Why Do Artists Use Oil Paint?
Guest Post by Megan Mayfield, MOA Marketing Intern
Oil paint most likely has been used for art as far back as the 7th century, but it didn’t become a widely used medium in Europe until the 15th century when Flemish painter Jan van Eyck created his oil paint formula. Before the use of oil paint, artists used tempera paint. Unlike oil paint, tempera paint was made by mixing pigment with egg yolks. The resulting mixture dried fast and made it hard to get fine details. The colors were often dull and faded. Oil paint changed all of that.
Oil paint is made by suspending pigment in oil, usually linseed oil. The resulting mixture maintains a vibrant color and dries slowly. This allowed artists time to paint small details and fix their painting as they worked on it. Because of the luminosity of oil paints, dramatic use of lighting that characterized much of the Renaissance and Baroque paintings became possible.
After the initial oil paint revolution, it became the go-to medium for painters. By the 19th century though, something new was needed to help the medium maintain its popularity. Many artists hand mixed their oil paints in their studios. The process was often time-consuming and had to be done daily because once made, it didn’t store well. Traveling with oil paints was just as difficult. Artists would fill small pouches, or bladders, with their paints when they traveled and then would perforate the bladder when they needed paint. Even though this worked for a while, the paint would still eventually dry out.
However, in 1841, American artist John G. Rand introduced the paint tube. Instead of bladders, paint could be stored in metal tubes. The tubes didn’t burst during travel and could be tightly and securely sealed to prevent the paint from drying out. The invention of the paint tube eventually helped fuel the Impressionist painters as they traveled outdoors to do the majority of their painting. The tubing process allowed for greater color selection and a longer shelf life for paint.
Today, oil paint is still one of the most popular artistic mediums. Because of the wide expanse of colors, the ease of use, the layering ability, and the transportability of the medium, oil paints are here to stay.