Early Oil Painting Styles

A brief introduction

The art of oil painting has been around for centuries. In fact, some of the earliest oil painting styles date back to the early Egyptians and Greeks. There is also evidence of monks having used oil paint through the centuries. These were not for traditional wall hangings or other piece of artwork, but as illuminations on their religious manuscripts. This early style of oil painting remained hidden from the majority of people as few commoners could read.

Religious beginnings

The church remained the focus of the early oil painting styles, as artists began emerging who could use the coloured oils to create adornments for the churches of the time. However, it wasn’t until the 15th century that the use of oils became prolific in Europe. The painting style that had emerged around this time was known as the Renaissance period and was centred largely on the Italian artists. A large number of the paintings of the time were used to decorate the walls and roofs of churches and other religious buildings.

It was a Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck, not an Italian, who was largely responsible for this new enthusiasm for the use of oil and the appreciation of the new oil painting style. He had discovered a new technique for producing the oil paints that was far more robust. His method is the one that is largely used today. Over the centuries there have been minor alterations and improvements to the technique for making the oils used in oil paintings.

One of the best examples of the Northern Renaissance oil painting style is van Eyck’s masterpiece, “Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife”. He painted this in 1434, and there is a belief that it is an image of van Eyck himself that can be seen in a mirror on a back wall. Whether that is true, or not, the impact that this oil painting style had on the art world at the time was huge. The colours of the oils that the other artists used at the time paled in comparison to those in van Eyck’s painting. The name, Northern Renaissance, had begun to be used to refer to artists who came from northern Eurpoean countries, such as Belgium.

Technical developments

The next development that affected the oil painting fraternity was later in the 15th century. Antonello da Messina added lead oxide to help the colours dry more quickly on the canvas. Leonardo da Vinci made his contribution to the improvement of oils too. He followed Messina by developing a method of preventing the colours becoming too dark during their preparation.

The Italian artists of the period continued to make improvements to the oils used for their wonderful paintings, but kept the exact recipe a secret from other artists. This is one of the main reasons why the Italians dominated the Renaissance oil painting style.

This monopoly of the Renaissance was held by the Italians, until after 1600. Flemish artists Paul Rubens, who had learnt the art of oil painting during his study time in Italy, was one of the artists who finally broke the Italian stronghold. Rubens was one of the earliest of the artists of the new Baroque oil painting style.


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