The History, Definitions, and Techniques of Oil
with emphasis on its development in the 15th century
A BRIEF HISTORY
From the time of the Greeks the chemistry of art and the chemistry of medicine were
closely related and the recipes used for both were frequently written in the same books.
These recipes were kept throughout the early centuries of Christianity by monks until
their broader use outside of the monasteries in the middle ages. The use of drying oils is
recorded among these recipes, listing walnut oil, poppy oil, hempseed oil, castor oil, and
linseed oil as varnishes to seal pictures and protect them from water. Adequately
thickened, they became resinous in and of themselves and therefore worked as varnishes
quite well. Later on, yellow pigments were added to the oil and it was spread over tin
foil to mimic the look of gold leaf, but at less cost. And as early as the thirteenth
century oil was used for painting details over tempera pictures. Cennini describes the
preparation and use of oils in painting on all surfaces.
Oils were purified and bleached in the sun, and drying time was decreased by the
addition of metallic oxides such as Litharge or White Lead. Other methods of preparing oil
by boiling and mixing with various substances is recorded throughout the middle ages, into
the Renaissance, and beyond.
The procedures involved in making a usefully fluid medium with which to paint entire
pictures in great detail were perfected by the brothers Van Eyck in the first half of the
fifteenth century. From these Flemish artists and their students it is rumored that the
new methods were spread to Italy by Antonella da Messina where, "once adapted to
Italian taste, subjects, and dimensions, (the new way of painting) was received with
|Alla Prima Painting
|Painting, usually from life, in a
direct manner: Completing a painting in a single session or while the paint is still wet.
In past eras used primarily as a means of sketching, but which became a means of producing
finished works of art by the impressionists.
|A method of painting that
represents boldly contrasting lighting, usually drawing highlights out of a dark scene.
Also an element of this effect in any picture.
|The degree of brilliance of color
away from neutral value. [color saturation]
|Two superimposed paint layers of
distinct color covering a sized panel or canvas as a surface upon which to paint.
|Containing a large amount of oil
|The rule of painting in layers in
which each successive layer of paint should have more oil than the preceeding layer. By
increasing the oil content, top layers have increasing degrees of flexibility, reducing
the risk of cracking or flaking.
|Gypsum (calcium sulphate) mixed
with animal glue and applied as a ground to a wood substrate. Used in Southern Europe
(primarily Spain and Italy). Northern Europeans used a similar ground of chalk (calcium
carbonate) in a glue binder.
A first, coarse layer was
known as gesso grosso. While a smooth top layer which could be polished to a fine
tooth was called gesso sottile. Some later artists applied only one layer of gesso
|A film of transparent color laid
over a dried underpainting.
|Monochromatic painting usually in
various tones of gray. Traditionally the underpainting of a work, where local color is
applied over the grisaille as opaque, semi-opaque or transparent color. Often shadows are
colored with transparent colors and highlights are built up with increasing thickness of
|The primary surface on which
color is applied. Usually refers to an opaque coating rather than the support.
Traditionally opaque white oil priming on canvas and chalk or gypsum mixed with animal
glue (gesso) on wood panel. White acrylic polymer can be used on either surface.
If a colored isolation layer (imprimatura) is used as the primary surface,
it can be considered the ground. (see also "Toned Ground")
|The lightest tone in a painting.
|The simple color of a substance,
for example: red, bluish red, or yellow-red.
|Painting thickly with a bristle
brush or palette knife in order to create surface texture.
|An isolation layer consisting of
pigments bound in an oil medium and applied over chalk or gesso grounds to prevent the
medium in the subsequent paint layers from being absorbed by the ground. Could be bright
to dark, transparent or non-transparent. Color provides a middle tone from which one can
quickly move between lights and darks to produce a full value painting. Should be mid-tone
or lighter -- extremely dark underpainting can show through top layers as the work ages,
especially when using lead white.
In modern usage on oil
primed canvas, "imprimatura" is often used to describe a transparent stain of
oil color that is applied to the entire surface to create a unifying midtone.
