Why learn oil painting?

Why indeed should you try to learn oil painting? Especially when we have all the other modern mediums available to the artist today?

  • You may have tried it before and became discouraged by a failure.
  • You presently paint in another medium but can’t seem to get the results you see from other artists within their oil paintings?
  • You may be really new to art and just wanted to look and found this site.
  • You may have allergies to solvents, and have given up on oil painting.
Learn and Master Painting

No matter the background, lets talk about why I feel that to learn oil painting is something very important.

It is something that every artist should try and add to their tool kit for creating great art.

I felt that as an artist, to learn oil painting is so important, this entire site is dedicated to it!

For over 400 years, painters have been looking for a Secret Formula to use, a simple trick that would make their paintings as exceptional as the early Masters.  To get a photographic, realistic likeness, that could be done in one sitting without a great deal of work.

The idea continues even today that there is A SECRET. 

Well, let me burst your bubble earlyThere's simply no such thing.

Oh, yes, we have indeed found bits of the puzzle.  But there is no one material, or special medium, or single piece of knowledge that can accomplish this.

It only comes with a full understanding of technique, and of the materials used in painting. 

Yep, you need a full body of information on the materials we use, and on painting technique that is obtained over time.  With study, practice and even experimentation, you can learn what you need to create works of beauty.

Guess what?  I've been painting my whole adult life, and I still learn things about oil painting that I didn't know before.

So, lets start your start journey in oil painting, and lets begin by talking a little about the  history and then we'll get into some of the merits of this wonderful the medium. 

When you search the internet, you will find hundreds if not thousands of "learning oil painting" sites. 

Most are out to sell you something, some will give you their idea of how to learn oil painting, and why their method is the best. (Me Included!)

Historical perspective of why we should learn oil painting.

But lets take a step back and check into the historical perspective of oil paints.

Take a trip back to 10,000 BC.  Lets look at pre-historic man during the Upper Palaeolithic period (40,000 to 10,000 BC), and in particular the Magdalenians, a group of peoples who flourished in Europe from 18,000 to 10,000 BC (1)

They actually had a system for Art.  They are our “Cave Paintings” that you undoubtedly have read a little about.  The best Magdalenian art, in particular the polychrome paintings,  were the work of professionals.  Indeed, it is likely that this art, and system of art throughout the hundreds of caves we have found, was the first of the human professions.(1)

The art that has been produced there was not only difficult, but expensive to produce.  We know they had a sophisticated scaffolding to get to the top of these caves.  They had lighting in the form of long lasting torches, but most intriguing, they had a form of oil pastel crayon or stick, and they had egg/oil mixtures within the paints that they used. 

We know now that they used mortise and tendons to grind minerals into pigment.  They used brushes, and even utilized a form of air brushing (by blowing pigment out of a small diameter bird bone). (2)

Learn oil painting, why it's important.

Why tell you this?

Well, just to let you know that there are paintings in existence today that were created tens of thousands of years ago that used ground pigments and oils as a binder. 

Thats right!  These paintings are dated to be 10's of thousands of years old, and they used OILS as a binder for ground pigments!

Not that modern materials will last that long.  (Canvas, wood, etc.) But under the right conditions, oil paints on something like copper, aluminum, steel could potentially be here very long into the future.

These caves were sealed for those thousands of years, with no air, molds, bacteria, or sunlight. 

Once the caves were opened, within 6 months, some paintings were completely destroyed. 

Most are now sealed with air conditioning and limited access in hopes of preserving the images for future generations.

Our modern day oil paints have now been discovered to have been used in Buddhist Paintings by Indian and Chinese painters in western Afghanistan sometime between the 5th and 9th Century.(3)

It is believed its practice migrated westward during the Middle Ages.  Its popularity however, exploded during the 15th Century when the van Eyck brothers, Huybrecht and Jan, added oils to their mixtures that would allow for a longer drying time, thus enabling a smoother transition in the shadow work of their paintings.  

This one thing allowed for a more realistic painting than what was ever dreamed possible.  This was the birth place of oil painting that we know and practice today. 

Although all the other forms and mediums of painting are practiced for certain advantages they may have over oil painting, the later remains standard because the majority of painters consider that its advantages outweigh its defects and that its range, scope and flexibility surpass water color, tempera, fresco, and pastel.(4)

I’m not knocking other mediums, as I enjoy what can be accomplished with watercolor, acrylics and pastels.  I talk about those experiences elsewhere on the site.  Heck, if it were not for a watercolorists that painted large flower paintings at our local art show, I may have taken a different career.  But I am absolutely passionate about what you can achieve when you learn oil painting.

The Merits of Why we should Learn Oil Painting.

Lets look at some basic points of oils superiority over other accepted methods of painting.

  1. The ease of its manipulation and great flexibility, wide range of varied effects that can be produced.  Basically said, if you can see it, you can paint it, with oils.
    You can combine transparent and opaque techniques, glaze and body color in a full range within a single painting.
  2. The colors that you use will not change between that when it is wet verses when it is dry (other than a mat finish on dark colors which is restored with oiling out).
  3. A great number of effects (textures, etc.) can be produced with a single simple and direct approach.
  4. Very large pictures can be produced and done on light weight canvas’s which can also be transported.  (Even if it’s on the roof of your sub compact car!)
  5. A universal acceptance of oil paintings by artists and the public, which has resulted in a universal availability of supplies, highly refined, developed, and standardized materials and pigments.
  6. Its principle defects found in much earlier works (over one hundred years of age) are the darkening, yellowing of the oil, and the possible disintegration of the paint film by cracking, flaking.  The former has been all but eliminated with the super refinement of linseed oils, and other material.  The later has been all but eliminated with the proper use and handling of the material. (Fat over lean compliance, impasto effects kept to a minimum, and many among other things discussed within the site on use of materials)
  7. With the advent of water-soluble oils, toxicity standards (safer paint) and finer walnut oil and inexpensive safflower oils, oil painting doesn't need the turpentine of yesteryear.  So no stinky studios.

Now, having gone through just some of the reasons that I love oil painting, (I try to pick up a new tip everyday!)  I hope you’ll try to learn oil painting too! 

And do keep me posted of your paintings progress!

Back to the top of why we should learn oil painting.


(1) http://www.artchive.com/artchive/C/cave.html

(2) http://www.primitiveways.com/paint_a_mammoth.html

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhas_of_Bamiyan

(4)Ralph Mayer, The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. 1957.

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