top of page

Oil Painting History... What We Know

The oldest known oil paintings in history were created by Buddhist artists in Afghanistan and date back to the 7th century AD.

Looking at oil painting history, the art of oil painting peaked when Oil paint was used by Europeans for painting statues and woodwork from at least the 12th century, but its common use for painted images began with Early Netherlandish painting in Northern Europe.

Oil Painting Technique History

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder.

Using oil for painting images gave artists "greater flexibility, richer and denser color, the use of layers, and a wider range from light to dark".

Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil.

The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time.

The paint could be thinned with turpentine. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints.

An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium.

The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss. The paint itself can be molded into different textures depending on its plasticity.

The Oldest Known Oil Paintings

The earliest known surviving oil paintings are Buddhist murals created c. 650 AD in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Bamiyan is a historic settlement along The Silk Road.

The Silk Road was a network of Eurasian trade routes active from the second century BCE until the mid-15th century. Spanning over 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles), it played a central role in facilitating economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between the East and West.

The Silk Road derives its name from the highly lucrative trade of silk textiles that were produced almost exclusively in China.

The Silk Road is famous for the Bamiyan Buddhas, a series of giant statues, behind which rooms and tunnels are carved from the rock. The murals are located in these rooms.

The artworks display a wide range of pigments and ingredients and even include the use of a final varnish layer. The refinement of this painting technique and the survival of the paintings into the present day suggests that oil paints had been used in Asia for some time before the 7th century.

This technique of binding pigments in oil, first seen in the Bamiyan cave paintings of Central Asia, was later brought to Europe about 900 years later, in the 15th century.

Europeans adopted the technique with Early Netherlandish painting in Northern Europe, and later, during the Renaissance, oil painting techniques almost completely replaced the earlier use of tempera paints in the majority of Europe.

A section of the earliest discovered oil paintings (~ 650AD) depicting buddhist imagery in Bamiyan, Afghanistan
A close up of the earliest discovered oil paintings (~ 650AD) depicting buddhist imagery in Bamiyan, Afghanistan

Tempera Paints

Tempera is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually glutinous material such as egg yolk ( Egg Tempera).

Tempera paintings are very long-lasting, and examples from the first century AD still exist.

Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after 1500 when it was superseded by oil painting.

The term tempera is derived from the Italian term "dipingere a tempera" which means "paint in distemper", from the Late Latin term "distemperare" which means "mix thoroughly".

Tempera painting has been found on early Egyptian sarcophagus decorations. Many of the Fayum mummy portraits use tempera, sometimes in combination with encaustic painting with melted wax, the alternative painting technique in the ancient world.

Tempera was also used for the murals of the 3rd-century Dura-Europos synagogue.

Tempera painting was the primary panel painting medium for nearly every painter in the European Medieval and Early Renaissance period up to 1500. For example, most surviving panel paintings attributed to Michelangelo are executed in egg tempera, an exception being his Doni Tondo which uses both tempera and oil paint.

Oil paint, which may have originated in Afghanistan between the 5th and 9th centuries and migrated westward in the Middle Ages eventually superseded tempera. Oil replaced tempera as the principal medium used for creating artwork during the 15th century in Early Netherlandish painting in northern Europe.

Around 1500, oil paint replaced tempera in Italy. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were intermittent revivals of tempera technique in Western art, among the Pre-Raphaelites, Social Realists, and others.

Tempera painting continues to be used in Greece and Russia where it is the traditional medium for Orthodox icons.

Tempera is traditionally created by hand-grinding dry powdered pigments into a binding agent or medium, such as egg yolk, milk (in the form of casein), and a variety of plant gums.

A detail from the oldest oil paintings in the world (~ 650 AD), a series of Buddhist murals created in Bamiyan, Afghanistan
A close up from the oldest oil paintings in the world (~ 650 AD), a series of Buddhist murals created in Bamiyan, Afghanistan

The Renaissance

By the height of the Renaissance, oil painting techniques had almost completely replaced the use of egg tempera paints for panel paintings in most of Europe, though not for Orthodox icons or wall paintings, where tempera and fresco, respectively, remained the usual choice.

Most European Renaissance sources, in particular Vasari, falsely credit northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the invention of oil paints. However, Theophilus clearly gives instructions for oil-based painting in his treatise, On Various Arts, written about 1125.

At this period, it was probably used for painting sculptures, carvings, and wood fittings, perhaps especially for outdoor use. Art creations were much more durable when painted in oil-based media than when painted in traditional tempera paints.

Early Netherlandish paintings with artists like Van Eyck and Robert Campin in the early and mid-15th century were the first to make oil the usual painting medium, and explore the use of layers and glazes, followed by the rest of Northern Europe, and only then Italy.

Early oil painting works were painted on wooden panels, but towards the end of the 15th century, the canvas began to be used as a support, as it was cheaper, easier to transport, allowed larger works, and did not require complicated preliminary layers of gesso.

Venice, where sail canvas was easily available, was a leader in the move to canvas. Small cabinet paintings were also made on metal, especially copper plates. These supports were more expensive but very firm, allowing intricately fine detail. Often printing plates from printmaking were reused for this purpose.

The increasing use of oil spread through Italy from Northern Europe, starting in Venice in the late 15th century. By 1540, the previous method for painting on panels (tempera) had become all but extinct.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page