Oil paint

Last updated
View of Delft in oil paint, by Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer-view-of-delft.jpg
View of Delft in oil paint, by Johannes Vermeer.

Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil, commonly linseed oil. The viscosity of the paint may be modified by the addition of a solvent such as turpentine or white spirit, and varnish may be added to increase the glossiness of the dried oil paint film. Oil paints were first used in Asia as early as the 7th century AD and can be seen in examples of Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan. Oil-based paints made their way to Europe by the 12th century and were used for simple decoration, but oil painting did not begin to be adopted as an artistic medium there until the early 15th century. Common modern applications of oil paint are in finishing and protection of wood in buildings and exposed metal structures such as ships and bridges. Its hard-wearing properties and luminous colors make it desirable for both interior and exterior use on wood and metal. Due to its slow-drying properties, it has recently been used in paint-on-glass animation. The thickness of the coat has considerable bearing on the time required for drying: thin coats of oil paint dry relatively quickly.



The technical history of the introduction and development of oil paint, and the date of introduction of various additives (driers, thinners) is still—despite intense research since the mid 19th century—not well understood. The literature abounds with incorrect theories and information: in general, anything published before 1952 is suspect. [1] Until 1991 nothing was known about the organic aspect of cave paintings from the Paleolithic era. Many assumptions were made about the chemistry of the binders. Well known Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning is known for saying "Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented". [2]

First recorded use

The oldest known oil paintings are Buddhist murals created circa 650 AD. The works are located in cave-like rooms carved from the cliffs of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, "using walnut and poppy seed oils." [3]

Classical and medieval period

Though the ancient Mediterranean civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Egypt used vegetable oils, there is little evidence to indicate their use as media in painting. Indeed, linseed oil was not used as a medium because of its tendency to dry very slowly, darken, and crack, unlike mastic and wax (the latter of which was used in encaustic painting).

Greek writers such as Aetius Amidenus recorded recipes involving the use of oils for drying, such as walnut, poppy, hempseed, pine nut, castor, and linseed. When thickened, the oils became resinous and could be used as varnish to seal and protect paintings from water. Additionally, when yellow pigment was added to oil, it could be spread over tin foil as a less expensive alternative to gold leaf.

Early Christian monks maintained these records and used the techniques in their own artworks. Theophilus Presbyter, a 12th-century German monk, recommended linseed oil but advocated against the use of olive oil due to its long drying time. Oil paint was mainly used as it is today in house decoration, as a tough waterproof cover for exposed woodwork, especially outdoors.

In the 13th century, oil was used to detail tempera paintings. In the 14th century, Cennino Cennini described a painting technique utilizing tempera painting covered by light layers of oil. The slow-drying properties of organic oils were commonly known to early painters. However, the difficulty in acquiring and working the materials meant that they were rarely used (and indeed the slow drying was seen as a disadvantage [4] ).

Renaissance onwards

As the public preference for naturalism increased, the quick-drying tempera paints became insufficient to achieve the very detailed and precise effects that oil could achieve. The Early Netherlandish painting of the 15th century saw the rise of panel painting purely in oils, or oil painting, or works combining tempera and oil painting, and by the 16th-century easel painting in pure oils had become the norm. The claim by Vasari that Jan van Eyck "invented" oil painting, while it has cast a long shadow, is not correct, but van Eyck's use of oil paint achieved novel results in terms of precise detail and mixing colors wet-on-wet with a skill hardly equaled since. Van Eyck's mixture may have consisted of piled glass, calcined bones, and mineral pigments boiled in linseed oil until they reached a viscous state—or he may have simply used sun-thickened oils (slightly oxidized by Sun exposure).

The Flemish-trained or influenced Antonello da Messina, who Vasari wrongly credited with the introduction of oil paint to Italy, [5] does seem to have improved the formula by adding litharge, or lead (II) oxide. The new mixture had a honey-like consistency and better drying properties (drying evenly without cracking). This mixture was known as oglio cotto—"cooked oil." Leonardo da Vinci later improved these techniques by cooking the mixture at a very low temperature and adding 5 to 10% beeswax, which prevented the darkening of the paint. Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto each may have altered this recipe for their own purposes.

Paint tube

Tubes of various colors. Tubes of paint, artist's paint PNG.png
Tubes of various colors.

The paint tube was invented in 1841 by portrait painter John Goffe Rand, [6] superseding pig bladders and glass syringes [7] as the primary tool of paint transport. Artists, or their assistants, previously ground each pigment by hand, carefully mixing the binding oil in the proper proportions. Paints could now be produced in bulk and sold in tin tubes with a cap. The cap could be screwed back on and the paints preserved for future use, providing flexibility and efficiency to painting outdoors. The manufactured paints had a balanced consistency that the artist could thin with oil, turpentine, or other mediums.

