Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a drying oil as the binder. Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, and walnut oil. The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the oil paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints. An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium. The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss.
Although oil paint was first used for Buddhist paintings by Indian and Chinese painters in western Afghanistan sometime between the fifth and tenth centuries, it did not gain popularity in Europe until the 15th century. Its practice probably migrated westward during the Middle Ages and it eventually became the principal medium used for creating artworks as its advantages became widely known. The transition began with Early Netherlandish painting in Northern Europe, and by the height of the Renaissance oil painting techniques had almost completely replaced the use of the older tempera paints in the majority of Europe.
In recent years, water miscible oil paint has come to prominence and, to some extent, replaced traditional oil paint. Water-soluble paints contain an emulsifier that allows them to be thinned with water rather than paint thinner, and allows very fast drying times of 1–3 days compared with that of traditional oils, 1–3 weeks.
Oil paintings may be done on canvas, linen or board, or even on canvas-laid-on-board. These choices lie solely in the artist’s preferences, or perhaps, in what’s available at the time. It’s normally quite easy to spot an oil painting – it’s the one not under glass, because oil, compared with all other media, lasts so well! The old Dutch masters were truly “masters of their art” in the use of oils, so for my example of an oil painting, I’ve chosen the rightly famous Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, Dutch, 1580-1666.
The traditional and most common support material to which the watercolour paint is applied is paper, often a heavy-duty, hand-made slightly off-white paper, frequently made entirely or partially of cotton which gives a good texture and minimizes distortion when wet. Other supports [not common in South Africa] may include papyrus, bark papers, plastics, vellum, or leather, fabric, wood, and even canvas. Watercolours are usually translucent, and appear luminous because the pigments are laid down in a pure form with few fillers obscuring the pigment colours; they can also be made opaque by adding Chinese White.
One of my personal favourite watercolourists is the very prolific Englishman Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1781, and I’ve shown just one of his thousands of works below:
Next time you’re in London do yourself a favour and go and see The Laughing Cavalier at that little-known gem, The Wallace Collection in the West End near Selfridges; Turner has his own room in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
In Part 2, we’ll look at other commonly found painting media.