The Origins of Oil Painting

Today, when we think about painting, we tend to conjure up the image of the Renaissance masters and their oil painted masterpieces. However, oil paints were not always the medium of choice for artists, and other methods were once more popular. In this article, we look at the origins of oil painting and find out how its popularity rose to become the iconic artist’s medium we know today. The following video gives a clear idea of the origins of oil painting:

When Were The First Oil Paintings?

The first oil paintings are said to have been dated back to 11th century, however, the art form did not gain major acceptance until many centuries later, when the Flemish painters adopted its use.
So, how and why did the use of oils become so widespread?

The Earliest Oil Paintings

Although there is some evidence that there were oil paintings in Afghanistan between the 5th and 10th centuries, the first mainstream oil paintings were carried out in the 11th century. A 12-century document by Theophilus refers to oil painting techniques, although this was probably not for portraits or indoor decoration, but almost certainly for sculptures and carvings in outdoor settings as oils were more durable than the traditional medium, tempera.

Jan Van Eyck

The Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck has been recorded as using oil paints on wood paneling. He and his brother Hubert were instrumental in the spread of the use of oils and perfected the technique of its application. Art School Scholarships like we know them today didn’t exist in those days, but apprenticeships were a rather common phenomenon.

The Renaissance

Following on from the work of the Van Eyck’s, the use of oils as a painting medium on wood spread from the Netherlands through Northern Europe and finally into Italy. It was here that the canvas began to take over as the best surface on which to paint, because of its flexibility and portability. It was easier and quicker to paint directly onto canvas rather than onto wood because there was no need to apply layers of plaster, known as gesso, as a base.

Venice was the first place to adopt the use of canvas as there was plenty of availability from sailcloth. By 1540, the use of oils had almost completely supplanted the use of traditional tempera in painting, and the use of canvas as a base was widespread, although, in Italy and other Mediterranean areas, frescoes remained popular as can be seen in Chicago’s great museums.

Famous Oil Paintings of The Renaissance

The Renaissance saw many of the most renowned painters in history at their most active. Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were just two of the famous artists who used oil on canvas to create their iconic works. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, painted in 1503-06, is a classic example of this style of painting. See also: The Best Oil Painters in History.

The 17th Century

During the following century, various schools of oil painting emerged, including Baroque, Dutch Realism, Classicism, and Caravaggism. The unique facets of oil enabled stunning artworks to be created using sweeping brushstrokes and dramatic colors.

The 18th Century

The 18th century saw the rise of Neoclassical art and the Rococo techniques with a shift towards landscape painting. Portrait painting became more impressive and naturalistic, and new pigments were added to the painter’s palette. Many pieces are used as examples in the American Academy of Art and in the academy’s Irving Shapiro Library, much more information is available.

The 19th Century

Modern art began to emerge in this period, with innovative techniques and styles coming to the fore. Impressionism, Expressionism, and Luminism were three of the new schools that became popular at this time, and artists such as Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin achieved fame for their masterpieces.

Oils In Contemporary Art

In the present day, oil is still being used as one of the primary mediums to express art, although acrylics are starting to compete for status. Despite its rivals, oil still has the edge over other mediums because of its flexibility, its glossiness, and its outstanding workability. A difference is that today, buyers are more and more label-conscious which influences the prices, but no doubt, it will remain a popular choice for many years to come.