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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Invention of Oil Painting

How would you like to begin your day as an artist by going out and searching the forest for roots of a certain color, or digging up dirt of a certain color, or visiting a local jeweler to select certain colored semi-precious stones so that you could return to your studio and commence grinding them with a mortar and pestle?  All this in the hope of acquiring just the right colored pigments to render just the right shade of pink for the Virgin Mary's soft countenance? How would you like, having done all this, to then go calling on the farmer down the road to gather a few eggs for the yolks into which to mix these hard-earned pigments? You'd probably eat a lot of egg whites for breakfast.

Portrait of a Man with a Turban,
1433, Jan van Eyck, possible
I don't know about you, but I'd be too tired by that time to paint. Then, on top of that, you'd spend hours and hours cross-hatching tiny linear strokes of paint in building up just the right tones and textures to color your carefully drawn images on wood panels you'd sawed, hewn, and planed the day before. And that doesn't count applying the layer upon layer of finely ground plaster mixed with rabbit skin glue (which your neighbors hate the smell of as you boil down all those rancid pelts). And of course, you could only paint during the daylight hours, not that you could stay awake very long into the night after all that anyway.

The Flemish artist, Jan Van Eyck, had those problems, at least up until about 1400. No doubt he wasn't the first artist to say to himself, "There's got to be an easier way to make a living."  Except that he did something about it. Egg tempera, while rich in color, was poor in subtlety, even in expert hands. So, he invented oil painting. Blending his laboriously acquired pigments into linseed oil allowed him hours, even days to work and rework a given area, instead of mere minutes. And oils were especially well-suited for painting on those new, light, sturdy, stretched, gessoed linen canvases, rather than heavy, awkward old boards. Moreover, they gave him a practically unlimited scope of space upon which to craft his masterpieces. Now if only he could round up a few more apprentices to scrounge and grind pigments, life would be a still-life bowl full of cherries.

(Note:  van Eyck wasn't the first to paint using oils, but, according to the 16th Century art historian, Giorgio Vasari, he was likely the first western artist to do so exclusively.)

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