Oil Painting & Pigments – A Brief History

painting with handmade oil colors

Pigments used from antiquity

Before written language, color – in the hands of the artist – has had a voice for creative expression and storytelling. Ancient cave dwellers handcrafted their painting medium using rendered animal fat to bind colored earth pigments, clays, chalk, and charred wood and bones. Their cave paintings have survived intact for several millennia attesting to the permanence of their pigment choices. The Lascaux caves in France are excellent examples of this. Today genuine-earth pigments (and today's synthetic iron oxide colors) are used in oil, acrylic, encaustic, tempera, watercolor, and fresco colors. Earth pigments come in a variety of colors including white, tan, yellow, red, green, brown, gray, and black. Roasting (calcining) earth pigments create deeper or redder shades.

Mineral pigments made from iron and oxidized copper (bound in beeswax) were used as early as 100 AD by the Egyptians as with the Fayum mummy portrait. Early encaustic works include Roman and Greek Christian icons. The 20th century saw (after a long lapse) a comeback to encaustics. 

Rare and costly crushed precious gemstones like lapis lazuli and gold leaf first found their way into art in the 9th century illuminated manuscripts of "The Book of Kells" and are still in use today. However, others like turquoises made from arsenic proved too deadly to pass on. 

The most noteworthy pigment (documented as far back as the 5th century BC as being made from lead and vinegar) is lead white. The Dutch became the perfecter of lead white by their unique 16th-century process of using vapors of vinegar along with carbon dioxide and heat (produced from fermenting compost and dung) to convert coils of lead sheeting into a flaky white pigment they called flake white. Flake white creates the most flexible paint film of any pigment bound in oil. Drying oil is, in fact, the only suitable binder since basic lead carbonate can turn black if exposed to hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere. The oil binder also eliminates toxic dust from entering into the atmosphere, and the very reason the ceramic industry no longer uses lead in glazes.  [A final picture varnish also serves to isolate and protect against any discoloration.]

Oil as a vehicle

In the 8th century, the Japanese invented a lead paint bound in perilla oil. Olive oil had also been tried as a vehicle but dismissed due to its extremely long drying time [cataloged by Theophilus in his 12th century Schoedula Diversarum Artium]. Egg yolk became a viable vehicle for pigments producing egg tempera paints, but with one major drawback - these paints dried so quickly it was impossible to blend brush strokes. There had to be a better way!

Giorgio Vasari, in his 16th-century Lives of the Artists, credits the Flemish master Jan van Eyck with the invention of oil painting around 1410. Van Eyke's pioneering and proprietary use of (washed) cold-pressed linseed oil to make oil paint and turpentine as a solvent, made fine detail, spatial depth, and saturation of the color, for the first time possible. Van Eyke's preserved masterpiece "The Arnolfini Portrait" wonderfully displays these characterists. However, by the turn of the 15th-century, Cennino d'Andrea Cennini's Il Libro dell' Arte (The Craftsman's Handbook) gives no mention to linseed oil being used as a vehicle to bind pigments. However, Van Eyke's invention would become known and mastered by Italian Renaissance painters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci, and Titian. The durability of cold-pressed linseed has helped preserve their masterpieces for our enjoyment today! Walnut and poppyseed oil during this time (if used) were reserved for whites and blues preferring the siccative (drying) qualities of cold-pressed linseed oil for the majority of colors. Sometimes these hand-ground colors were stored in a pig's bladder to prevent leftover paint from drying. 

The Industrial Revolution

During the Industrial Revolution, the chemical and petroleum industries began springing up everywhere creating an array of vibrant inorganic pigments. These included cerulean blue, chrome yellows, and cadmium reds first used by the impressionist painters. New color manufacturers started producing readymade oil colors first in glass syringes and then in newly invented metal tubes (1841) – and with this invention, oil painting was revolutionized! Artists could now spend more time painting 'plein air' without the time-consuming job of grinding and mulling paint back in the studio. All this was instrumental in giving birth to the impressionist movement. However, one downside was that the artist was now once removed from an intimate knowledge of the materials they were using, a craft that was essential to the old masters and the masterpieces they produced. Poignantly paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have shown themselves to be some of the most durable of any period.

However, scores of works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have not fared so well: Rumors of "the lost secrets of the old masters" – alleged to have found old recipes for resinous mediums that became lost – unfortunately, were widely believed and as a result vast amount of works did not stand the test of time! During these centuries many relied heavily upon megilp/mastic as a painting medium while others advocated the disastrous practice of substituting varnish for linseed oil to binding pigments! These practices led to scores of darkened, water sensitive, and cracked works such as Sir Joshua Reynold's "portrait of Lord Heathfield." *

The twentieth century

The twentieth century saw further scientific advancements in the petrochemical industries with a colorful array of non-toxic, highly lightfast, modern organic pigments [synthesized from (toxic) aromatic hydrocarbons]. New colors pigments include yellow and orange Monoazo and Benzimidazolones, pyrrole scarlet and reds, rose and violet quinacridones, and the intense tinting blue and green copper phthalocyanines. These are more lightfast than dye-based lake pigments developed over the previous two centuries and especially so to those used since the Renaissance (such as indigo, carmine, and rose madder). The most impermanent (and obsolete) colors are plant-based colors made from wild berries, vegetable roots, and insects (beetles).

No survey would be complete without mention of the 20th-century invention of titanium dioxide pigment that has the highest reflectance of any know substance – even higher than diamond – making it the most opaque pigment on the artist palette. 

We hope you enjoyed this brief survey of historical and modern pigments. Artistic Lineage has included many of the best of these in our line of oil colors.