Oil Paint: Medium of Masters

By January 12, 2018 Uncategorized

Oil is my favorite medium to paint with. I love everything about it. I love the smell, the mess, and the way it glows when freshly applied to the canvas. Even though I am allergic to the paint thinner and I cringe every time I pay $8 for a three-ounce tube of ultramarine blue, I will never give up my oils.

The History of Oil Paint

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

The practice of mixing pigments with an oil has been in existence for hundreds of years. Oil paints, as recognized now, were developed in the 15th century by Jan van Eyck. Jan van Eyck was an early Renaissance painter from Belgium.  He discovered that by mixing pigments with linseed oil, the drying time of the paint would decrease dramatically. This allowed artists to build up their paintings in layers which provides a heightened depth and realism. Throughout the Renaissance, artists continued to make changes to the oil paint recipe.

Mummy Paint Anyone?

Another improvement the Renaissance brought was increased access to raw materials to produce pigments for the paint. Pigments are the colored ingredients mixed with the oil to create paint. Unlike today, there were no synthetic ways to make colors. With the increase in Renaissance trade, new and more materials could be brought from all around the globe. Cadmium red was made from mercury, ultramarine blue was made out of the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, and an earthy brown was made from the bones of mummy’s from Egypt! Today many natural ingredients to make oil paint are no longer used as they are either unsafe or not cost effective. Ultramarine blue is made synthetically today but you will still pay a higher price because it was made in the past out of an expensive material. Why? You tell me…


Until 1841, artists stored their paints in bags made of pig bladders or in glass bottles. These storage containers were not airtight or convenient to carry around. American portrait painter John G. Rand had the brilliant idea to store oil paint in a tin tube with a cover that could be screwed on and off. This small change revolutionized the way painters could work. No longer were painters forced to work in their studios. The Impressionist painters loved this as it allowed them to paint anywhere from the cafe to the countryside.

Oil Paint Today

Today oil paint is not as popular as it was during the Renaissance or following years. Most colleges still train future painters with oil paints and many of the top portrait painters use oils. Some artists choose to make their own oil paints just like Jan van Eyck. I feel honored to work with a medium that has such a fascinating history. I like to think da Vinci and I would be able to talk oil paint over a cup of coffee with perfect ease. Let me know in the comments below what your favorite medium is and why.

Here is a quick video showing an artist making oil paints.