Notebook, 1993-

MATERIALS & METHODS - Painting - Oil Painting

Characteristics - Painting Methods & Techniques - Materials and Equipment - Work Space & Storage - Manufacture of Pigments - Protection of the Picture

Oil Painting

The Oil Technique
Painters employed drying oils such as walnut oil and linseed oil occasionally for special effects from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. During the fifteenth century oil painting was increasingly used as a fine arts medium, and in the sixteenth century it became the principal painting method in northern Europe and Italy, becoming preferred by many artists over egg tempera, fresco, and distemper painting. The gradual adoption of the oil medium came soon after the systems of perspective and light-and-shade drawing had been absorbed into the pictorial styles of the period, replacing the more stylized almost signlike compositions of the earlier artists. [Editorial note: One might speculate that paint was applied directly onto unprepared surfaces in the early renderings of natural forms and in stylized schema developed in Aegean wall painting not unlike the wall paintings in the caves of Tunhuang along the Silk Road in the Gobi Desert --and an approach to painting which may have arisen out of processes in decorative ceramic ware and, perhaps, writing. European artists during the early Renaissance glazed color with an oil /egg binder over monochromatic light & shade renderings on polished plaster and panels --much in the same narrative spirit of early architectural reliefs which developed in the East and in Egypt. It was not till the high Renaissance that artists had develop the process of mixing pigments together and more directly in the delineation of nuances in imagery. A characteristic of the Renaissance was that attention was brought to focus on the present world with an increasing awareness of changing events and with more fluid and natural exchanges portrayed --less dedication ascribed to the hereafter. The oil paint carried light within the process of delineation.] The characteristics of oil paint proved advantagious to painters who were interested in the effects of light, the description of individual likeness, and the complex variety in nature. That it became almost universally accepted as the standard medium of European and American painting for nearly five hundred years, meeting the requirements of the various styles of painting as they appeared, testifies to its versatility and to its compatibility with the developments in European and American art. [p. 54] [Kay, Reed. The Painter's Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983. pp. 127-129]

Painting in oil is one of the most important and popular methods of easel painting. As a method or technique, it has been completely and thorooughly studied and recorded from every viewpoint. This means that present-day painters have at their command--if they are conscientious enough to learn and apply them--all the details necessary for successful manipulation of effects, as well as safeguards for the longevity of the painting and the variations for creating styles to suit individual requirements. The positive data we have concerning these matters has been gained from several different sources: form the records and examples of more than six centuries of European development; from the researches of scholars and scientists into past practices; from laboratory investigations, analyses, and reconstructions; and from adapting results of similar modern research on the same materials, which is always being carried on by workers in related fields--for instance, scientific work on industrial paints. [p. 92] [Mayer, Ralph. The Painter's Craft. An Introduction to Artist's Methods and Materials. Revised and updated by Steven Sheehan, Director of the Ralph Mayer Center, Yale University School of Art. New York: Penquin Group. 1948. 1991.]

The practice of easel painting in oil paint on canvas has been universal since the seventeenth century; it did not arise as a sudden invention but was the result of a long development. Scholars have traced this development in considerable detail through the various schools of art, and the subject can be studied by reference to the books listed in the bibliography. There are several milestones or turning points in the history of European easel painting which can be noted briefly as follows:

The early tempera paintings, notably those of Italy were done on gessoed grounds on wood panels. Working under the patronage of the Church or the reigning families, the artists reflected the artistic tastes of their times. The results achieved were exactly what the painter desired; the rather limited effects and the rather intractable materials were manipulated by developing superior skill and craftsmanship rather than by adopting more fluent or easily handled materials. Giotto is an outstanding example of the early Italian painters in this tradition; the works of Boticelli and Fra Angelico exemplify the high point of technical achievement in pure egg tempera.

A subtle change then followed; as small amounts of waxy, oily, or resinous materials began to be introduced into the tempera in various ways, paintings showed a definite degree of technical change. These were characterized by a somewhat more fluent command of brushwork and a trace of softening or blending of colors, but for the most part they retained the same dry, linear quality of the earlier type. The culmination of this later type of tempera painting may be seen in the work of the Venetian painters of the fifteenth century--such as Antonello, Domenico Veneziano, and Andrea del Castagno--who refined their tempera paintings throughout with oily or resinous transparent glazes. Also , in the Northern countries, following the innovations of the Van Eycks and others at Bruges, the works of van de Weyden, van der Goes, and Memling show the use of oil glazes over tempera and sometimes [p. 133] oil underpaintings carried on to the highest degree of jewel-like perfection.

