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Oils Paints and Oil Painting

Artists’ oil colours are created by adding dry powder pigments with special refined linseed oil until the substance reaches a stiff paste texture and then grinding it by strong friction in steel roller mills. The consistency of the shade is fundamental. The usual feel is a smooth, buttery paste, as opposed to stringy or long or tacky. When a transient or mobile element is required by the artist, a liquid painting medium such as pure gum turpentine has to be stirred in with the concoction. If the artist wants to speed up drying, a siccative, or liquid drier, can be usually used.

Top-class brushes are sold in two types: red sable (using numerous members of the weasel species) and bleached hog bristles. They are available in numbered sizes for four regular shapes: round (pointed), flat, bright (flat but shorter and not so supple), and oval (flat shape but bluntly pointed). Red sable brushes are widely preferred for the smoother, more detailed kind of brushstroking. The painting knife, a declicately tempered, skinny version of the art palette knife, is a useful tool for using oil colours in a robust style.

The standard support for an oil painting is a canvas manufactured of pure European linen of sturdy close weave. A canvas is cut to the desired size and stretched over a frame, often wood, to which it is then secured by use of tacks or, in the 20th century, by use of staples. In order to lower the absorbency of the canvas fabric and to achieve a consistent surface, a primer or ground could be applied and given time to dry first. The most typically employed primers for this are gesso, rabbit-skin glue, and lead white. If rigidity and smoothness are preferred rather than springiness and texture, a wooden or processed paperboard panel, sized or primed, has to be employed. Lots of other supports, such as paper and certain textiles and metals, also have been tried out.

A polish of picture varnish is usually put on to a completed oil painting to protect it and prevent atmospheric attacks, minor abrasions, and harmful accumulation of dirt. This paint varnish might be taken off without damage by experts who use isopropyl alcohol and other common solvents. Varnishing also brings the surface to a consistent lustre and takes the tone and colour intensity essentially to the level originally formed by the artist in the wet paint. Some modern painters, in particular those who don’t favour deep, intense colouring, and keep a mat, or lustreless, finish in their paintings.

The majority of oil paintings made previous to the 19th century were created in layers. The first layer was a blank, uniform field of thinned paint called a ground. The ground lessened the gleam of the primer and allowed a gentle base on which to start painting. The shapes and figures in the painting were then roughly blocked in using shades of white, as well as gray or neutral green, red, or brown. The resulting mass of monochromatic light and dark shades were termed the underpainting. Forms were defined with either solid paint or scumbles, which are irregular, thinly applied layers of opaque pigment that imparts a whole lot of visual effects. At the final stage, transparent layers of pure colour known as glazes were then utilised to create luminosity, depth, and brilliance to the shapes, and highlights could be effected with thick, textured patches of paint known as impastos.

Oil as a medium of painting is recorded as early as the 11th century. The practice of easel painting with oil colours, however, stems directly from 15th-century tempera-painting styles. Basic improvements in the process of refining linseed oil and the availability of volatile solvents from 1400 coincided with a need for mediums other than pure egg-yolk tempera, meeting the developing needs of the Renaissance (see tempera painting). Initially, oil paints and varnishes had been employed to glaze tempera panels that were painted in a typical linear draftsmanship. The technically gleaming, crystal-like portraits by the 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, for example, were completed in this new technique.

In the 16th century, oil colour flourished as the fundamental painting material in Venice. At the beginning of the 17th century, Venetian painters had grown proficient in utilising the basic traits of oil painting, especially in applying successive layers of glaze. Canvas of linen, after a long time of development, replaced wood panelling as the most commonly used support.

A 17th-century master of the oil technique was Velazquez, a Spanish painter in the Venetian tradition, whose highly economical but certain brushstrokes have commonly been repeated, especially in portraiture. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens challenged tradition in the manner in which he loaded light colours opaquely, in juxtaposition to his thin, transparent darks and shadows. The third remarkable 17th-century master of oil painting was the Dutch painter Rembrandt. In his artworks, a single brushstroke would effectively depict form; cumulative strokes created great textural depth, by combining the rough and the smooth, the thick and the thin. A technique of loaded whites and transparent darks is finally enhanced by glaze, blendings, and highly controlled impastos.

Other particular influences on later easel painting techniques are the smooth, thinly painted, deliberately planned, tight qualities. A great many admired works (e.g., like those of Johannes Vermeer) were executed with smooth blends of shades to achieve shadowed forms and delicate colour variations.

The technical requirements of some schools of modern painting cannot be realized by use of traditional genres or techniques, however, and some abstract painters – and to some extent modern painters who use these traditional styles – have shown a desire for a wholly different plastic flow or viscosity that cannot be formed in oil paint and its conventional additives. Some desire a greater variety of thick and/or thin applications and a speedier rate of drying. Some mix coarsely grained materials with colours to create textures, some apply oil paints in heavier thicknesses than is usual, and lots have turned to using acrylic paints, which are more versatile and dry quickly.

Interested in oil painting? For art supplies Brisbane, including canvas art supplies and artists supplies, visit or call the Discount Art Warehouse.

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