Whenever thinking of paintings, most of us often start by imagining famous oil paintings. This is probably because most of the well known Renaissance period artists such as Jan van Eyck, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt worked with oil paints. Their genius continues to influence thousands of modern artists, (and spawned a thriving market of oil painting reproductions).
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Jan van Eyck, known for his realistic portraits such as “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434), is credited with mastering early oil paint on canvas. The slow drying time of the medium allowed van Eyck to hone in on small, naturalistic details, such as delicate facial features and mirror reflections, as well as blend different pigments together.
Leonardo da Vinci also utilized oil paint to create delicate facial details in works such as “Mona Lisa” (1503-1506). French Impressionist Claude Monet is well known for his series of outdoor oil paintings of water lilies, haystacks, poplar trees, and the Rouen Cathedral.
Monet and other Impressionists quickly layered on multiple colors of paint to capture fleeting moments as quickly as possible. Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh added thick layers of colorful paint in works such as “Starry Night” (1889) and “Sunflowers” (1888).
Many modernist painters created original oil paintings that emphasized the materiality of the work itself. Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich reduced subjects to flat, abstract forms in their respective works “Composition VII” (1913) and “Black Suprematic Square” (1915).
Abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko also emphasized the materiality and color of the medium in his color-block paintings such as “No. 61 (Rust and Blue” (1953).
Other notable oil painters include Titian, Raphael, Diego Velazquez, Francisco Goya, Jean-Honore Fragonard, Francis Bacon, Marc Chagall, Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Lucian Freud, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, and Jackson Pollock.
There are a number of oil painting techniques artists typically use. Early oil paintings were created on wooden panels, but cheaper and more versatile canvas supports soon became the norm.
Artists were initially limited to painting in their studios, as they had to mix oil paints from raw pigments for use. The availability of oil paint packaged in tubes in the 1800s facilitated this mixing process and enabled artists to work in other settings. The French Impressionists, for example, took to painting quickly in outdoor environments.
One of the most common oil painting techniques is a mixed technique in which the artist paints the canvas in layers, also called glazes. Early Renaissance Flemish painters first utilized this technique by applying a coat of paint to cover and tone the white canvas surface. The artist would allow the layer to dry before sketching their composition onto the canvas. They would then paint the surface in a series of color patches before blending the pigments together. Impressionist painters often used the alla prima, or wet-on-wet, method. Because they were concerned with painting outdoors within a shorter amount of time, they blended wet paint together before letting any layers dry.
Other artists, most notably Vincent Van Gogh, used the impasto technique, creating oil paintings by adding thick layers of paint to the canvas. This technique adds texture to the work and usually lays bare marks of the brushstrokes made to produce it.
Several abstract expressionist and contemporary artists are also known for blending oil painting techniques to create deep layers of bold colors in their works.
Oil painting has evolved since its origin in fifth century Asia and Afghanistan, where natural plant oils were used to decorate cave complexes. In Europe, oil pigments were initially used to varnish egg-based tempera paintings.
By the 15th century, it was an artist’s paint of choice for its vibrancy, blendability, and longevity and it remained so for centuries afterward. In fact, oils gradually replaced other methods of painting in Renaissance Europe, mainly the Netherlands and Italy.
Many of the great masters of painting--from Leonardo Da Vinci to Lucien Freud--used oils to create their masterpieces. Even after the invention and popularization of quicker-drying acrylic paints in the first half of the 20th Century, many artists still choose to create original oil paintings for the medium’s inherent, time-tested properties.