The artists have two instruments which they use to express their intentions in paint; they are line and color or tonal masses. In their importance to painting techniques neither one can be rated above the other, and when discussing them the same general terms are applied to each. Two completely different technical approaches may thus be distinguished.

In the first, line predominates and the painters cited above always retained completely and meticulously their original draftsmanship. Underpainting was never entirely obscured by the final painting; its effect had a strong and direct influence on the finished work. The pictures are by no means colored drawings; they are veritable paintings, but the color or tonal element is subordinate to the linear quality.

The next great change was the tendency to techniques in which the tonal masses could be made to contribute a greater influence toward the final effect so that they might be used to play a part equal to that oft he linear draftsmanship, or if desired, to dominate the total effect. This change, which came about through the demands and requirements of changing times and conditions and in preference for more "painterly" styles, rather than through the "discovery" of new materials or methods, was made possible by the adoption of oily mediums as opposed to the aqueous tempera, which is more suited to the linear or "drier" kind of painting. The oily paints, which dry more slowly and which are adapted to a more plastic handling, are more versatile. Blending of tones and also a looser, more fluent stroking may be used if desired, and the final coats of paint can be made to contribute the major part of the total effect, whereas in the earlier method, the underpainting or drawing predominates.

Because of the gradual and irregular state of development of the oil-painting process and the varying requirements and conditions of schools and individuals in different localities during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, one cannot assign exact dates of chronological precedence to these changes.

However, the development of the oil-painting technique can be conveniently studied by observing the development of the painters whom we classify as belonging to the Venetian school and those who followed or came under its influence. [p. 133]

Giovanni Bellini, who started his career by painting in the traditional tempera manner, became a user of the oily materials later in his life and produced a more blended, painterly type of work. Following the previously mentioned painters, the works of Tintoretto and Titian display all the above-mentioned characteristics brought out by the increasing use of oily materials; although the disciplined and systematic training of the tempera painters is not wholly discarded, the influence of oil paints creates a different type of picture. It is carried on still farther by the technique of El Greco and finally that of Vel½zquez, whose effects can be duplicated by the simple direct method we know today as straight oil painting.

In citing the names of some of the great masters of the past, we do not intend to imply that these men were necessarily the sole innovators or that only they possessed rare technical secrets; they are mentioned simply as convenient landmarks because they are universally known and represent the culmination of the technical advances of their times.

In the work of Rubens, who had a prodigious command of technical facility, we find the culmination of all the developments of Flemish and Italian techniques. Here the linear elements and tonal masses are combined and played against each other to bring one or the other into prominence at will. His paints were not of a complicated nature, differing in no major respect from our own except that they were perhaps more fluid. He is one of the most successful individuals of all time, both in setting down his exact intentions and in securing lasting, permanent results. That he was not possessed of mysterious technical secrets is amply shown by his writings and by those of his associates; in addition, by the fact that large numbers of his students, assistants, and contemporaries used the same methods and materials.

However, as an example of the culmination of a technique, his work is most interesting in marking another important change or landmark in the development of easel painting--that is, the deliberately planned and consistent use of comparatively thick or loaded opaque whites or pale colors combined with thinly painted or transparent darks and shadows. This makes for a distinct change or advance over the earlier type of work, in which for the most part all color masses were painted in equal bulk or thickness. The use of this procedure can be discerned in the work of earlier painters [p. 134], but its adoption as a deliberate basic principle begins with this period.

In any choice of techniques, the present-day painter is guided by the experiences of the past, as to appropriateness of effects, permanence of results, and the various materials that have proved themselves by the test of time, but the artist is no longer limited or confined to any single method or technique as were the painters of the past. All the accepted methods are available, and each is appreciated as a means of creating acceptable works of art; the styles of every age and every country now have their influences on our art, and their materials and techniques as well can be applied to our own purposes.

The use of entirely new materials or of any innovations that can be applied to our modern developments in art proceeds rather slowly; we are still dependent on the traditional or time-tested methods of the past, and only a few of the modern innovations have been admitted to the lists of materials in widespread use. New processes that employ radically new materials and procedures have remained in the experimental stage and, at the present writing, our artistsÍ materials, although supplemented by vastly improved grades of raw materials and a few new resins and pigments, have not progressed to any very considerable extent since Rembrandt's time. Recent developments in paints with binders composed of synthetic resins are discussed in the section Synthetic Mediums. [pp. 132-135]

[Mayer, Ralph. The Painter's Craft. An Introduction to Artist's Methods and Materials. Revised and updated by Steven Sheehan, Director of the Ralph Mayer Center, Yale University School of Art. New York: Penquin Group. 1948. 1991.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].