Design Eniday Innovation Oil Technology

The art of oil

Young artist painting Italian landmark in studio
Nicholas Newman Eniday August 2017

Many of the world’s most famous pictures and manuscripts use paints and inks made from both mineral and vegetable oils…

Many of the world’s most famous pictures and manuscripts use paints and inks made from both mineral and vegetable oils. Without oil, paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss would not exist, and historic documents such as the Magna Carta would not have been written, nor would the King James Bible have been printed. Without the medium of oil and pigments, we would not visit the Louvre museum in Paris, nor would we sit down and read a good book, such as the Divine Comedy by Dante or one of the Harry Potter novels. This feature will look at the use of oil to make inks and paints since ancient times until today.

The use of oil in European painting

The painting “Night Watch” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The techniques for using oils in coloring and decorative work were well known in Roman times and were allegedly described by the elder Pliny in his encyclopedic works. “The first written record of this application is by the Roman Aetius in the late fifth century, and a recipe for an oil varnish (in which a drying oil is mixed with natural resins) is listed in an eighth-century document known as the Lucca manuscript.”

Records from the 13th century show that gums and resins exuded by trees were often used in churches and monasteries to produce a kind of protective varnish for wall paintings and colored devotional and ornamental works. This “sandarac” varnish, derived from North African imports, was dark and reddish in tone and distorted work executed in blues and greens. However, Flemish painters who flourished in the fifteenth century first introduced high-quality painting with pigments suspended in refined vegetable oils to European art. Artists experimented with dissolving pine-tree resin and even amber in linseed oil, partly to offer a protective varnish to layers of egg-tempera paint and to provide transparency and luminescence to conventional powdered pigments. Read more


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