Paint in tubes also changed the way some artists approached painting. The artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no impressionism.” For the impressionists, tubed paints offered an easily accessible variety of colors for their plein air palettes, motivating them to make spontaneous color choices.


Representative component of a drying oil, this particular triester is derived from three unsaturated fatty acids, linoleic (top), alpha-linolenic (middle), and oleic acids (bottom). The order of drying rate is linolenic > linoleic > oleic acid, reflecting their degree of unsaturation. ModelDryingOil.png
Representative component of a drying oil, this particular triester is derived from three unsaturated fatty acids, linoleic (top), alpha-linolenic (middle), and oleic acids (bottom). The order of drying rate is linolenic > linoleic > oleic acid, reflecting their degree of unsaturation.


Traditional oil paints require an oil that always hardens, forming a stable, impermeable film. Such oils are called causative, or drying, oils, and are characterized by high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids. One common measure of the causative property of oils is iodine number, the number of grams of iodine one hundred grams of oil can absorb. Oils with an iodine number greater than 130 are considered drying, those with an iodine number of 115–130 are semi-drying, and those with an iodine number of less than 115 are non-drying. Linseed oil, the most prevalent vehicle for artists' oil paints, is a drying oil.

When exposed to air, oils do not undergo the same evaporation process that water does. Instead, they dry semisolid. The rate of this process can be very slow, depending on the oil.

The advantage of the slow-drying quality of oil paint is that an artist can develop a painting gradually. Earlier media such as egg tempera dried quickly, which prevented the artist from making changes or corrections. With oil-based paints, revising was comparatively easy. The disadvantage is that a painting might take months or years to finish, which might disappoint an anxious patron. Oil paints blend well with each other, making subtle variations of color possible as well as creating many details of light and shadow. Oil paints can be diluted with turpentine or other thinning agents, which artists take advantage of to paint in layers.

There is also another kind of oil paint that is water-mixable, making the cleaning and using process easier and less toxic.


Three oil paints, one of which is mixed with wax Oil paints, one with wax (30791).jpg
Three oil paints, one of which is mixed with wax

The earliest and still most commonly used vehicle is linseed oil, pressed from the seed of the flax plant. Modern processes use heat or steam to produce refined varieties of oil with fewer impurities, but many artists prefer cold-pressed oils. [8] Other vegetable oils such as hemp, poppy seed, walnut, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils may be used as alternatives to linseed oil for a variety of reasons. For example, safflower and poppy oils are paler than linseed oil and allow for more vibrant whites straight from the tube.

Extraction methods and processing

Once the oil is extracted, additives are sometimes used to modify its chemical properties. In this way, the paint can be made to dry more quickly (if that is desired), or to have varying levels of gloss, like Liquin. Modern oils paints can, therefore, have complex chemical structures; for example, affecting resistance to UV. By hand, the process involves first mixing the paint pigment with the linseed oil to a crumbly mass on a glass or marble slab. Then, a small amount at a time is ground between the slab and a glass Muller (a round, flat-bottomed glass instrument with a handgrip). Pigment and oil are ground together 'with patience' until a smooth, ultra-fine paste is achieved. This paste is then placed into jars or metal paint tubes and labeled.


Pigments for sale at a market stall in Goa, India. Indian pigments.jpg
Pigments for sale at a market stall in Goa, India.

The color of oil paint is derived from small particles of colored pigments mixed with the carrier, the oil. Common pigment types include mineral salts such as white oxides: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and the red to yellow cadmium pigments. Another class consists of earth types, the main ones being ochre, sienna and umber. Still another group of pigments comes from living organisms, such as madder root. Synthetic organic pigments are also now available. Natural pigments have the advantage of being well understood through centuries of use, but synthetics have greatly increased the spectrum of available colors, and many have attained a high level of lightfastness.

When oil paint was first introduced in the arts, basically the same limited range of available pigments were used that had already been applied in tempera: yellow ochre, umber, lead-tin-yellow, vermilion, kermes, azurite, ultramarine, verdigris, lamp black and lead white. These pigments strongly varied in price, transparency, and lightfastness. They included both inorganic and organic substances, the latter often being far less permanent. The painter bought them from specialized traders, "color men", and let his apprentices grind them with oil in his studio to obtain paint of the desired viscosity.

During the Age of discovery, new pigments became known in Europe, most of the organic and earthy type, such as Indian yellow. In the eighteenth century, the developing science of chemistry deliberately tried to expand the range of pigments, which led to the discovery of Prussian blue and cobalt blue.


