For centuries, oil paint has been a favourite of artists because of its unmatched richness and its unequivocal luminosity, a true classic. The history of oil pigments is an interesting one, and can be called weird too. How mankind came to create pigments is an intriguing read.
Did you know they do not make the colour ‘mummy brown’ anymore as they ran out of mummies to make mummy brown pigment! Yes, you read it correctly. Many names that you read are given to the colours because of what they were historically made from. ‘Madder red’ was made from ox blood and cow manure.
That’s mad stuff!
Making oil paint is similar to cooking. It starts with blending the grinded pigment and Oil in a huge batter mixer into a paste, then the paste is smooth out multiple times through a mill. The rollers further coat the pigment particles in oil as it is thickening the paint. There are three kinds of rollers: Steel, Granite, and Aluminium. When the process is complete the paint is stored into paint tubes ready for market.
The entire procedure of making oil paints is individually customized to a specific fineness, which could either be coarser or fine. The mixing of oil ratio and grinding can influence the hue of the colour. It would require an exact oil amount per pigment requirement. If you mix more or less oil, or grind it too much, there are chances that you may not achieve your shade of colour. You may end up with a purple instead of a blue. Research and testing of each colour take a lot of time, sometimes even months, based on its consistency and lightfast.
Mixing pigment with a drying oil like linseed (similar to flaxseed) fillers and thickeners added to this mixture is an important factor in making quality paints. When processed properly, these mixed compounds become a durable long-lasting paint colour.
Commonly used flax plant-based linseed oil, alkane series uses a petroleum solvent (hexane) extraction to capitalize on the yield, therefore not edible. Must only be used as an additive to paints or as a paint thinner or extender.
Walnut oil mediums are a healthier choice than harsh solvents base mediums, like linseed oil, stand oil and solvents. Walnut Oil paint and medium are solvent free, an eco-friendly green product that can be used like linseed oil or stand oil, and also clean your brushes without solvents. The company maintains that the medium can be used to remove "colour from artists' tools as effectively as odourless paint thinners" while not affecting the natural essential oils of the brush.
Their Walnut Oil and Walnut Alkyd medium resist yellowing and cracking, compared to linseed oil (due to its high linolenic acid content), beside being more brittle. The bonus, Walnut Alkyd medium dries faster than the traditional safflower and poppy seed oils.
The quality of pigment also impacts the lightfastness (resistance to fading) of the paints. A litre of pigment could cost anywhere between $250 to $1,100 depends on the efforts applied in discovering the pigment, the purity of the pigment and production of quality control of a colour sets the cost of a pigment. Artists quality paint, you buy the best quality pigment, highest pigment load, and not cheap fillers to accomplish the optimum results.
Professional artists look for lightfastness. Research on lightfastness has been ongoing throughout the ages, especially for certain pigments. Nobody wants to create a masterpiece that will be washed out 50 years down the road. Professional artists need a guarantee that what they're buying must be dependable, reliable and durable for years to come. Investors need a return on their investments not depreciate due to poor materials.
The paintings discovered in the caves of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, belonging to the 7th century are first oil paintings known to humans. In Europe, first recorded oil painting was as early as in the 11th century and gained popularity during the Renaissance. These paintings were made from linseed oil, a drying oil, and pigment, when crushed and mixed they bind together to form a permanent paint.
It is the pigments that make oil paints expensive. Good paint is loaded with good quality pigment; highest quality oil paints are loaded with as much as 75% of pigment. Most sought-after pigments have been difficult to discover and produce, making them worth more than their weight in gold.
Trivia – the symbol of status of the Roman Royalty, Tyrian purple was a dye extracted from the glands of thousands of shellfish left in sun to be baked. 10,000 shellfish were crushed to get 1 gram of dye making it worth more than its weight in gold. Cleopatra was such a fan of the Tyrian purple everything in her palace was purple, while Caesar was so captivated by its richness nobody else was allowed to wear.
‘The Starry Night’ by Van Gogh is one of the most recognised paintings in the history of Western art culture. The ultramarine sky and the Indian yellow stars and Moon make it strikingly beautiful and priceless too. Hailed as Van Gogh’s magnum opus, had it not been for oil paint it could have been lost to us. More than hundred years we can visualise what he saw from the window of his sanatorium room. Thousands of such classical masterpieces would have been long gone and lost in time had it not been for the lightfastness of oil paints. This clearly makes oil paints worth every penny.
