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Oil paintings

Oil paints, oil, word from the Latin oleum (oil), 1 is a pictorial technique consisting of mixing the pigments with a binder based on oils, usually of vegetable origin. By extension, oils are called paintings executed by this technique, which supports supports of very varied nature: metal, wood, stone, ivory, although it is most commonly applied on canvas or board. The oil remains moist for a long time, which favors the mixture of colors.


The use of oil has been known since antiquity and was already widespread among artists of the Middle Ages, although in a minority because at that time tempera or fresco painting predominated. At the end of the 14th century and during the 15th century, the use of oil began to be generalized to the detriment of other techniques, since it allowed a slower drying of the paint, corrections in the execution of the same and an excellent stability and conservation of the color. The painters of Flanders were the first to use oil in a habitual way, and their invention was mistakenly attributed to the painter Jan van Eyck.2

The oil that was used the most was flaxseed, but it was not the only one and each artist had his own formula that used to be kept secret. Normally the turpentine essence is used as solvent, to achieve a more fluid or more pasted brushwork, as the case may be. Many followed the advice and experiences written in the Treaty of the Theophilus monk that is already known and mentioned in the year 1100. Cennino Cennini, in his Book of Art, also mentions and describes the technique.3

The preparation of the support to receive the paint varies according to the nature of the same. Usually a series of layers of animal glue and plaster are applied, which make the surface smooth and uniform; This is called priming. Although at first the majority of the oil paintings were on wooden support, from the 17th century onwards, with the Baroque art, the painters chose the canvas as the favorite support for their paintings, this being more practical for the elaboration of large compositions for their possibility of rolling, in addition to suffering less thermal variations and the attack of xylophagous insects.

The paint obtained with the mixture of oils offered many advantages to the painter, among others, being able to carry out his work slowly and without haste (contrary to what happened in tempera paint, or fresco), the power to touch up the work, vary the composition, colors, etc. Precisely for these qualities was the favorite technique of painters like Leonardo da Vinci, Tiziano or Velázquez, who valued a thoughtful execution and subject to continuous corrections. Leonardo experienced several variations of the technique, such as its application on walls as a fresco, or the invention of oily varnishes and textures of varying consistency, which resulted in resounding failures, but also took this technique to new heights with the invention of sfumato or gentle gradation of light, achieved on the basis of successive layers of very light paint (glaze).

Van Eyck, like the other Flemish painters, used oil as a miniaturist, trying to capture the details and resulting in an enameled painting; the Venetian pictorial school (Tiziano) will bring as a novelty the possibilities of texture of the brushstrokes, experiences that will later be collected, among others, by the flamenco Rubens and the Dutchman Rembrandt; the latter tested new techniques such as scraping. All these forms of painting were the academic method until the eighteenth century. From Impressionism, painters use colors practically without mixing or diluting, and without a sketch or previous design on many occasions.

A traditional wooden pallet, used to maintain and mix small amounts of paint while working.
The equipment used by painters is usually composed of brushes (animal bristles, especially marten, also synthetic hair), of different sizes and shapes, spatula, easel and palette. You can work on a previous sketch, or without it, freer technique called premium there.


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