Many of the historical pigments were dangerous, and many pigments still in use are highly toxic. Some of the most poisonous pigments, such as Paris green (copper(II) acetoarsenite) and orpiment (arsenic sulfide), have fallen from use.

Many pigments are toxic to some degree. Commonly used reds and yellows are produced using cadmium, and vermilion red uses natural or synthetic mercuric sulfide or cinnabar. Flake white and Cremnitz white are made with basic lead carbonate. Some intense blue colors, including cobalt blue and cerulean blue, are made with cobalt compounds. Some varieties of cobalt violet are made with cobalt arsenate.

See also

Related Research Articles

Throughout history, forms of art have gone through periodic abrupt changes called artistic revolutions. Movements have come to an end to be replaced by a new movement markedly different in striking ways. See also cultural movements.

Acrylic paint Water resistant paint type

Acrylic paint is a fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion and plasticizers, silicone oils, defoamers, stabilizers, or metal soaps. Most acrylic paints are water-based, but become water-resistant when dry. Depending on how much the paint is diluted with water, or modified with acrylic gels, mediums, or pastes, the finished acrylic painting can resemble a watercolor, a gouache, or an oil painting, or have its own unique characteristics not attainable with other media.

Oil painting Process of painting with pigments that are bound with a medium of drying oil

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder. It has been the most common technique for artistic painting on wood panel or canvas for several centuries, spreading from Europe to the rest of the world. The advantages of oil for painting images include "greater flexibility, richer and denser colour, and a wider range from light to dark". But the process is slower, especially when one layer of paint needs to be allowed to dry before another is applied.

Paint Pigment applied over a surface that dries as a solid film

Paint is any pigmented liquid, liquefiable, or solid mastic composition that, after application to a substrate in a thin layer, converts to a solid film. It is most commonly used to protect, color, or provide texture. Paint can be made or purchased in many colors—and in many different types. Paint is typically stored, sold, and applied as a liquid, but most types dry into a solid. Most paints are either oil-based or water-based and each has distinct characteristics. For one, it is illegal in most municipalities to discard oil-based paint down household drains or sewers. Clean-up solvents are also different for water-based paint than they are for oil-based paint. Water-based paints and oil-based paints will cure differently based on the outside ambient temperature of the object being painted Usually, the object being painted must be over 10 °C (50 °F), although some manufacturers of external paints/primers claim they can be applied when temperatures are as low as 2 °C (35 °F).

Pastel Art medium consisting of powdered pigment in the form of a stick

A pastel is an art medium in the form of a stick, consisting of powdered pigment and a binder. The pigments used in pastels are similar to those used to produce some other colored visual arts media, such as oil paints; the binder is of a neutral hue and low saturation. The color effect of pastels is closer to the natural dry pigments than that of any other process. Pastels have been used by artists since the Renaissance, and gained considerable popularity in the 18th century, when a number of notable artists made pastel their primary medium.

Tempera Fast-drying painting medium

Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of colored pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually glutinous material such as egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. Tempera paintings are very long-lasting, and examples from the first century AD still exist. Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after 1500 when it was superseded by oil painting. A paint consisting of pigment and binder commonly used in the United States as poster paint is also often referred to as "tempera paint", although the binders in this paint are different from traditional tempera paint.

Gouache Type of paint

Gouache, body color, or opaque watercolor, is a water-medium paint consisting of natural pigment, water, a binding agent, and sometimes additional inert material. Gouache is designed to be opaque. Gouache has a considerable history, having been used for at least twelve centuries. It is used most consistently by commercial artists for posters, illustrations, comics, and other design work.

Watercolor painting Type of painting method using water-based solutions

Watercolor or watercolour, also aquarelle, is a painting method in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-based solution. Watercolor refers to both the medium and the resulting artwork. Aquarelles painted with water-soluble colored ink instead of modern water colors are called aquarellum atramento by experts. However, this term has now tended to pass out of use.

Varnish Transparent hard protective finish or film

Varnish is a clear transparent hard protective coating or film. It is not a stain. It usually has a yellowish shade from the manufacturing process and materials used, but it may also be pigmented as desired, and is sold commercially in various shades.

Drying oil Oil that hardens after exposure to air

A drying oil is an oil that hardens to a tough, solid film after a period of exposure to air, at room temperature. The oil hardens through a chemical reaction in which the components crosslink by the action of oxygen. Drying oils are a key component of oil paint and some varnishes. Some commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, tung oil, poppy seed oil, perilla oil, and walnut oil. Their use has declined over the past several decades, as they have been replaced by alkyd resins and other binders.

