Why oil paint? Why not acrylic, watercolor, alkyds, casein, gouache, colored pencil, egg tempera, or pastels?
It is hard to explain, but there is just something about oils that make that medium the king of all mediums. It is not that oils are necessarily the oldest and most reliable way to make a picture. In fact, it is quite possible to paint with oils in a way to jeopardize the longevity of the picture. I guess before I go on about what makes oils so special, I will have to bore many readers with a little art history. Although I have read hundreds of books on art, I was never an art student and I would be careful quoting my little art history lesson to anybody who possesses any real knowledge on the subject.
Well most of us know that people have made pictures since the ice ages and that the earliest societies such as Ancient Egypt had great artists, but art the way we know it was more prominent in the last thousand years. One of the earlier mediums was egg tempera, which – you guessed it – uses egg yolk. “Temperas” are binder agents that support the pigments (actual colors). Egg tempera was first popular in the middle ages in Southern Europe and it dries very rapidly like your morning omelet does on your frying pan (which is a pain to clean off if you don’t soak it immediately). Egg tempera basically has to be applied in thin layers, so the colors tend to not be as rich as with other mediums. Many artists make their own paint – and yes – they use eggs.
Another “dairy” paint is casein, which is derived from milk. Ancient Egyptians painted with casein, which dries with a nice even consistency. That made casein very valuable for painting murals.
Gouache, which was first popular in 12th century Islamic art, on the other hand, is not a muralist’s best friend. Gouache is like watercolor in that it is pigment supported in water, but there is a white chalk added that makes gouache paints heavier and opaque. They dry differently than other mediums because the dark colors dry and become lighter while the lighter colors dry and become darker.
Now take out the white chalk and you have watercolor…essentially. Watercolors are generally used on papaer instead of canvas, which would explain why watercolors became so popular in Europe in the 1400’s after paper became readily available. One of the differences with watercolor compared to the other mediums is that artists paint light to dark, meaning they first paint in the light colors, then darker colors as they progress through the painting, leaving the white of the paper for the lightest lights.
Other mediums that are more typically done on paper are pastels and colored pencils. I never would have thought that artists could make fine art with colored pencils, but I have since seen some of the most beaitful rich pictures done in colored pencils. There are many techniques to build up the colors to a rich, dark, smooth finish. Heck, 2010’s Art Prize winner was in pencil!
If that sounds like it takes too long, pastels are a good alternative, although more of a messy one. I picture my elementary school days with pastels all over my clothes by the time I finished my project. Pastels were first mentioned by Leonardo De Vinci in 1495 and became very popular for 18th century portraits. Today there are many different types of pastels such as hard pastels, soft pastels, oil pastels, and water-soluable pastels.
The newest kid on the block is acrylic paint, which was first commercially available in the 1950’s. Anybody that has painted a room in their house knows how fast acrylics dry. Pull off the dried paint around the rim of the can and you can easily tell the “plastic” feel of dry acyrlic paint. They are not natural. I don’t mean that because they are weird, I say that because they are actually synthetic.
Another fast drying medium are alkyds, which are just fast drying oil paints. One of the main differences between oils and alkyds is that alkyd paint dries with evaporation while oil paints dry by oxidation.
Now let’s talk oils!
Oils were used in England as early as the 13th century, but not really applied for artisic purposes until the 15th century. Oils dry very slowly, which allows the artist to blend the wet paint hours or even days after the previous layer was applied. As mentioned above, oils can hold a great deal of pigment, which is why oil paintings can be richer in color than some of the other mediums. This ability to capture color is why I switched to oils myself, but other mediums can be used to create just as brillant colors. Other mediums have the history that oils have, if not more. Other mediums show off interesting brush strokes and others can create beautiful soft blended areas just like oils.
So why is there this aura about these smelly, buttery paints? I believe that when most of us think of exceptional art, we think of the Great Masters of the Renaissance Period in Europe, and they mostly painted in oil paint. Maybe that is why many of us associate oils as the medium used for the greatest paintings of all time?
So why do I paint with oils? Maybe I just like the feel, the consistency, the slow drying time, the smell of turpentine in the evening, the ability to paint thin or thick, or maybe the ability to create any color out of only 7 colors and white. Or maybe it is just because I want to be assocaited with the Great Masters. Hey, I need all the help I can get!