Oil Paints and Art
History

Oil paints, brought to Europe by way of merchants and explorers from the East during the Middle Ages, are simply dry pigments bound with oil. Remarkably basic in formation given their placement in the hierarchy of artistic mediums, the color and texture of oil paints is manipulated by the balance of oil and pigment in the concoction. Given this versatility, artists could achieve an astounding level of realism in their works, seducing patrons with their ability to dexterously achieve a timeless likeness that lasts on canvas for centuries.

Oil paints in portraiture; the legacy of da Vinci

Perhaps the most famous example of an oil portrait is the quintessential Renaissance work, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506). da Vinci stunned his contemporaries with his skillful, sensitive use of oil to encapsulate honest human emotion and realism in landscape. With his subtle use of oil, da Vinci gingerly cascaded light throughout the work so that his sitter seems to glow from within. The sitter’s curls softly rest around her face, and her richly velvety clothes seem almost tangible. A peaceful, golden silence converges with the sitter’s notorious, enigmatically knowing smile, which exudes a sense of playful calm to the viewer. With a path snaking through rough, mountainous terrain behind his sitter, da Vinci nimbly realized a depth never before seen in two-dimensional artistic endeavors. Given his mastery of and indeed, contributions to, Renaissance science, this adroitness of perspective is hardly surprising to us with the benefit of hindsight, but it astonished his sixteenth-century contemporaries. Mona Lisa’s sumptuously crafted features have intrigued viewers for five hundred years, and the work survives as a testament to da Vinci’s cunning use of oil paints to arrest a physical and emotional likeness for eternity.

Oil paints in modern art; Pollock’s development

Many artists throughout the centuries can claim to be da Vinci’s heirs in oil painting portraiture, but perhaps the next most significant contribution to oil painting portraiture came almost halfway into the twentieth century. At the close of World War II, Americans and particularly New Yorkers were ascending in artistic innovation and reputation as Europe staggered out of years of physical and political destruction. A tough, young painter from the West, Jackson Pollock, stumbled into the New York art world, taking his cues from his mentor, Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton. But Pollock was amateurish at best in figurative work; indeed, the works that survive from this period are tortured, tepid works that betray none of Pollock’s innate talent for oil painting. By the end of the 1940s, however, Pollock had broken free of Benton’s teaching, and literally shattered almost every tenant of painting itself. Laying his canvases on the floor of his studio, Pollock dripped oil paint from his brush in scattered, seemingly haphazard dribbles. These ostensibly chaotic trickles of paint mirrored Pollock’s inward bedlam, and fascinated the world. Misinterpreted by some as random outpourings of drunken stupor, Pollock’s works are in fact carefully crafted in composition so as to mesmerize the viewer. Works such as Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 (1952) betray Pollock’s subtle, expert compositional techniques after careful study. Needing balance, Pollock proficiently placed blue bars over the work, a prudent method in creating a poised equilibrium. However understood, Pollock’s works were self-portraits of sorts, a picture of his untoward, tumultuous psyche, and as such spoke eloquently to a twentieth century fraught with turmoil.

Oil paints in the present; still valued and admired

In the post-war years, acrylic paints quickly assumed popularity over oils due to the ease with which they can be used. However, oil paint continues to be seen as in some ways maintaining a primacy over acrylics, partly because of their historical legacy. Oil painting portraiture is valued in terms of permanence, and delights viewers in realistic depictions of fleeting periods in time.

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This article was written for ARTmine by Leah Triplett.

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