Oil Paint Information

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For thousands of years making paint involved gums and other easily obtained natural substances that were mixed with water and red and yellow clays or soot from the fire that was pulverized between rocks to make the paint when mixed with water. Durability was always a problem and only work done in protected caves and rock overhangs was able to survive more than a short time. Wax and egg were both found to be good vehicles but finicky in use and requiring high levels of skill. Fresco was durable but even more difficult. It wasn’t until the late middle ages that the qualities of oil paint were discovered in Northern Europe and paint, as we know it, was born. All that remained was the development of the plethora of beautiful pigments we are familiar with today.

A basic rule of oil paint application is ‘fat over lean’. This means that each additional layer of paint should be a bit oilier than the layer below, to allow proper drying. As a painting gets additional layers, the paint must get oilier (leaner to fatter) or the final painting will crack and peel.

The artist most often uses a brush to apply the paint. Brushes are made from a variety of fibers to create different effects. For example, brushes made with hogs bristle might be used for bolder strokes. Brushes made from miniver, which is squirrel fur, might be used for finer details. Sizes of brushes also create different effects. For example, a Round is a pointed brush used for detail work. Bright, Flat or Filbert brushes are used to apply broad swaths of color. The artist might also apply paint with a palette knife, which is a flat, metal blade. A palette knife may also be used to remove paint from the canvas when necessary. A variety of unconventional tools, such as rags, sponges, and cotton swabs, may be used. Some artists even paint with their fingers.

Most artists paint in layers, a method first perfected in the Egg tempera painting technique, and adapted in Northern Europe for use with linseed oil paints. The first coat or underpainting is laid down first, painted normally with turpentine thinned paint. This layer helps to ‘tone’ the canvas, and cover the white of the gesso. Many artists use this layer to sketch out the composition. This layer can be adjusted before moving forward, which is an advantage over the ‘cartooning’ method used in Fresco technique. After this layer dries, one way the artist might then proceed is by painting a mosaic of color swatches, working from darkest to lightest. The borders of the colors are blended together when the mosaic is completed. This layer is then left to dry before applying details. The artist may apply several layers of details. After it is dry, the artist will apply glaze to the painting, which is a thin, transparent layer to seal the surface. A classical work might take weeks or even months to layer the paint, but the most skilled early artists, such as Jan van Eyck, also used Wet-on-wet painting for some details. Artists in later periods such as the impressionist era often used this more widely, blending the wet paint on the canvas without following the Renaissance layering and glazing method. This method is also called “Alla Prima”. When the image is finished and dried for up to a year, an artist would often seal the work with a layer of varnish, typically made from damar gum crystals dissolved in turpentine. Contemporary artists increasingly resist the varnishing of their work, preferring that the surfaces remain varnish-free indefinitely. Obviously this is optional.

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