The Real Origin of Oils

By: Carly Hill - Staff Writer • Jan 24, 2013 • 0 Comments

“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

- Pablo Picasso  

In 2008, the oldest oil painting we know of was discovered in a cave in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley.  Scientists from Japan, Europe, and the U.S. agree that the painting dates back to 650 A.D.  This discovery shattered the belief that oil painting was a Western Art that originated in 12th century.  Caves in the area feature many Buddhist paintings.  Much of this area was destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, but since then, caves have been restored and studied by scientists from all over the world.  It’s not been easy to analyze the paintings since they are only working with portions of paintings that were spared during the Taliban explosions.  But, most of the paintings are of “knotty-haired Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures,” according to an article on  Scientists discovered that many of the cave paintings were made of walnut and poppy seed drying oils.  The paintings were multilayered, much like canvas paintings of the later medieval period.

Oil paint is made by grinding pigment into oil, mainly linseed oil.  Then, some kind of drying agent is added.  Most artists buy manufactured oil paint, but some still make their own this way.  It was only in the 19th century that people started buying manufactured oil paint.  Until then, artists made their own – fresh every day.  As you can imagine, this made it very challenging for painters like Paola Veronese, famous for painting Wedding Feast at Cana.  The painting took him over a year to create, so every day, he had to make sure that he kept his color mixing consistent.  Oil paint is expensive, not because of the oil, but because of the pigments.  For this reason, many artists added extenders, or fillers, to their oil paint to make it last longer.

Oil paint is very slow to dry which allows an artist to work longer on blending, layering, and depth.  Also, oil paint doesn’t change color after drying like some other types.  Its versatile in that an artist can use oil paint to create all effects – opaque, transparent, matt, gloss, etc.

During the 11th century, egg yolk tempura was used.  It was Flemish artist, Jon van Eyck and his brother Hubert who used color grinded with oils.  Although oils were discovered in the Afghanistan caves, we have no record of any other oils prior to the 11th century.  Many painters like the Van Eycks changed the early renaissance art with their oils.  Some of the earliest painters who used oils were Robert Campin, Roger van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, and Flemish painters.

You may buy an oil painting because it takes you to another place, like the painting above of a shepherd and his sheep and dogs – set in a tranquil landscape.  You may buy a portrait because it makes you feel a certain way, or resembles someone in your life.  Whatever the reason, oils are rich, deep beautiful works of art.  The painting of the shepherd and his sheep and dogs, painted by Martinez del Rio is available here, from Le Louvre French Antiques.

Peruse our collection of oils and stop by later this week to learn about the evolution of oils.





Reference: Oil Painting