If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Oil paint

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Isaac Peterson, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

  • female robot grace style avatar for user divaCassandra1
    Where were oil paints first used? What was the dispersal pattern of this new kind of paint?
    (42 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf orange style avatar for user LiamTown
      My understanding is that oil "paint" wasn't originally used to create art, but was instead used to protect it. Its use was recorded by the Byzantines during the 5th/6th century, but as a varnish. It wasn't deemed practical to use as paint because of the slow drying time, and was instead used merely to seal cracks and protect the underlying paint from water. As for when it was first used to actually create the art, or its dispersal pattern thereafter, I'm not sure.
      (46 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user divaCassandra1
    What is meant by "the herocism of paint" at ?
    (25 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf blue style avatar for user Liroy Lourenco
      I think it is a physical heroism. On wikipedia it says "Oil paint eventually became the principal medium used for creating artworks as its advantages became widely known" and it continues on "by the height of the Renaissance oil painting techniques had almost completely replaced tempera paints in the majority of Europe"

      So I just watched the next video on tempera, and they were discussing the problems of tempera, especially the rate at which it dries, oil paints would allow painters more time to paint and perfect a work of art, but in addition it is more translucent, vibrant and has a better consistency.

      Also in a metaphorical sense, i think its not a stretch to associate oil paint with the renaissance and the flourishing of ideas, technique and skill with which i'm sure oil paint became synonymous.

      Look at a movement called super realism or photorealism, (not all but many of) the artists use the paint in such a strikingly vivid manner that I don't think could be achieved by many other mediums,that, and I think the continued use of oils is testament to it as the 'hero' of paints.
      (21 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    Do you need linseed oil to make oil paint, or could you use some other kind of oil just as well? Was qualities caused linseed oil to be favored? Clarity? Viscosity? Texture? Consistency? Price? Availability?
    (14 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf blue style avatar for user Liroy Lourenco
      ok so I have been looking around on line, and this is what I can tell you...

      you can definitely use other oils and people do. In fact different oils will actually change the vibrancy of the paint, for example they suggest not to use linseed oil for white because it makes the paint slightly yellow, instead they recommend poppy seed oil.

      the oil that ones uses seems to have more with drying time then anything else, by adding oil (to the pre existing oil paint or ) pigment you change its drying time. SO different oils have different drying times, why you would want to change the drying time I think may have to do with technique; whether the artist prefers painting wet on dry or wet on wet) and also the consistency of the paint for different parts of the painting for example a thick base colour or light bright highlights.

