Oil painting is one of the most well-known art mediums today, with the majority of Renaissance paintings produced using oil-based paint. Invented in Afghanistan sometime between the fifth and tenth century, oil-based paint was primarily used in Buddhist paintings. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the process was brought into Europe, gaining popularity and displacing egg-based tempera paint as the primary medium used by painters during the fifteenth century. Because of its permanence, and variety and intensity of color, oil pointing is still a very popular medium, well into the twenty-first century.
The canvas used in oil painting is regular linen or cotton canvas stretched over a sturdy wooden frame, called a stretcher or strainer, depending on whether or not the bars are adjustable. The canvas is then sealed, or “sized,” with animal glue—traditionally, rabbit skin glue—and then primed with acrylic gesso, providing the surface that the oil paint will adhere to. Many modern oil painters choose readily available pre-primed or pre-stretched canvas, rather than priming their own. However, it is still necessary to add a light pigment to the canvas, allowing lighter colors to stand out against the white material; most painters will add a thin layer of light grey acrylic paint to the canvas for this reason, if they haven’t mixed the pigment in with the gesso when priming the canvas.
As for brushes, most oil painters advocate the use of natural fiber hog or sable brushes for oil paints, as the turpentine used to clean the paint from the brushes can damage synthetic bristles; however, recent advancements in synthetic materials have made it possible to use synthetic hair for oil painting. Despite this requirement for bristle types, the styles and sizes of brushes used in oil painting are comparable to those used for both watercolor and acrylic paints.
Overall, oil painting is still extremely popular and versatile, owing to its variety and malleability, with innovations in synthetic brush fibers and new water-miscible oil paints that supersede the use of turpentine making the medium even more accessible and appealing to newer painters.
A talented artist that used oil paintings to get started was John Ford Clymer. To learn more about Ellensburg, WA native artist, visit the John Ford Clymer Museum and Gallery.