Facts on Oil Paintings & Art

by Buffy Naillon Google
Oil paints revolutionized art history and painting.

Oil paints revolutionized art history and painting.

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The introduction of oil painting significantly revolutionized art, according to Athena Learning. Its existence freed artists to experiment with ideas and techniques that would have never before been possible. With just two main techniques for creating a painting, artists throughout the centuries have left behind some of the most important images in art history.

Earliest Paintings

Painting has served as a historical record of man's ponderings about the world and his belief in his god since man first drew in caves. Paintings also give historians a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient peoples. The 7th century Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan's Bamiyan caves are the oldest known oil paintings in the world.


Art historians have disproved that Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck was the originator of oil painting, but they do credit him with making the use of the medium widespread among artists. Before oil paints, most artists painted with egg tempera, which they made by mixing pigment with egg yolks. Egyptian and Roman artists also used the encaustic technique, in which they mixed pigment and wax. Oil paint changed the way artists worked, because it didn't dry right away. It took several weeks for the paint to dry, allowing artists to work and rework the piece until it suited their tastes.

Portability and Style

The development of oil paints permitted artists to create a realism that hadn't been seen before in art, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum attributes the development of Netherlandish painting to oil paints, including the paintings of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who painted "Girl With the Pearl Earring." The invention of tubes of paint also played a big role in the history of art and oil painting. These days, artists usually buy tubes of oil paint from an art supply store, but this represents a recent development in art history. Before tubes of paint were invented, artists had to mix their own paints in the studio. Impressionism, one of the most important movements in art history, could not have emerged without oil paint in a tube. Tubes of oil paint allowed these artists to move outdoors to paint, permitting them to capture the light --- a primary element for which Impressionist art is known.

Grisaille Versus Alla Prima

Artists who paint with oil paints use two primary techniques: alla prima and the grisaille. Grisaille is the older of the two. It requires artists to first make an underpainting of the subject in monotone colors --- usually gray or brown. They then paint light glazes of colors over the underpainting until it is colored completely. Alla prima or the wet on wet technique allows the painter to lay down color and shading in one step instead of the two required by the grisaille method.

About the Author

Buffy Naillon has worked in the media industry since 1999, contributing to Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine and various websites. She received a bachelor's degree in German from Boise State University. Naillon also attended New York University and participated in the foreign exchange program at Germany's Saarland University. She is completing her master's degree in educational technology at Boise State.

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