Oil Painting Techniques & Materials

by Nora Zavalczki

Oil painting is one of the oldest mediums in Western culture painting. According to the art historian Giorgio Vassari, Jan van Eyck invented the technique of painting as used today. This happened in 1410 and six centuries later, oil painting is still practiced. Today, painters use both traditional and modern methods of painting. Artists employ oil paints, which are made up of pigments mixed with drying oils.

Layered Oil Painting Technique

The layered oil painting technique, also known as the indirect painting, is a traditional method of painting. The indirect painting technique involved sketching the main elements on the canvas using charcoal or thinned paint. The artist applies a layer of paint, also called underpainting, and allows it to dry before applying the following layer. Each layer brings additional effects and may partially conceal the previous layers. The second and subsequent layers may contain an opaque color or a glaze, which is a transparent film obtained by diluting the paints with a solvent. The final layers are more detailed and contain more oil. The artists use thinned paints in the underpainting and each layer contains more oil and less solvent, so that the final layer is the fattest of all. This rule is important to prevent the painting from cracking.

Wet-on-Wet Technique

The wet-on-wet technique, also known as alla prima, is a technique that is suitable for painting outdoors, and allows the artist to finish a painting in one sitting. In the first stage of painting, the artist covers the canvas in a medium, which may be clear or contain a color. The second step in the wet-on-wet technique involves applying the colors on the canvas with a paintbrush. The artist may use colors directly from the tube, or blend them on a palette and mix them with a medium. The medium is a drying oil, such as linseed oil, and is used to dilute the paints and make glazes. A solvent such as turpentine may also be used as a paint thinner. The difference between a medium and a solvent is that the medium maintains the oily consistency of the paints, and is used to obtain a glossy finish, while the solvent gives a matte appearance to the oil paints. Typically, artists use both a medium and a solvent when preparing colors, because if only a solvent is employed, the paint is prone to cracking.

Modern Techniques

Traditional painters used paintbrushes to apply paint on the painting surface. A modern approach to oil painting involves using different techniques and painting tools. Artists such as pointillists used small dots to build shapes that would make up a painting. Other artists such as Jackson Pollock painted on a canvas by dripping different colors without sketching anything prior to making the painting. Artists including Antoni Tapies used to place thick layers of paint directly on the canvas using a palette knife to obtain an impasto effect.

Oil Painting Materials

The oil paints are available in art supply stores, but certain artists prepare their colors using natural pigments and oil. Typically, artists paint on surfaces such as canvas, which is made of linen or cotton that is stapled to a stretcher, wooden boards or cardboard. The surface should be treated with gesso, which is a material that allows the oil paints to adhere better to the surface without passing to the other side of the canvas or cardboard. Artists use paintbrushes of different sizes, sponges and palette knives to apply oil paint to the canvas. The oil paints are thinned using turpentine or another solvent. The final stage of painting involves varnishing the canvas. Varnish protects the colors and make the painting more durable.

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