Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Take a trip to a museum and you’ll likely find yourself face to face with oil paintings. Many of the most famous and iconic works of art known worldwide are oil on canvas paintings. The Mona Lisa is a prime example of an oil painting. Why were oil paints so popular with artists? They are vibrant, long lasting and there is a much broader variety of colors available to artists. The slow drying properties of oil paints made them much easier to change if a mistake was made. If an artist changed their mind they didn’t have to scrap the entire project. Also, wet on wet techniques made shading and creating an illusion of depth much easier to achieve.
Oils paints have been in use by artists for centuries, there is evidence of oil paints in use in ancient Egypt. The earliest known examples of oil-based paints are from around 650 AD found in caves in Afghanistan.
The ancient paints were created from animal fats and soil, among other things, creating the first examples of oil paints. Artists originally preferred using tempera paints, paints created using eggs and other quicker drying bases. Oil-based paints were typically used in preserving wood, and were largely used to decorate churches, boats and other things. The downside to using tempera paints was largely in the lack of variety of color and dullness of the colors. Tempera paintings were more likely to crack and didn’t stand the test of time. The popularity of tempera paints was mostly because it was so quick drying and easy to use.
How They Are Created
Oil paints are typically created by using a color pigment suspended in oil that dries, Linseed oil is among the most popular choices. Drying oils, characterized by high levels of polyunsaturated fats harden over time. The siccative (drying) property of oils can be placed into three simple categories. Drying oils which dry relatively quickly, semi-drying oils which maintain a shinier appearance and take much longer to dry and nondrying oils. Linseed oil is one of the most prevalent oils used for oil paints along with walnut and poppyseed oils.
Flowers, stones (precious and semi-precious) and even human bone were dried and ground into fine powders and methodically mixed with oil to form a creamy consistency for needed color for a painting. These items and many others are just the tip of the color creating iceberg. Many artists are credited with inventing their own color pallets as well as paving the way for future artists to use oil paints more easily. The old masters would have to create their own pallets from scratch. Many of these colors created in the early days of oil paints are no longer available for various reasons. Some of the colors are banned for ethical reasons, like colors that used Ivory or human bone. Many of the original colors in a master painters pallet were also highly toxic.
Who Used Them?
Many of the artists thought of as “the old masters” used oil paints. The artist Jan Van Eyck is considered by some to be the inventor of, or at least the artist who introduced, modern oil paints in Europe around 1410. Many of the old masters are credited with introducing new techniques, styles and other innovations in oil painting. Among those artists is Leonardo Da Vinci. Mostly recognized for his paintings like The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and countless other amazing works of art. DaVinci is also known as a great inventor. Leonardo DaVinci is credited with innovations in mixing and creating his oil colors. Artist Antonello Da Messina Is credited with creating “cooked” paints that dried more evenly and had a creamier texture. Matisse, Monet, Warhol, Okeeffe, and many other great artists have been working with oil paints with great success. The vibrant colors mixed with a master's brushstrokes bring history to life in the form of art.
Oil paints created from a variety of chemicals, plants and other mediums led to a lot of experimentation. There are several colors of paint that are slightly radioactive. Some colors have arsenic and lead in them. The toxic nature of oil paints is based on the ingredients used to make them. Many of the toxic elements of these paints have to be inhaled or consumed to actually cause any harm. If you have any familiarity with oil paints then you will understand that they are thick and do not typically have any odors to them. It can be safely assumed that inhaling the toxic chemicals in your paints would be rather difficult. Turpentine and other products used for thinning the paints, however, are another matter, they do emit fumes. The fumes from these products are bad for your health but with proper ventilation, the potential health risks can be minimized. Remember to use thinners sparingly and keep the lids on the containers as well to reduce the fumes released.
Over the centuries with scientific advancements, the toxic ingredients used to make paints were understood to be bad for your health. Now with the help of science, many of the riskier pigments used by the masters have been replaced with healthier synthetic alternatives. Many artists today however still have a preference for the color and richness of these older slightly poisonous paints. Luckily for those artists, the toxicity levels of the paints are actually quite low and cadmium and cobalt while still toxic in large doses are survivable at least. So remember to paint in well-ventilated space and please don’t eat the paints.
The durability of oil paints as well as its vibrancy and resistance to cracking when drying has bolstered its popularity. They weren't a very portable or easy medium to work with but they gave artists a chance to work with vibrant colors and create their own pigments. Before the invention of the small metal tubes full of paints, the artist typically couldn’t buy ready-made paints. The average artist had to store any unused portions of pain that they had in pig bladders, clay pots or glass jars. These storage methods were not just difficult to transport but your paints were likely to dry out and become useless before you could use them.
Artist John Goffe Rand got tired of dried out paints and the struggle to transport them without disaster. Thanks to Rand and his ingenuity the paint tube was born. In 1841 Rand was inspired to put the precious oil paints in tin tubes sealed with a cap. Portable, storable and easily mass produced. Now artist could take their work with them into the field, literally, without the hassle of dried out, spilled or spoiled paints.
Some historians believe that it was Rand’s innovation that made way for impressionist artists. The tubes of premixed, portable paints made spontaneity more realistic. Now an artist in the field could have as many colors as they wanted on hand at all times without the waste and frustration of having open containers or bulky pots to carry.