As evidenced by the innumerable masterpieces exhibited on gallery walls of the most prestigious museums worldwide, perhaps it is the medium of oil that has created the most significant impact on the development of painting as visual art form. Painting with oil on canvas continues to be a favored choice of serious painters because of its long-lasting color and a variety of approaches and methods. Oil paints may have been used as far back as the 13th century. However as a medium in its modern form, Belgian painter, Jan van Eyck, developed it during the 15th century. Because artists were troubled by the excessive amount of drying time, van Eyck found a method that allowed painters an easier method of developing their compositions. By mixing pigments with linseed and nut oils, he discovered how to create a palette of vibrant oil colors.
Over time, other artists, such as Messina and da Vinci, improved upon the recipe by making it an ideal medium for representing details, forms and figures with a range of colors, shadows and depths. During the Renaissance, which is often referred to as the Golden Age of painting, artists developed their crafts and established many of the techniques that provided the medium of oil to emerge. The refinement of oil painting came through studies in perspective, proportion and human anatomy. During the Renaissance, the goal for artists was to create realistic images. They sought to represent all that was caught by an artist’s detailed eye, as well as capture and present the intensity of human emotions.
Giovanni Bellini’s work from 1480, “St. Francis in Ecstasy,” captures oil’s ability to create an accurate, complex composition with the soft glow of morning light and the detailed perspective of the natural landscape. Oil became a useful medium during the Baroque period, when artists sought to display the intensity of emotion through the careful manipulation of light and shadows. Rembrandt’s use of oil in his piece, “Night Watch,” from 1642, displays the concerns of the night watch with a dark, yet detailed background and the crisp brightness of the golden garments. In the mid-19th century, as painters explored new approaches and developed new movements, oil as a medium followed. In the 1872 painting “Impression, Sunrise,” for which the Impressionist movement was named, Monet used oil to provide an evocative view of the harbor, silhouettes and sun as reflections danced on the water. Into Modernism and beyond, oil has been used by artists, such as Kandinsky, Picasso and Matisse, to further their experimental approaches in the early 20th century.
Easily removed from the canvas, oil allows the artist to revise a work. With its flexible nature, long history and large body of theories, oil painting has created a most significant impact on visual art. New developments in oil paints continued into the 20th century, with advent of oil paint sticks, which were used by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Anselm Kiefer. Since the Renaissance, the masters used oil to create works that continue to inspire, intrigue and delight, and today, artists continue to use this significant medium to express their visions, goals and emotions.