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Oils: Manufacturing secret

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Brilliant, creamy, natural… oil paints enchant every budding artist. Invented at the dawn of the Renaissance, it has crossed the centuries without picking up a single wrinkle. Set sail on a trip through time!


  1. 1. Doubts about its paternity


The ancestor of oil paint is tempera: an emulsion paint with an egg white and yolk binding agent used during the Middle Ages. Back then, oils were mainly used as a varnish.


To whom do we owe the invention of oil paints? For a long time, it was attributed to the Van Eyck brothers. Nevertheless, it seems that, by the end of the Fourteenth Century, many artists before them had attempted to mix pigments with oil, but in private.


One thing is certain: even if they did not invent oil paint, they perfected it. Their idea: add linseed and walnut oils, along with colored turpentine, until they had water resistant paint with multiple technical options. This is why, in the history of art, Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), the younger of the two brothers, is presented as the first grand master of painting with oil colors.


2. The old way of producing oil paint


The Van Eyck brothers' the process for making oils was quickly adopted by the painters of the period. And for centuries, artists prepared their own oil colors using their method. How did they do it? Here's their manufacturing secret!

  •  Place the color pigments in a little heap on a perfectly smooth counter top (a slab of marble). Form a crater.
  •  Pour the binding agent (linseed or walnut oil) in the hole until it's full.
  •  Grind the pigments with a glass pigment mortar, using continuous circular motions, until a homogeneous consistency is achieved.


Your color is ready!

In the Nineteenth Century, manufacturers took over oil paint production. Nowadays, all professional and amateur painters need to do is dig around in the huge color selection produced by manufacturers.


Did You Know?

Alkyd paint

Introduced on the market in the early Twentieth Century, alkyd paints look the same as oil paints. What's the difference? They dry faster. Why: the binding agent used is a drying resin rather than an oil. Those paints can be diluted in water or mixed with oil paint.



See also

Choosing colours for oil painting
Choisir ses couleurs pour peindre à l’huile
Made up of pigments agglutinated in oil, colours come in tin or plastic tubes closed with a screw cap.
Oil painting: preparing colors
Peinture à l’huile : la préparation des couleurs
Due to the thick, greasy consistency of oils, and to its very long drying time, oil painting requires greater mastery than water-based techniques.