      I just thought of the artist Rothko who uses layers apon layers of thin coats on top of one another, which gives the effect of this perceived death in what ordinarily might look very flat if he had used for examples acrylic paint.
      (24 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Krunal Varshikar
    Which is a more challenging medium to work with, an oil paint or a water based paint? In my personal opinion, a water based paint should be more difficult to mix on paper, but I am still confused. Please suggest.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Rachel
      I find watercolors more difficult a medium than oil. I have used both, and oddly enough I started painting with oil before I ever used any water based paints. Oil is forgiving in so many ways. But watercolor, it shows your mistakes and I think shows one's true skill as an artist as well as the human side of painting which engenders mistakes. I now love watercolor for it's humble quality. I have learned to forgive myself easier and to be more aware of my humaness.
      (18 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Baba Spickoli
    Around , they start talking about the gender of materials, this got me thinking, were artists in the past stereotyped as more masculine and macho then the artists of today? In general, who would be considered weirder, artists of today or artists of the past?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Maria den Hartog
      A good example of a painter who is now considered excellent, but was not considered as such in his lifetime, is Vincent van Gogh. He only became famous in the very last years of his life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthumous_fame_of_Vincent_van_Gogh).
      To say someone is "weird" is a highly subjective judgement, and the answer to your question depends on what qualities of painters you would consider "weird." If by weird, you mean unlike John Q. Public, a lot of artists can be considered weird! After all, a full-time artist does not have a 9-5 job that pays a stable income. There are further variations in the category of artist that would influence wether or not you would consider them weird. Artists who make art within the boundaries of established and liked types of art, may be more accepted by the public than avant garde artists. I hope this answers your question!
      (1 vote)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Soraia L. Motta
    really? gendered materials? feminine= weak? really? This last comment is not educational at all, and don't add critical or positive values. It's useless, offensive and illogical . I know it's improvable that khan academy will edit it out by my request, but I had to point it out.
    Most of old western art was made by men but when women artist, of those periods, create they used the same material.
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • old spice man green style avatar for user Don Spence
      I think this comment is educational. Commenting on the disregard that that many people of the period had for the artistic skills of women does not, as Steven Zucker eloquently states, imply agreement with those opinions. To ignore this part of history is to distract those of us trying to increase gender equality today from how far we had to travel and how far we still have to go. I am offended by slavery, but pretending that it did not exist does not improve anything except to allow deniers to deny.
      (14 votes)
  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Kirtney-Robin Metz
    On the subject of medium brought up at the very end, I have found that I prefer using cardboard with bright paints, colored pencils, spray paints, or even cray-pas. Is the medium used more personal to the artist or the culture in which the artist is living in? For example, watercolors were avoided because of their association with femininity. Or the leaning towards the bright attention grabbing medium that I prefer being tied to the bright advertising fostered by the consumeristic culture of today in order to grab attention. Or most often is it actually just a random user preference?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Rachel
      Those gender stereotypes do not apply any more - at least I feel they don't. Today, an artist can use whatever medium inspires him/her. I think that kind of personal choice says something about the artist as a person.
      (6 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Isabella
    Who discovered oil paints?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Pro.100.AngeloK.98
    When were oil paints used?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers tree style avatar for user George K.
    What exactly is an altar piece?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(piano playing) Narrator: I think sometimes when we're talking about our history, we forget that the people who are making this are really artists. So, it's really important to have a sense of what this material feels like and why people used it. What we have up on the screen is a [sezicaria] altarpiece painting by Giovanni Boldini who is known for this vivid color and very complex, sort of atmospheres, glorious luminosity in his paintings. In fact, he used oil paint in a really interesting way. Oil paint has a kind of translucency and he really used that to advantage, but in a way that modern painters don't generally. Female: Can you explain what that means? Translucency? Narrator: What is oil paint? Isaac, when you paint, you don't go and grind your minerals and add linseed oil to it, do you? Isaac: No, not at all. But that's what they would have done in the time of Boldini. Narrator: How does he get this kind of jewel like color? That's something that we might have expected to see in northern painting in the 15th century. Isaac: Well, it comes from northern painting. Oil paint have different consistencies depending on what varnish you use with them. If you use damar resin with