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Oil Paintings have been used throughout Art History. With many artists still using them today, what different advantages come with this medium? 

 

Related articles: 30 seminal oil paintings of Modern Art - The art of the Century in 26 powerful movements - 20 modern artists you should know 

Oil Painting has always been considered one of the most refined techniques in the Arts. Even at auction, oil paintings are valued higher than many other works.

The technique itself has been used for centuries. Oil Paints consist of pigments suspended in drying oils – typically dry powder pigments with linseed oil. The two elements are combined to create a paste, then applied with fluid layers with paintbrushes or painting knives on a canvas or board to achieve astonishing highly luminous and lifelike artworks.

The oil painting artist can adjust consistency, opacity and transparency according to the desired effect through the use of solvents – such as turpentine, or other mediums.

Although for a very long time oil painting was a technique which was thought to have originated in Europe one-thousand years ago, in the 11th century. However, proof of oil paints being used in Afghanistan in the 7th century has been found in 2008. The method has a longer past than one would expect – without doubt it is deeply grounded in Art History.

Today, it is still a fundamental technique for many artists. But the way these paints are applied has transformed enormously. Every artist has used in their own personal way to speak about unique themes. By using the materiality and transparency of this medium in extremely distinct ways, infinite possibilities open up for skilled oil painting artists… 

Conventions and rules have been abandoned and the methods have changed (especially since the introduction and commercialisation of paint in tubes), but how have artists used oil paints throughout the years?

By looking at the masterpieces produced by oil painting artists, can we understand the unicity and power of this medium?

Unique Techniques of 20 Oil Painting Artists

1. Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic work the ‘Mona Lisa’ (ca. 1503-1519), hanging in the Louvre in Paris, is his most well-known oil painting. In fact, it is probably the most famous work of art ever to have been created. Leonardo da Vinci made incredible use of the delicate transparencies and the unique depth achievable solely with oil paints, creating the landscape depicted in the background and the allusive smile of the female figure portrayed. This artist even attempted to use oil paintings in a Fresco painting of ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ at the Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence. Despite the fact this attempt failed, it is obvious that the unique advantages of this medium were apparent to him.

 

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, ca. 1503-1519, Courtesy of Wikiart ©Public Domain

 

2. Hieronymus Bosch

One of the most well-known Dutch artists, Hieronymus Bosch mostly produced artworks with oil paints on wood. ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1510-1515) is a fine example of his work – typically a fantastic illustration with a strong religious narrative. Mastering oil paints, he was able to achieve an astonishing level of precision. Many of the details are hardly visible at all.

 

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1510-1515, Courtesy of Wikiart ©Public Domain

 

3. Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder created ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565) using oil paints on a wooden panel. It is a peasant genre, typically depicting a landscape scene – one of six depicting the different seasons of the year. The contrast and clarity of the image is breath-taking. Even though at first glance it appears to be a simple winter scene, at closer examination the details are in the emotion filled figures who suffer the troubled winter and scarcity of food.

 

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Courtesy of Wikiart ©Public Domain

 

4. Michelangelo da Merisi

Michelangelo da Merisi, otherwise known as Caravaggio, was a master of oil paints creating theatrical works which highlighted the depth and intensity of oil colours. ‘The calling of St Matthew’, created in 1599-1600, is exemplary. The powerful contrast of light and dark areas, and sculptural chiaroscuro effects, have an intense effect on the composition, emotions of the figures depicted and the viewer. It is more than lifelike - overwhelmingly powerful.

 

Michelangelo da Merisi detto Caravaggio, ‘The calling of St Matthew’, 1599-1600, Courtesy of arsy.net ©Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 

5. George Stubbs

At the National Gallery in London, we can find an artwork which stands out. It is the oil painting ‘Whistlejaket’ (ca. 1762) by George Stubbs. It is a painting of a racing horse. Immense and detailed yet free. This work does not reveal an idealised depiction of a horse, but the character of a specific horse, portrayed as both powerful and noble.  Another example of the power and vivacity achievable through oil paints – which, according to the story, even impressed the horse depicted too as it thought it was a wild stallion and not a painting.

 

 

George Stubbs, Whistlejaket, ca. 1762, Courtesy of The National Gallery ©2016-2021 The National Gallery

 

6. Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (ca. 1628) shows how the materiality of oil paints can be used. The master, recognised as one of the greatest portrait artists of all time, drew into the wet layer of thick oil paint to make it look like his hair was catching the light. It is lively and innovative, showing Rembrandt’s ability to grasp something more than photographic realism through his oil paintings.

 

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait, ca. 1628, Courtesy of rijksmuseum.nl ©Public Domain

 

7. Diego Velasquez

In the Museo del Prado in Madrid, we can find Diego Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ (1656). Velasquez produced a limited amount of paintings during his life, but all of them were oil paintings. Representing the Spanish Golden Age, this artist created an artwork which is both complex and enigmatic, playing with how we see the figures depicted through illusive effects. It is an oil work which presents us with a precise moment, with incredible detail. A natural scene rather than a posed composition.

 

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Courtesy of Wikiart ©Public Domain

 

8. Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer is also one of the most acclaimed oil painting artists, and ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (ca. 1665) is probably his most famous artwork. With a book created around the story of the mysterious women depicted, this painting is charged, alluring and attractive. Vermeer was an observant painter, who focused on the details such as the light shining on the earring at the centre of the painting, or the delicate lips paused as if they are about to utter something. The painting appears as a stolen image – an instant captured by the painter – and a mastered use of oil paint has enabled Vermeer to achieve this incredible effect.

