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Oil Painting

( Originally Published 1955 )

A technique which employs an oil base as the vehicle for its pigments. This technique has varied greatly from one period to another, unlike other painting media such as fresco, tempera, encaustic and watercolor, whose usage and effect have been relatively constant. The great range and variety of oil painting through the centuries has encompassed the lush brilliance of a Titian, the dark richness of a Rembrandt and the fresh, high-keyed quality of a Manet. The oils which carry pigment are quick-drying substances that harden into a permanent crust when exposed to the air. Linseed oil is one of the commonest bases used. Often these oils are combined with a diluting medium to make them flow more freely. A varnish may be utilized in the painting mixture or by itself afterward, but in either case as a protective coating for the paint. In traditional oil painting, one of the most important factors is the priming or groundwork, as for example in Rembrandt's dark underpainting, Boucher's pink-toned bases, etc. As time elapses after the finishing of a picture, its color generally tends toward that of the groundwork, which becomes more and more the final determinant of the painting's quality. Thus Poussin's brown priming has finally triumphed over the original color of many of his pictures. Similarly Reynolds' works, often begun in grisaille or grey with glazes or layers superimposed, have suffered from the evaporation of the outside layers and have reverted to the greyish tonality of the ground. The safest method employed by older masters was to incorporate all the palette colors in the groundwork, gradually working from this stage, glaze by glaze, to the required final color harmony.

Historically, by the first half of the fifteenth century the Flemish painters who had previously used a standard tempera technique had begun to use a clear quick-drying, varnish-mixed oil in final glazes over a tempera base, as with the van Eycks and their contemporaries. This addition gave greater flexibility, depth and durability to their work. After a short time, fifteenth-century Italians followed suit. Both in northern and southern Europe wooden panels still continued to be used, although less in Italy than in the north. During the sixteenth century, however, canvas became the surface predominantly utilized for oil painting. The canvas was not sized or prepared with gesso as in tempera painting, since that substance absorbed oil, but rather with other materials containing whiting, china clay, etc., which avoided this difficulty and also kept the canvas flexible and noncracking. The chief advantage of the new oil medium was its wider range of tones-i.e., the range from light to dark within each color. Second, a larger number of actual hues or colors could be employed because the new oils and varnishes protected pigments. To this must be added the fact that, unlike other media, oil could be worked over and even corrected for a long time; the idea of a painting might be developed as the artist went along and need not be predetermined. During the centuries between the Renaissance and the 1800's, two general approaches prevailed in oil technique. One group of painters began their work on a light ground, while another began on a dark ground; the Florentines represent the first tendency and the Venetians the second. Yet painting methods, by and large, were the same throughout this long period and could even be reduced to a kind of formula. The historian W. G. Constable points out, for example, that painters in England and the United States in the eighteenth century were in the habit of first applying the background for the halftones. Over this they worked in the lights, shadows and local colors with a thin glaze, a scumble, or even a solid area of paint. Finally the highlights were put in, often with a heavy impasto. Individuals would necessarily vary this procedure in one way or another. Rubens, for instance, kept the shadows transparent; lighter portions were more heavily loaded. In the main, however, with Rubens as with other oil painters from the time of Titian on, the picture was built up in varying thicknesses of paint so that the penetration of light could be controlled by the artist.

With the nineteenth century, traditional studio practices and workshop conventions appear to have broken down (the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of Romantic individualism may have played a part here), and painting in oil changed radically. In general, the practice of using a series of glazes or layers along with scumbles gave way to so-called direct painting. Now the ground no longer played a vital role in the finished result; actually, the final color was already stated in the preliminary lay-in. By Reynolds' time many artists had lost the secret of Venetian oil painting, Goya being the last to use the Old Master methods of ground color and successive glazes: In the nineteenth century from Constable to the Impressionists the desire to show effects of natural light led to the development of broken tones of color, free brushing for sparkling effects, and flecks of white paint added with the palette knife. Thus a new phase was begun in the evolution of the oil medium, illustrating once more that flexibility of conception and variety in textures, colors and values which set it apart from all other painting techniques.

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