Most common colors: brown, earth-red, grey, or grey blue.
|Resistant to fading when exposed
to sunlight. Absolute measurement in artists' pigments; relative measurement when applied
to industrial coatings applications. Example: a ten-year house paint would be considered
lightfast if it resisted fading for ten years. Artists' pigments are judged in terms of
|The true or actual color of an
(as compared to the color effect it produces when viewed as part of a whole
composition or when influenced by light or atmospheric conditions in nature or by the
technique and intentions of the painter in a work of art.)
|A liquid additive used to control
the application properties of paint, its drying time, and the elasticity of paint film
when dry. In oil painting this usually contains combinations of drying oils, varnishes,
balsams, essential oils or solvents, and driers.
|Indicating the three-dimensional
form of an object by the appropriate distribution of different tones. Creating the
illusion of volume by painting the effects of light and shadow on form.
|A preliminary painting in tones
of one color. Overpainted with transparent, semi-opaque, and / or opaque color. See
|The implement upon which a
painter holds or mixes his colors. Or a selected assortment of colors chosen for use in a
|The visibility of line or color
through the increasingly transparent overpainting which was originally used to conceal it.
Ghost image. A characteristic of linseed oil since its refractive index increases with
|An internal molecular realignment
brought about by external force which changes the properties of a substance and increases
its molecular weight without the addition of any new ingredients.
Example: the external force of oxygen upon a drying oil.
|Prime / Primer
|To cover a surface with a
preparatory coat of color. A first coat or layer of paint, size, etc., given to any
surface as a base, sealer, or the like. Often used to describe a pigment and oil (paint)
ground applied to cloth such as canvas or linen. (see "Ground" above).
In 15th century Europe, the guilds of St. Luke recognized the profession of the panel
maker as an independent craft within the guild. Artists could purchase panels "primed
and prepared" with an imprimatura from such workshops, eliminating this slow and
dirty job from their studios.
|Scraping or scrubbing or dragging
a thin layer of lighter opaque or semi-opaque color over a dark underpainting with a
bristle brush, allowing the underpainting to show through.
|The degree of lightness or
darkness of a color.
|Where color is mixed with white
as a primer to provide a uniform opaque ground.
|Preliminary painting, over which
successive layers of color are added. Can be monochrome or colored.
|Degree of lightness and darkness.
|Protective surface film imparting a glossy or
matt surface appearance to a painting.
|The liquid into which a pigment
is ground in order to turn the dry powdered pigment into a liquid paint. The carrier of
Notes from Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters, Vol.
1, (formerly titled: Materials for a History of Oil Painting) by Sir Charles Lock
Eastlake, one-time President of the Royal Academy of England. Originally published in
1847. Republished by Dover Books 1960. [Currently out of print.]
Definitions and technical information also acquired from The Random House College
Dictionary, Revised Edition;
The 1999 WorldBook Encyclopedia CD-ROM;
The Artists' Handbook, the complete practical guide to the tools, techniques and
materials of painting, drawing and printmaking
by Ray Smith (ISBN 0-394-55585-6)
The Painter's Guide to Studio Methods and Materials by Reed Kay (ISBN
0-13-647941-3 and 0-13-647958-8) [currently out of print]
Artists' Handbook of Materials and Techniques
by Ralph Mayer, 5th Edition, Revised and Updated.
A Handbook of their History and Characteristics Vol. 1
Robert L. Feller, Editor. Published by the Cambridge University Press in cooperation with
the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (ISBN 0-521-30374-5, and 0-89468-086-2)
Industrial Organic Pigments:
Production, Properties and Applications
W. Herbst and K. Hunger (ISBN: 3527288368)
Looking Through Paintings:
The Study of Painting Techniques and Materials in Support of Art Historical Research.
Editor: Erma Hermens - Associate editors: Annemiek Ouwerkerk and Nicola Costaras.
(ISBN 90 6801 575 3 and 1 873132 56 5)
And through phone discussions with representatives of pigment manufacturers Ciba
Specialty Corp. and Engelhard Corp.,
Ron Harmon, paint chemist for Daniel Smith Artists' Materials of Seattle, WA
Chemistry professors at Indiana/Purdue University, Fort Wayne Campus
Mark David Gottsegen, Chairman, Artists Paints and Related Materials, Department of Art,
University of N.C., Greensborough, and
Catherine Metzger, Conservator at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
History, Definitions, and Techniques | Drying Oils and Mediums
Resins and Varnishes | Pigments
Past |Pigment Chemistry
Supports for Painting | Grounds on Canvas
| Techniques of Past Masters
Discussion with National Gallery Conservator
Info from: SANDERS-STUDIOS.COM