 

 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, ca. 1665, Courtesy of britannica.com ©Ian Dagnall / Alamy

 

9. Joseph Mallord William Turner

Turner’sMargate, from the sea’ (ca. 1835-1840) shows how a sculptural use oil on canvas can create astonishingly compelling effects. The oil painting transmits the power of Nature and transforming sceneries through the use of more or less thick layers of paint. The skies and sea, although in a painting the artist never chose to exhibit, show how oil paints can recreate a material dimension of what is physically ungraspable.

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Margate, from the sea, ca. 1835-1840, Courtesy of The National Gallery ©2016-2021 The National Gallery

 

10. Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet was recognised as the one who broke with the official Académie in Paris. All the rules and conventions of the past were abandoned by this artist. He found a new liberated way of painting. The brushstrokes became more expressive, rather than strictly imitative. This portrait of fellow painter (also his wife), ‘Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets’ (1872), shows us an incredible example of the pioneering use of oil paints.

 

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets, 1872, Courtesy of Wikiart ©Public Domain

 

11. Claude Monet

By observing a specific scene at different times of the day, and reproducing the same subject many times, Claude Monet let his brushstroke run even more freely on the canvas. The ‘Nymphées’ (painted after 1916), of which he produced many versions, is the best example of this. He explored this theme particularly in the later stages of his life and used the paint with an emotional fleetingness which had never been achieved before.

 

Claude Monet, Nymphées, after 1916, Courtesy of The National Gallery ©2016-2021 The National Gallery

 

12. Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh is particularly famous for his unique and ground-breaking paintings. Dense layers of thick paint are shaped and layered in his emotionally packed works. One of his last works, ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ (1890) is an excellent example. It is an expressive artwork in which strong emotions take the form of thick vibrant oil paints.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum ©Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/ Vincent van Gogh Foundation

 

13. Gustav Klimt

Renowned for his allegorical compositions and female portraits, Gustav Klimt also focused on landscape paintings. In these works, the artist started to use a thicker brush and pure paint to achieve a more expressive adaptation of his typical focus on patterns and designs. ‘Bauerngarten’ (1907) shows rich oil colours, combined to create an overpowering composition of garden flowers.

 

 

Gustav Klimt, Bauerngarten, 1907, Courtesy of Wikiart ©Public Domain

 

14. Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is an unforgettable artist. A crucial figure of Cubism, his oil paintings broke the rules of conventional 2D representations. ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) is an incredible oil painting which does exactly this, breaking the figures, shattering them and flattening them on the surface of the canvas. The oil paint conveys strong colours and contrasting shades in this masterpiece. 

 

 

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, Courtesy of MOMA ©2021 The Museum of Modern Art

 

15. Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí mastered the details in his surreal paintings. Artworks like ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’ (1936) depict incredible scenes which are otherworldly but convincing at the same time. The human-like shapes and recognisable objects come together in distorted and unsettling compositions. The amount of detail and incredibly smooth shades are only possible thanks to this artist’s skilled use of oil paints.

 

Salvador Dalí, Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936, Courtesy of the Tate ©Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvado Dali Foundation/ DACS, London 2021

 

16. Max Ernst

Max Ernst also depicted dreamlike figures. In his work ‘Napoleon in the Wilderness’ (1941), he develops the theme of exile and defeat. Through the historical figure of Napoleon, usually represented as triumphant, he expresses his feelings at the time with an organic composition which blends the natural with the anthropomorphic. This artist achieves impressive blends, smooth shades, interesting textures and stunning colours through a mastered oil painting technique.

 

Max Ernst, Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941, Courtesy of MOMA ©2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

 

17. Grace Hartigan

In 1957, Grace Hartigan painted ‘Sinnecock Canal’, inspired by the homonymous canal which runs through South Fork, Long Island. A landscape is transformed through expanded colliding colours and energetic brushstrokes. It is gestural and expressive, yet the connection with the physical remains. We perceive the grasping force of the scene rather than the details. She said, “I want an art that is not ‘abstract’ and not ‘realistic’”, and through this powerful medium she achieves this.

 

Grace Hartigan, Shinnecock Canal, 1957, Courtesy of MOMA ©2021 Grace Hartigan

 

18. Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko is well-known for his big paintings and large areas of colour. They show a purity of human emotion. His technique is refined and radical. The artworks are timeless and enveloping as it draws the viewers to contemplation and self-reflection, attracting them and refraining them thanks to the effect evoked by the colours. The multiple layers of oil paints are key to the immersive compositions.

 

Mark Rothko, No. 10., 1950, Courtesy of MOMA ©2021 The Museum of Modern Art

 

19. Vasudeo S. Gaitonde

Contemplative work ‘Painting, 4’ by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde presents a light scene. The work is said to present an embodied and silent experience, associated with the artist’s interest in Buddhism. Lightness is achieved through blends which at a distance seem uniform, but close up reveal the artist’s process of applying and scraping off paint to achieve an imperfect texture. It is a break in the uniformity but a use of the practice to achieve depth in the work.

 

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Painting, 4., 1962, Courtesy of MOMA ©2021 The Museum of Modern Art

 

20. Cleo Zanello

Brazilian-Italian artist Cleo Zanello used oil paints with a combination of different media. However, the transparency and layering in his works create an effect which can only be attained fully through the use of oils. He used expressionist techniques and applied paint with wide brushes – clearly visible in this work. The multiple coats of paint expose the different levels in the composition and artistic process: words, references to urban scenes, graffiti and subtle references to the figurative, as well as lines scratched and drawn into the wet paint.

 

 

Cleo Zanello, Dipinto su tela, ca. 1970-1980, Courtesy of Roberto Zanello ©Cleo Zanello

 

Cover image: Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum ©Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/ Vincent van Gogh Foundation

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello
 
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