them. Damar resin is just a natural tree sap. It looks just like amber. It's like a jewel and what you do is dissolve this into turpentine and then mix it with the oil paint in order to make these transparent glass-like, they're just panes of paint. They're almost like stained glass layers of translucent paint. Narrator: So, when the light hits this, the light is not hitting just the top surface of the canvas and the paint on the canvas. It's not sort of an opaque layer. What you're saying is that light is actually entering in, almost like a prism. Isaac: The light can enter through all of them and go to the white surface before it reflects back. So, they seem to glow from the inside. Narrator: So, that really is like a gem. That's really what happens when you look at a diamond. Light is entering. It's bouncing around inside before it finally comes back out again. Isaac: Yeah. Female: So, I think a lot of people have this idea of oil paint as being kind of a thick and gooey substance, but the way that you're talking about it with Renaissance artists applying thin glazes of color and many layers of that, it's a very, very different idea of oil paint application. It's not thick gooey-ness, but a rather thin layers of it. Is that right? Narrator: That makes sense to me. And so that means that when Boldini was painting this, he must have been painting ... Let's, for instance, if you look at that brilliant blue of the Virgin Mary's dress, it wouldn't have been that blue on his brush. It would have been that blue very, very thinned out. Female: Does anyone know how many layers they applied? Narrator: Well, I've heard in the dozens. Female: Really? Narrator: Yeah. Female: The paint had to dry in between each layer completely, right? Narrator: Right. Isaac: But what damar does, is damar speeds up the drying a little bit. Female: Oh. So, how long would it take a layer to dry normally? Narrator: Well, it depends on how much ... Female: Humidity is in the air? Narrator: And how much oil there is. I mean, there are those stories of very heavily built up canvases by Van Gogh. You have a skin that is dry, but inside there's probably still some viscosity. Female: Uh-huh. Narrator: So, this luminosity, this brilliance of color is a really important characteristic of oil paint, but there's another important characteristic of oil paint which really differentiates it from tempera before it, which is that if you're not using the damar that the oil would have this really sort of wonderful liquid quality and it allows for the paint to come off the brush in a very long stroke and it allows for the paint to be mixed on the canvas as opposed to just on the palette. This is Turner's Rain Steam Speed, The Great Western Railway. Female: So, you think Turner is actually mixing the paints on the canvas? Narrator: Oh, that's a tough one. I don't know exactly. Isaac: I think so. Yeah. I would build on what you said about oils. This tempera is relatively flat, as is acrylic and, sort of, the best tempera I think of is Botticelli's work where it's very linear and all the colors form these flat, kind of, interlaced lines. Female: Like hatching? Where it's like you're hatching. Isaac: Yeah, like hatching. The basic unit of the painting is line, but in oils the basic unit is surface or atmosphere. It becomes infinitely more complex. One color can penetrate another and just by working with two colors you can get an infinite array of colors. My position, I guess, on Turner, knowing the repetidy of his pace is that with this painting, yeah, he probably let the colors be alive and mix them on top of each other and allow them to penetrate each other and emerge and sink down beneath one another. Narrator: That sounds so much more as if the process of painting exists in this direct confrontation of the artist and the canvas as opposed to something that's much more premeditated, much more sort of worked out and more completely preconceived. What I'm thinking about is here we have a much more modest canvas and I'm wondering ... Isaac: Right. Narrator: ... how much of a role media played ... Female: Yes. Narrator: ... in the development of modernism as an aesthetic. In this canvas we have this ... We have a painting that was criticized. A perfect exemplar of modernity ripping through what have been a pastoral landscape. Female: So, what comes first though? There's a kind of individualist part of the, kind of, romantic sensibility at this birth of modernism, but it does fit so perfectly with the medium of oil paint and oil paint fits well in other ways with modernism, right? It's something that can go on wooden panels or on canvas. It can be bought and sold and moved around and treated as private property. There's so many things about oil paint that allow for this development of modernism in a way. Narrator: It's true. Even the heroism of paint, and that's something I think is worth touching on. The idea of this extraordinary, sort of, expressive brush stroke. Female: Right. Narrator: I'm thinking about the work of Velasquez. There's a kind of heroism in there that I think becomes very much rooted in this notion of the individual. Female: And it's kind of virtuosity ... Narrator: Absolutely. Female: ... that one can show off with the brush. Isaac: You know, oil paint is the most historical medium. It's the medium of modernity and I've never found myself able to use, what for some reason, the bias in my mind from my education considered weaker media. My latest thing is to paint with water colors. Female: The weakest medium? Isaac: Yeah. The associations of being feminine and delicate. Female: Yeah, women painted in water color. Isaac: Yeah. Female: As amateurs, so I can't take it as something that serious artists do. Isaac: Yeah, but now I'm kind of interested in those issues. Like, why are the materials so gender-ed? Narrator: Material is really sort of critical. It doesn't only allow us to create a work of art, but it absolutely informs what that work of art means. (piano playing)