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History of Oil Paints

The exact date people began using oil paints is somewhat difficult to determine. In fact, an oil painting has been discovered just this year in Afghanistan, and believed to have been rendered around 650 A.D. But, today’s art was not seriously documented until the 13th century. What we do know is that oils became popular approximately 200 years later, and more the popularity of oil paints continues on to this day.

The Need for Change

In the 13th century, art was destined for major changes because:

1.Tempura was no longer sufficient
2.Oils added to pigment enhanced translucency
3.Problems with drying time forced artists to look for new mediums

The positive properties of oil-based paints are desirable, but negative aspects also present a problem.

Before the common use of oils, tempura paints were used to decorate homes. But, soon their use became insufficient for artistic purposes. When realism became a popular artistic form, the current medium simply was insufficient.

The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were known to mix oils with their pigments. Also, the oils made a good varnish to add translucency to the paintings. Soon, Christian monks were using oils in their artwork. Then, with the push toward realism, oils gave off a light to the human complexion never before achievable in any artistic medium.

But, the excessive drying time became a real issue. Oil paints took months to dry all the way through. Then, in 1410, oil painting commonly known today was created by Jan Van Eyck. He found a formula that changed oil paints by:

  • Producing a stable oil mixture
  • Binding the pigments together
  • Increasing viscosity

Because of the changes, painting with oils became much easier. The colors were even more vibrant and the consistency of the paint improved, staying put when placed on the surface of the canvas.

Then, Leonardo Da Vinci changed the formula by adding 10% bees wax. The change reduced the problem of the painting becoming darkened and changing as the oils oxidized and dried thoroughly. Thus, the finished artwork could maintain its original beauty.

Oil Paints Become Mobile

In 1841, artists are relieved from the constraints of the studio and become mobile. Up to this point, artists are required to mix the pigments and the oils together as the paint is needed. 1841 saw the development of premixed paints in tubes with a cap.

Sold in this way, artists could purchase the different tubes of color desired, grab an easel, and go on location to create a more realistic painting. Thus, artists wanting to paint nature could move outside and view the scene during the painting and not from memory.

Oil painting gained popularity with artists during the realism period. But even this new medium was not without drawbacks. As the formula changed over time to become easier to use, and less likely to yellow, the positive aspects of oil paints far outweighed the issue of drying time. Thus, the medium of oil paints has needed no significant change for centuries, and millions of professional and amateur artists can continue to enjoy the beauty of oil paints.


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