Water-miscible oil paint is oil paint either engineered or to which an emulsifier has been added, allowing it to be thinned and cleaned up with water. These paints make it possible to avoid using, or at least reduce volatile organic compounds such as turpentine that may be harmful if inhaled. Water-miscible oil paint can be mixed and applied using the same techniques as traditional oil-based paint, but while still wet it can be removed from brushes, palettes, and rags with ordinary soap and water. One of the ways its water solubility comes from is the use of an oil medium in which one end of the molecule has been engineered to be hydrophilic and thus bind loosely to water molecules, as in a solution. This type of paint is different to those that are engineered to enable cleaning of brushes and application equipment in water but are not in themselves water reducible.

Fat over lean refers to the principle in oil painting of applying paint with a higher oil to pigment ratio ('fat') over paint with a lower oil to pigment ratio ('lean') to ensure a stable paint film, since it is believed that the paint with the higher oil content remains more flexible.

Poppyseed oil is an edible oil from poppy seeds.

A binder or binding agent is any material or substance that holds or draws other materials together to form a cohesive whole mechanically, chemically, by adhesion or cohesion.


Fresco-secco is a wall painting technique where pigments mixed with an organic binder and/or lime are applied onto a dry plaster. The paints used can e.g. be casein paint, tempera, oil paint, silicate mineral paint. If the pigments are mixed with lime water or lime milk and applied to a dry plaster the technique is called lime secco painting. The secco technique contrasts with the fresco technique, where the painting is executed on a layer of wet plaster.

A glaze is a thin transparent or semi-transparent layer on a painting which modifies the appearance of the underlying paint layer. Glazes can change the chroma, value, hue and texture of a surface. Glazes consist of a great amount of binding medium in relation to a very small amount of pigment. Drying time will depend on the amount and type of paint medium used in the glaze. The medium, base, or vehicle is the mixture to which the dry pigment is added. Different media can increase or decrease the rate at which oil paints dry.

An oil drying agent, also known as siccative, is a coordination compound that accelerates (catalyzes) the hardening of drying oils, often as they are used in oil-based paints. This so-called "drying" occurs through free-radical chemical crosslinking of the oils. The catalysts promote this free-radical autoxidation of the oils with air.

Painting Practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface. The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used.


Glue-size is a painting technique in which pigment is bound (sized) to cloth with hide glue, and typically the unvarnished cloth was then fixed to the frame using the same glue. Glue-size is also known as distemper, though the term "distemper" is applied variously to different techniques. Glue-size was used because hide glue was a popular binding medium in the 15th century, particularly among artists of the Early Netherlandish period, who used it as an inexpensive alternative to oil. Although a large number of works using this medium were produced, few survive today, mainly because of the high perishability of linen cloth and the solubility of hide glue. Well-known and relatively well-preserved — though substantially damaged — the most notable examples include Quentin Matsys' Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine and Dirk Bouts' Entombment. In German the technique is known as Tüchleinfarben, meaning “small cloth colours”, or Tüchlein, derived from the German words Tüch and Lein.

Conservation and restoration of paintings

The conservation and restoration of paintings is carried out by professional painting conservators. Paintings cover a wide range of various mediums, materials, and their supports. Painting types include fine art to decorative and functional objects spanning from acrylics, frescoes, and oil paint on various surfaces, egg tempera on panels and canvas, lacquer painting, water color and more. Knowing the materials of any given painting and its support allows for the proper restoration and conservation practices. All components of a painting will react to its environment differently, and impact the artwork as a whole. These material components along with collections care will determine the longevity of a painting. The first steps to conservation and restoration is preventive conservation followed by active restoration with the artist's intent in mind.


  1. Coremans, Gettens, Thissen, La technique des Primitifs flamands, Studies in Conservation 1 (1952)
  2. ""Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented": Chaim Soutine at the Jewish Museum". 13 July 2018.
  3. "Oldest Oil Paintings Found in Afghanistan" Archived June 3, 2011, at the Wayback Machine , Rosella Lorenzi, Discovery News. Feb. 19, 2008.
  4. Theophilus Presbyter Book I ch. 25
  5. Barbera, Giocchino (2005). Antonello da Messina, Sicily's Renaissance Master (exhibition catalogue). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Yale University Press. ISBN   0-300-11648-9 (online), p. 14
  6. Hurt, Perry. "Never Underestimate the Power of a Paint Tube". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  7. Callen, Anthea. The Art of Impressionism: How Impressionism Changed the Art World. Yale University Press. 2000.
  8. H. Gluck, "The Impermanences of Painting in Relation to Artists' Materials", Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Volume CXII 1964
  9. "Perfect Finishing". The Stationery Company .{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)