century.


One of the first major artists and undeniably one of the esteemed painters of all time was Leonardo da Vinci. During the early days of the Italian Renaissance, da Vinci mastered the technique of using oil for paint rather than tempera. Switching to oil paints granted him the ability to embellish his works with more details and concoct a truer hue that mimics skin.


A few other prominent oil painters during this time include Johannes Vermeer, Diego Velázquez, and Rembrandt van Rijn. Like da Vinci, all three of these artists took advantage of the excellent tonal range of the oil paints to create more life-like portraits in terms of texture and hue. They were also able to accentuate features in their work with gradient hues and color variations. This led to some of the most noteworthy portraits and self-portraits of the period and still today.


Today, the art of oil painting is practiced all across the globe. The development of oil paints helped artists to create astounding works and raise the overall standard for portrait-style paintings. Like many other great advancements in history, we have the Renaissance to thank for this! We hope you now have a deeper appreciation for oil paintings and notice some of the elements we mentioned when observing this artform


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