Another property that makes oil paints an artist’s best friend is the fact that they are slow to dry. This means the artist can blend colours and change the structure of his work for a longer period, than with any other mediums. Artists have the ‘edit’ option available to them because oil paints dry by oxidation and not evaporation. At the same time, it has its limitations, then they must set it aside for drying time. Depending on the thickness of the layer, it usually takes approximately 1 to 2 weeks for the paint to get dry to touch, allowing you to add layers and/or defining detail work.
Until synthetic pigments were invented, creating paints from organic pigments was a master’s task. Ultramarine blue, unknown to Europe until 15th century, swept the European art scene like a typhoon was so expensive that it is believed Michelangelo left his painting ‘The Entombment’ unfinished as he could not afford to buy more ultramarine blue. Made from a semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, it was considered as precious as gold.
Ultramarine blue, signifying "beyond the ocean," found in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was produced using lapis lazuli, which in its most flawless shade can cost up to $30,000 per kilo. It was utilized to produce oil paint until a synthetic version was made in 1826. This royal blue shade was so exceptional in the Renaissance that it was just used to paint the robes of the Virgin Mary. To know more about the different pigments, read our blog 'Pigments: From Caves to Canvas’ on how different pigments were made.
The history of pigments is so rich; and rare which made them expensive. But with the advent of synthetic pigments, oil paints are not rendering artists debt ridden anymore. 20th century has seen huge changes in the composition of oil paint and its manufacturing. From the use of granite ball and buhrstone wheel to grind the pigment to sand mills and high dispersion mixers, the biggest advancement has been the easy availability of paints due to the changes thanks to the industrial era that help revolutionize the pigment industry. Traditionally our ancestors would only grind the pigment and the customer had to do the mixing, today you can purchase ready made, squeeze straight out of tube paints to use.
Though chemical synthesized versions of many pigment colours have made them cheaper, there are still many hues that are difficult to produce and thus, expensive. Like the original Cobalt, famously called ‘the divine colour’ by Vincent Van Gogh, is still one of the most expensive paints as the pigment is processed by sintering and heating aluminium (alumina) with cobalt (II) oxide at 1200 degree Celsius. The process of manufacturing is the key reason why some oil paints from the same brand are sold at different price point. Every pigment colour has its own special composition and method, and each one is created keeping a specific goal in mind.
Some manufacturers have developed a cobalt blue hue, meaning more than one pigment.
• An example, Winsor & Newton Artisan Water Mixable Oil Cobalt blue hue uses combined modified linseed oil with a pigment mixture of Indanthrone (PB60), a complex silicate of sodium and (PB29) aluminium with sulfur to create a similar Cobalt blue hue.
• Student Winton Oil uses Cobalt blue PB28 with more linseed filler, to cut the cost.
• Winsor & Newton Professional Artists Oil Cobalt blue uses Oxides of Cobalt and Aluminum (PB28) with linseed and Safflower oil binder to boost the colour clarity.
• M Graham hopped to use Oxides of Cobalt and Aluminum (PB28) with an Alkali Redefine Walnut Oil, a vehicle that has less of a tendency of yellowing with time, keeping its durability intact.
Oil mediums like safflower or poppy oil has less of a tendency of yellowing with time, but produces a weaker and more fragile films, while it helps the oil paint layer to dry faster. The Cobalt blue does naturally incorporate Safflower oil in its pigment structure, which is why it naturally dries faster than other pigments and sometime cause wrinkles while drying and eventually irons itself out… This is another factor artist’s must be aware of, the natural pigment characteristic that affect your painting process.
As each pigment needs to be grinded to a certain fineness to make it fine or coarse. The measure of oil added also changes the shade. Higher the pigment content; deeper the shade, higher the oil content; lighter the shade. The higher the oil properties also diminishes the viscosity of the colour.
Each brand has their own unique texture, while some will be buttery and easy to spread others will be grainy or viscid. It is for the artist to decide what works best for them. Winsor and Newton have been making oil paints for more than 200 years and they produce more than 100 shades every year. Sennelier, established in 1887, take pride in being the choice of masters like Picasso and Matisse. Made by using safflower oil instead of linseed oil, they give satin finish and prevent yellowing; they have become the ‘Reference’ brand. Bob Ross oil paints are not high on pigment load but have great consistency for Ross’ wet-on-wet technique. Regardless of your brand, oil paints are still every artist’s favourite medium. Whenever you want to be expressive with brush strokes, it always helps to use the best.
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