The art of oil

 By Nicholas Newman

Many of the world’s most famous pictures and manuscripts use paints and inks made from both mineral and vegetable oils…

Many of the world’s most famous pictures and manuscripts use paints and inks made from both mineral and vegetable oils. Without oil, paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss would not exist, and historic documents such as the Magna Carta would not have been written, nor would the King James Bible have been printed. Without the medium of oil and pigments, we would not visit the Louvre museum in Paris, nor would we sit down and read a good book, such as the Divine Comedy by Dante or one of the Harry Potter novels. This feature will look at the use of oil to make inks and paints since ancient times until today.

What is Magna Carta?

The use of oil in European painting

The techniques for using oils in coloring and decorative work were well known in Roman times and were allegedly described by the elder Pliny in his encyclopedic works. “The first written record of this application is by the Roman Aetius in the late fifth century, and a recipe for an oil varnish (in which a drying oil is mixed with natural resins) is listed in an eighth-century document known as the Lucca manuscript.”

Dionysian masks from the House of the Golden bracelet, Pompeii

Records from the 13th century show that gums and resins exuded by trees were often used in churches and monasteries to produce a kind of protective varnish for wall paintings and colored devotional and ornamental works. This “sandarac” varnish, derived from North African imports, was dark and reddish in tone and distorted work executed in blues and greens. However, Flemish painters who flourished in the fifteenth century first introduced high-quality painting with pigments suspended in refined vegetable oils to European art. Artists experimented with dissolving pine-tree resins, and even amber in linseed oil, partly to offer a protective varnish to layers of egg-tempera paint and to provide transparency and luminescence to conventional powdered pigments.

Jan van Eyck is the most famous exemplar of this use of oil. The brilliance and durability of his masterpieces show why it was soon imitated by the Italian masters of Renaissance art. Vasari, the 16th-century Italian chronicler of his country’s painters, claims Van Eyck was seeking to speed up drying and that he experimented with walnut and poppy oils as well as linseed. He also refined amber and experimented with various mineral drying agents. He achieved a remarkable jewel-like luminescence with oil-based glazes over under-paintings in egg-tempera. To this day, this quality of transparency distinguishes oil painting from paintings in other mediums.

Detail of "The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin", Jan van Eyck (The Yorck Project, Wikimedia)

But, the industry supplying artists’ colors has come a long way since the Renaissance. Chemical wizardry, spear-headed by car manufacturers seeking cheaper, stabler colors, has produced many new formulations, such as the perylenes and bismuth vanadates. The oil mediums in which they are suspended have also changed. Linseed oil, in various grades of refinement, still is a familiar medium for all artists but, as a major manufacturer has said, “Pigment and a linseed oil are simply not sufficient to make a good artists’ oil color.” Schmincke, the leading German manufacturer, uses a broad and diverse range of oils such as safflower oil, poppy-seed oil, sunflower-oil and natural dammar resin from Palembang, Indonesia. Despite the attractions of acrylic paints – durable, quick-drying and stable — oils are still at the pinnacle of artistic endeavor.

The use of inks

The use of ink for recording information, drawing and instruction is an ancient practice. The first inks for writing go as far back as the 23rd century BC. Artists applied the inks to flat surfaces using paintbrushes.

Chinese manuscript booklet of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (

Indian ink, known as masi, developed around the fourth century BC and made with burned bones, tar and pitch. Instead of using paintbrushes, artists applied ink to parchment with sharp needles, as the forebear of the modern pen.

Folio from a Buddhist Manuscript (

The Romans developed a new ink, which acted as the basis for inks through the next thousand years. Ferrous sulphate inks comprised a base of ground iron, which was subsequently mixed with the tannin from gallnuts. Using iron sulphates as the base for inks ran through medieval times, even when it appeared that alternatives, such as scorched hawthorn branches boiled with wine, were still possible solutions for longer-lasting inks.

Johannes Gutenberg initiated the next major development in ink when in the 15th, century he found that traditional inks were unsuitable for his mechanical printing press. Contemporary inks tended to smudge in his moveable type printing, since they were not absorbed by the paper fast enough or used soluble gum bases. To solve this problem, Gutenberg invented the first oil-based ink, made from such bio-oils as turpentine and walnut oil, plus soot. The added adhesive properties meant that the printing press wouldn’t smudge the pages, and each page didn’t need a lengthy drying time. Medieval inks tended to fade over time and sulfate-based inks could also destroy parchment since sulfates are corrosive and “ate “through the pages.

Gutenberg Bible (jmwk, Wikimedia)

It was not until 1856, that an English chemist, William Henry Perkin, accidentally found a solution to the problem of ink prints fading over time. Perkin was seeking a manmade cure for malaria when he discovered the first type of synthetic dye for ink and textiles. Such dyes helped create the inks or emulsions used by photographers in the development process to print images. The arrival of digital photography has eliminated the need for photographic film but we still use such ink in inkjet cartridges (for ink jet printers) or in a powdered form as the toner in laser printers and photocopiers.

3D Printing (

In fact, 3-D printing in manufacturing is making use of a variety of toners, incorporating nylon, epoxy resin or plastics. Today, 3-D printing accounts for an increasing range of products including, shoes, components and models. This evolution of oil-based paints and inks over time demonstrates that the future of oil-based paints and inks is as bright today as it has always been.

SEE MORE: Oil: the essential ingredient in cosmetics by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.