The Impact of Oils –
a Brief History

Oil paint is a medium that is almost synonymous in the public mind with the idea of fine art and painting. Any artist working in oil paint is able to draw on centuries of tradition, technique and cultural capital. The great masers of the Western Tradition – Titian, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Delacroix - worked in oils. However, our reverence for the great paintings of the past and our familiarity with them hides the true revolutionary nature of oil paints and the explosion of artistic creativity they allowed.

Developed around the 12th century, oil paint consists of pigments suspended or dissolved in drying oil, most commonly linseed oil. Due to their durability, they were primarily used for decoration and it was not until the 15th century that they were adopted as an artistic medium. The prevalent medium used by artists up to that point was egg tempera. Colors were often more muted and the paint itself dried very fast, forcing the artist to complete a section at high speed before the pigments dried. Oil paint changed the way that artists worked and thought about their practice. Oils offered an intensity and unprecedented luminosity of color. The oil base made them incredibly versatile – diluted, the paint would still dry relatively rapidly, and layers of translucent color could be built up with glazes and washes – undiluted, the paint dried slowly and allowed the artist the freedom to come back to a piece and carry on working days, weeks or even months later. 

Versatility is perhaps the single thing that has kept oil paint and therefore oil paintings novel, relevant and fantastically creative since the Renaissance. It was at first the Dutch painters who responded to the increased demand for realism in paintings with oil paint, the drying time allowing for a subtle development of tone, the seamless ability of the oil paint to blend allowing for the most subtle of surfaces and its translucent unctuousness able to capture the qualities of flesh so well. Oils paintings examined today under x-ray analysis offer up the secrets of their creators.  For example, we found that Rembrandt sometimes used a pallet-knife to apply paint and even used his fingers to blend.

After the development of photography, oil paint allowed the practice of painting to transform and reinvent itself, embracing new technology that created novel pigments and paint tubes to paint bright scenes outdoors, and allowing artists to do away with representation entirely and to work with heavy impasto, building and almost sculpting in soft, malleable color. In the 20th century alone, oil paintings have been at the forefront of many movements – Surrealism, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism.

Oil paintings are still wildly popular today. They offer permanence, durability and a quality of color and finish that is hard to replicate. The iconic resonance of the images created in oils has changed the way we think about art forever.

We invite you to view our wide selection of Contemporary Oil Paintings for Sale.

This article was written for ARTmine by Tilla Crowne.

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