A Brief History and Explanation of Oil Painting

A Brief History and Explanation of Oil Painting

Oil is one of the oldest painting mediums which still sees frequent use in painting today but it has not always been as accessible as it currently is. Oil painting is synonymous with the renaissance period, impressionist artists and more recently Bob Ross with his happy little trees, and with the advent of new technologies over the years oil paint has remained a popular choice for artists. So why has oil paint endured when other techniques fell out of style? Let us take a brief look into the history of oil painting from its earliest uses to its most recent developments.

A long time ago

The oldest oil paintings found to date are in the Afghan region of Bamiyan and are murals painted on cave walls depicting Buddhist monks praying (See image above). Analysis of the murals found layers of the preserved paint to contain oils, most likely based on walnut or poppyseed which were common binders for pigment. This mural is dated to around 650 AD meaning that oil paints were used for artistic purposes for a longer time than we first thought but they would not see widespread use in Europe until the Renaissance period (15th to 16th century throughout Europe).

During the mid-15th century, the Early Netherlandish Painters rose to prominence with such names as Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch who pioneered the use of oil paints for their slow drying qualities which allowed for a greater degree of control over the paint application. The slower drying time meant it was easier to create blends with greater subtlety than other paints available at the time. This style of painting spread gradually to Italy then throughout Europe and within a period of 20 years or so painting on wooden panels with oil paint had become the norm for many artists. As adoption of such techniques increased, oil paintings became highly sought after and many artists would travel to paint commissions for wealthy patrons. Paintings of portraits and religious iconography were exceptionally popular and by this point oil painting had established itself largely as the dominant style of painting in Europe and would be for centuries to come.

Birth of the paint tube

John G. Rand was an American painter born on the 27th of January 1801 in the town of Bedford, New Hampshire in the USA.

Self portrait, oil on board, c. 1836

His name is not particularly well known to most artists however he made one of the most important contributions to art during the 19th century when he invented the first paint tube. This sounds like such an insignificant thing nowadays but up until that point paint was still being stored in pig bladders which was not ideal. A pig’s bladder would be filled with paint, tied off with string, punctured and paint would be squeezed out while any waste was discarded as resealing a pig’s bladder was not an easy task. All that changed in 1841 when Rand patented his design for a collapsible tin tube with a screw top cap for the storage of oil paint.

“Without colours in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.” These are the words of Pierre-Auguste Renoir one of the key impressionist painters who attributes success of the impressionist movement to the convenience and portability of paint tubes. Tubes made moving paint safer, storage convenient and also granted painters instant access to a wide variety of colours without having to painstakingly mix each colour by hand on the spot, or plan which exact colours to use beforehand. This immediacy allowed for more spontaneity than had previously been seen in oil painting, artists were able to make choices of which colours to use in the moment which was a cornerstone principle of the impressionist style.

While the impressionist painters met with pushback from more classically minded painters and art scholars of the time, no one could deny the power of the paint tube. The invention of the re-sealable paint tin was invented not too long after.

In more recent times

Oil paint continues to be a versatile and popular medium and with the resurgence in popularity of the late Bob Ross, interest in oil painting has only increased.

Publicity photo of Ross with his easel

The calming TV painting guru introduced new generations to the joy of painting with his easy-going demeanour. A proponent of the wet-on-wet painting style Ross would use thin layers of oil over a slow drying base coat to very swiftly establish blends, tone and layers of colour, a technique long employed by the old masters known as alla prima. A technique he experimented with whilst stationed in Alaska when Ross was still with the US air force, he would paint landscapes using this technique to turn out finished pieces on his half-hour breaks. Encouraged by friends he took to public broadcast TV to share his expertise in “The Joy of Painting”, each episode being an easy to digest half hour lesson. Ross always placed great importance on being happy whilst painting, and always taught with an easy confidence and steady encouraging manner which has led to a fresh following to spring up around him in recent years.

Whilst it can look daunting at first, oil paint has never been more accessible than it is currently. Oil paints are now designed for artists of all skill levels such as Daler’s Student Quality Georgian Oil paints to the bespoke artists quality oils of Michael Harding. Alongside that there is a plethora of instructional content available for free online from tutorial videos, product and technique demonstrations, all the way to the entirety of Bob Ross’ own "Joy of Painting” shown free on YouTube so anyone with zero experience can acquire a basic knowledge of the materials they will require and the fundamentals needed to begin painting.

Jean Bell
Jean Bell


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