Oil painting, painting in oil colours, a medium consisting of pigments suspended in drying oils. The outstanding facility with which fusion of tones or colour is achieved makes it unique among fluid painting mediums; at the same time, satisfactory linear treatment and crisp effects are easily obtained. Opaque, transparent, and translucent painting all lie within its range, and it is unsurpassed for textural variation.
Artists’ oil colours are made by mixing dry powder pigments with selected refined linseed oil to a stiff paste consistency and grinding it by strong friction in steel roller mills. The consistency of the colour is important. The standard is a smooth, buttery paste, not stringy or long or tacky. When a more flowing or mobile quality is required by the artist, a liquid painting medium such as pure gum turpentine must be mixed with it. In order to accelerate drying, a siccative, or liquid drier, is sometimes used.
Top-grade brushes are made in two types: red sable (from various members of the weasel family) and bleached hog bristles. Both come in numbered sizes in each of four regular shapes: round (pointed), flat, bright (flat shape but shorter and less supple), and oval (flat but bluntly pointed). Red sable brushes are widely used for the smoother, less robust type of brushstroke. The painting knife—a finely tempered, thin, limber version of the artist’s palette knife—is a convenient tool for applying oil colours in a robust manner.
The standard support for oil painting is a canvas made of pure European linen of strong close weave. This canvas is cut to the desired size and stretched over a frame, usually wooden, to which it is secured by tacks or, from the 20th century, by staples. To reduce the absorbency of the canvas fabric and to achieve a smooth surface, a primer or ground is applied and is allowed to dry before painting begins. The most commonly used primers have been gesso, rabbit-skin glue, and lead white. If rigidity and smoothness are preferred to springiness and texture, a wooden or processed paperboard panel, sized or primed, may be used. Many other supports, such as paper and various textiles and metals, have been tried.
A coat of picture varnish is usually given to a finished oil painting to protect it from atmospheric attacks, minor abrasions, and an injurious accumulation of dirt. This varnish film can be removed safely by experts using isopropyl alcohol and other common solvents. Varnishing also brings the surface to a uniform lustre and brings the tonal depth and colour intensity virtually to the levels originally created by the artist in wet paint. Some contemporary painters, especially those who do not favour deep, intense colouring, prefer a matte, or lustreless, finish in oil paintings.
Most oil paintings made before the 19th century were built up in layers. The first layer was a blank, uniform field of thinned paint called a ground. The ground subdued the glaring white of the primer and provided a base of gentle colour on which to build images. The shapes and objects in the painting were then roughly blocked in using shades of white, along with gray or neutral green, red, or brown. The resulting masses of monochromatic light and dark were called the underpainting. Forms were further defined using either solid paint or scumbles, which are irregular, thinly applied layers of opaque pigment that can impart a variety of pictorial effects. In the final stage, transparent layers of pure colour called glazes were used to impart luminosity, depth, and brilliance to the forms, and highlights were defined with thick, textured patches of paint called impastos.
The origins of oil painting, as was discovered in 2008, date to at least the 7th century CE, when anonymous artists used oil that may have been extracted from walnuts or poppies to decorate the ancient cave complex in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. But in Europe, oil as a painting medium is recorded only as early as the 11th century. The practice of easel painting with oil colours, however, stems directly from 15th-century tempera-painting techniques. Basic improvements in the refining of linseed oil and the availability of volatile solvents after 1400 coincided with a need for some other medium than pure egg-yolk tempera to meet the changing requirements of the Renaissance. At first, oil paints and varnishes were used to glaze tempera panels, painted with their traditional linear draftsmanship. The technically brilliant, jewel-like portraits of the 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, for example, were done in this way.
In the 16th century, oil colour emerged as the basic painting material in Venice. By the end of the century, Venetian artists had become proficient in the exploitation of the basic characteristics of oil painting, particularly in their use of successive layers of glazes. Linen canvas, after a long period of development, replaced wooden panels as the most popular support.
One of the 17th-century masters of the oil technique was Diego Velázquez, a Spanish painter in the Venetian tradition, whose highly economical but informative brushstrokes have frequently been emulated, especially in portraiture. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens influenced later painters in the manner in which he loaded his light colours, opaquely, in juxtaposition to thin, transparent darks and shadows. A third great 17th-century master of oil painting was the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. In his work a single brushstroke can effectively depict form; cumulative strokes give great textural depth, combining the rough and the smooth, the thick and the thin. A system of loaded whites and transparent darks is further enhanced by glazed effects, blendings, and highly controlled impastos.
Other basic influences on the techniques of later easel painting are the smooth, thinly painted, deliberately planned, tight styles of painting. A great many admired works (e.g., those of Johannes Vermeer) were executed with smooth gradations and blends of tones to achieve subtly modeled forms and delicate colour variations.
The technical requirements of some schools of modern painting cannot be realized by traditional genres and techniques, however, and some abstract painters, and to some extent contemporary painters in traditional styles, have expressed a need for an entirely different plastic flow or viscosity that cannot be had with oil paint and its conventional additives. Some require a greater range of thick and thin applications and a more rapid rate of drying. Some artists have mixed coarsely grained materials with their colours to create new textures, some have used oil paints in much heavier thicknesses than before, and many have turned to the use of acrylic paints, which are more versatile and dry rapidly.