Rethinking oil paints

My previous computer being heavily smote by lightning in a recent thunderstorm, I’ve resorted to borrowing books from friends while I wait for the replacement to arrive.  The current tome is Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. This was one of the standard texts while Shawn was at uni, so has been gathering dust for a while.

The first chapter covers the history of the various types of paint in use and manner of application at different periods of history. Somehow, seeing it in ink on paper clarified the timeline that I may have inadvertently clouded in my previous post on the subject. In that post, despite my own observation about the paint work on the Warwick Jacks, I skimmed over oil paints and gave undeserving emphasis to tempera. This was partly because I’d underestimated the effect of fashion on the selection of a paint for use on a medium and partly because I was trying to avoid a 3-week drying time on each colour.

Mayer claims tempera was not just superseded as I said, but was obsolete and as a generalisation, was not used from the end of the sixteenth century through to the revival in the early nineteenth century because it wasn’t capable of producing the flashy effects that could be obtained from the latest oil paints. He states “Tempera painting was condemned by them as inferior to oil…” [Mayer, 3rd ed. p22]

The section on oil paints is illuminating (sorry, pun intended). There are two relevant parts, one on the availability of the oil medium and solvents and the other on the applications to which they were put. I’ll deal with the former section first. An oil suitable for using as paint has to be a drying oil. Suitable oils include linseed, poppy, walnut and hempseed, with recipes for the preparation going all the way back to Galen in the second century. Technological improvements in refining and the introduction of distillation to art materials in the fifteenth century improved the clarity and performance of oil paints.

Mayer has access to some sources I hadn’t even thought of checking. I’ll quote this next part in full rather than muddle it in the retelling.

Instances of their use [drying oils] in paint are found quite frequently in early records and in accounts of expenditures for materials. The use of such paint,however, was confined to commonplace or simple decorative purposes; no traditional method for work of a purely artistic pretensions were established until later times. From an examination of old expense records, oil paint is seen to have been widely used in England for decorative purposes at least as early as the thirteenth century. [p23]

I think the use on leather vessels and buckets would constitute commonplace decorative purposes. Of course, my pervious post still applies to pre-13th century use.


While I mentioned in that previous post that medieval gouache (Ital: aguazzo, meaning “mud”) was different from today’s product, even I’m surprised by how much different it is. The technique first appears in the decorative and pictorial embellishments to medieval illuminated manuscripts. The earliest modern examples are the 16th century German artist Albrecht Dürer (the fur on the hare, for example), and a series of paintings by Gaspard Poussin (1615-1675). The term applied to the early 16th century practice of applying oil paint over a tempera base. [Again from Mayer,  3rd ed. p306 with  the Wikipedia article using the same section in the fifth ed.]


I’m going to do some tests over the next couple of weeks and report the results. I’ve found a recent article on How to Use Oil Paint on Leather and other than the possible/probable mistake of diluting oil paint with water, it uses much the same process as Theophilus in Book 1, Chapter 22, Horse Saddles and Carrying Chairs. It also fits the description of gouache given above.

Samples will be tested in varying real-life conditions such as spilled beer, being left in the rain, washing up and any other torture that I can come up with. I’ll do a control with the same tempera I’ve been previously using as well. Wish me luck.


One thought on “Rethinking oil paints

  1. Pingback: Paint tests, part 1 « The Reverend's Big Blog of Leather

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