Tread the halls of any great gallery, and the power of oil paints will surely make itself known. Rembrandt’s dramatic chiaroscuro, JMW Turner’s raging seas, and the deep, textured impasto of Lucian Freud all came into being through oil’s incredible capabilities.
Versatility is a hallmark of oil paint: through careful preparation with a binder such as linseed oil a pigment can appear as practically transparent or decidedly opaque. Its textural elements, too, are easily transformed through different applications, be it with a fine hog-hair brush or a palette knife.
The use of oils was pioneered by Dutch artist Jan van Eyck in the 15th century, who experimented with perfecting the stability of the medium while still maintaining the vibrancy of the original pigments. The result was a fantastic alternative to egg tempera, the rapid drying time of which made it difficult to work with. Oils, meanwhile, cured slowly through oxidation, meaning that artists could finally have break and return to works again and again over a period of days, weeks, or even years.
While historical works of art are usually the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of oil paints, the medium remains a favourite among contemporary artists, particularly now that new developments have allowed it to be used in combination with other media. For example, Loie Hollowell’s incredible three-dimensional abstract works utilise oil, acrylic and more to create luminous shapes and eye-boggling gradients.