The history of western painting, you could argue, has been shaped by the chemistry of oil paint. A suspension of powdered pigment in vegetable oil, it dries far more slowly than egg or water-based paints and can be reworked almost indefinitely. The oil’s refractive and reflective qualities give colours a distinctive translucency.
Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441), The Rolin Madonna (La Vierge au Chancelier Rolin), c.1435 (panel). Oil on panel. 66 x 62 cm. Louvre, Paris, France. Bridgeman Images.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c.1488-1576), The Death of Actaeon, c.1565. Oil on canvas. 175.8 x 197.8 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Bridgeman Images.
Northern Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck (above) didn’t invent oil paint, but they perfected the use of multiple glazes to achieve a virtuoso naturalism. Sixteenth century Venetian artists evolved a very different, dynamic style of brushwork, exploiting the flow of dilute paint. Titian continually revised as he painted; a tricky process in fresco or tempera.
Antoni Tapies 1923–2012, Peinture grise et verte. Oil paint, epoxy resin and marble dust on canvas. 114 x 161.3 cm. © Tate, London 2014. © Foundation Antoni Tapies, Barcelona. ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.
Oil’s qualities as a binding medium encouraged 20th century artists such as Pablo Picasso and Antoni Tapiès (above) to incorporate sand, ash and other particles. In work by Frank Auerbach (below), heavy impasto oil paint becomes a quasi-sculptural medium.
Frank Auerbach, E. O. W. on Her Blue Eiderdown, 1963. Oil on canvas. 47 x 54cm. Gallery Oldham Image courtesy of Gallery Oldham. © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art.
Main image: Detail from Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c.1488-1576), The Death of Actaeon, c.1565.
Oil on canvas. 175.8 x 197.8 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Bridgeman Images.
Explore the full series, The History of Art in 20 Media. For more features, interviews and videos, see our Christie’s Daily homepage