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The Evolution of Oil Color

The Evolution of Oil Color - A Brief History of the Development, Origins and Characteristics of Oil Paint - by Sally Drew

History of Oils

Oil paint developed over a long period of time, and only came into popular use in the Renaissance - a time in history that greatly influenced the art of painting, sculpture, architecture and literature throughout all of Europe.

The early 1400s, often referred to as the "Tempera Age", were the setting for the invention. Tempera, made from finely ground pigments mixed (tempered") with diluted egg yolk, produced a thin, tough, quick drying paint film. The color surface was very flat, darks tended to look muddy and it was impossible to blend values and tones or develop dimension and depth.

The inadequacies of tempera led artists in search of new varnish mixtures. They were looking for a technique that would more closely replicate skin tones and depth, a medium that could model the effect of velvet drapery, and capture the glow and dimension of fine jewels and gold.

Historians have traced the discovery back to the Flemish master, Jan van Eyck, and the Italian painter, Antonello da Messina. Vasari, in the introduction to his work entitled Lives (1550), was the first writer to relate the events that led to the discovery of Van Eyck's oil painting techniques. He wrote: "After many experiments with various mixtures [Van Eyck] found at last that linseed oil and nut oil, among the many I tested, were more drying than all the rest". From these therefore, boiled with other mixtures, he obtained the varnish which he and indeed all the painters of the world had so long desired. Further experiments showed him that when the colours were mixed with these oils they were not only water-resistant but had more luster without the aid of any varnish; and besides, what seemed more wonderful to him, the colours blended better than in tempera.

Many of 15th and 16th century paintings used both tempera and oil extensively, and intermixed the two-oil added to the tempera medium, pure pigment and oil, and works in tempera partially overpainted in oils.

The movement from tempera to the preferred oil medium went hand in hand with a great increase in the number of outstanding Renaissance artists. Three generations of painters developed oil painting to its fullest: Raphael, Tintoretto, and Rubens. Working in thin translucent films they developed light colored underpaintings that produced outstanding dimension. Oils allowed them to develop rich tonal colors and shading from light to dark-creating outstanding atmospheric effects and developing fine details. Above all they could rework the painting and dramatically change the composition - there seemed to be no limit to the range of effects that the oil paint medium could obtain.

During this age of discovery, substantial differences existed in the oils that were created. For example, the northern Italian painters favored the use of walnut oil, which archivists believe contributed to the poor preservation of their works. Rubens' large scale works, produced by production teams, greatly adhered to and advanced the use of underpainting. Rembrandt used stand oil, a heavier polymerized oil produced by heating and holding linseed oil to 525-575 degrees F as an ingredient in his oil paint medium, resulting in a medium that was virtually non-yellowing.

And the sparkle and glow of El Greco's colors have been attributed to paints that were consistent and resisted flow, paints that must have had a fair amount of viscosity.

Prior to the 18th century, pigments were relatively unchanged. Tremendous advances in chemistry were made in England, Germany and France from 1780 to 1860. The discovery of new pigments, along with synthetic replacements for many of the rare organic and inorganic pigments, greatly influenced and renewed the artist's palette. Zinc White, Aureolin or Cobalt Yellow, Cadmium Red and Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Prussian Blue, Mars Yellow, and Ultramarine Blue and Violet were some of the most exciting and revolutionary new pigments to emerge.

The world was rapidly changing. The artist was becoming more inventive and experimental, and for the first time the supply of works of art exceeded demand. The more artists worked the more they became unable to make their own materials, and in the mid-1800s large color manufacturers began to emerge. Artists no longer had an understanding of their materials, and lacked the opportunity to be involved in the manufacturing process. They began to rely on specialized colormen or manufacturers. This juncture in history radically changed the character of oil paint forever.

The present standard as to what constitutes an "ideal" oil color paste goes back to this period. Tube paints were more buttery, less transparent and thicker, creating an appealing new texture that allowed the artist to create thick relief effects. The short bristle brush and the palette knife soon replaced the soft brush. The demand was for oils that exhibited uniform working characteristics and dried at relatively the same times.

The basic differences between the formulations of the old masters and those of today lie in the nature of the oil medium and the pigments themselves. In the last 150 years of manufacturing, fine artists' oils have improved greatly. Twentieth century discoveries in organic chemistry have contributed significantly to the development of outstanding lightfast permanent pigments. The main advantage the synthetic has over the natural organic pigment is that the physical form and the shade of the product can be controlled much more predictably. Phthalocyanine Greens and Blues, Hansa Yellows, Manganese Blue, Quinacridone Gold, Red, and Violet are just a few of the highly lightfast, brilliant pigmentary colors to be found among the synthetic organics. The list of synthetic pigments manufactured in the United States grew tremendously in the 30 year period from 1940 to 1970, and continues to expand with the growth of organic chemistry.

There are thousands of different pigments known to the scientific world. However only approximately 200 of these are considered to be the purest, most concentrated grades suitable for use in the manufacturing of artists' paints and many of these are new and relatively unknown to the art community. In selecting pigments at Daniel Smith we look for those pigments that have a reliable permanent lightfast record, that minimize the health risks to both our employees and the artist, and produce paints that perform well.

The difference in the leading brands on the market today is largely a question of pigment selection and formulation. When selecting your materials it's important to look for brands that make a disclosure of the pigments used, and an assurance of their lightfastness. There are three basic grades of artists' oils. The highly pigmented grade is styled after the traditional handmade paints of the early 18th century. It is a richly pigmented, thick concentrated oil, made principally with lightfast permanent pure dry pigment and a natural drying linseed oil - a formulation that allows the nature of the pigment to shine through. Brands such as Blockx Belgian Oils, Old Holland Classic Oilcolours and Dan Smith Autograph Series oils fall into this category.

The second and largest category is the artists' grade paints. This popular grade is a reliable, uniformly consistent performer. The pigment performance in an artists' grade oil is enhanced or changed with additives so that the entire line has a uniform consistency, is buttery and shorter, and dries uniformly. Artists' grade brands include Talens Rembrandt Extra-Fine Oil Colors, Lefranc & Bourgeois 104 Fine Oils, Grumbacher Pre-Tested Oils, Holbein Artists' Oils, Winsor & Newton Artists' Oils, and our Daniel Smith Original Oil Colors.

Student grade oils are produced, as the name suggests, for the newcomer to oil painting. They are principally manufactured with pigments that are less expensive, and a greater percentage of filler is used, creating an economical alternative to the artists' grade paints. Some student grade paints are Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colors, Grumbacher Academy Oil Color, and Talens Amsterdam Oil Colors.