Oil painting is a popular art medium, but what’s its history? Read on for a brief history of oil painting and how different artists impacted the medium!


The history of oil painting can be a little challenging because no one knows the precise time individuals began to use oil paint. Many believe the Europeans were the first to formulate oil paint. But scientific research done at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility shows the earliest record of oil paint date back to the fourth and ninth century used in cave paintings from the Afghan region! These people from ancient civilizations used protein-based material and animal fat as a binder. The colors they used were pigments extracted from a diverse source of plants and materials.

Fast forward a few centuries and tempera paint was the popular medium of choice among artists. It consisted of dry pigments, egg yolk, and elk whites and it was used for paintings, murals, and frescos. There is a lot of debate as to when and why oil paint was initially developed, but regardless, it became popular quickly. Tempera couldn’t compare to oil paints as they had greater versatility, longer working time, and more subtle rendering.

Ingredients for Oil Paints

The most basic components of oil paint include powdered pigments and pressed oils which function as a binder and drying agent. Pigments were not a widely traded commodity during the renaissance. Artists often extracted pigments themselves and experimented with different recipes for the best results. Artists in Europe preferred to use linseed oil with their pigments, while Italian artists and those from the south used walnut oil as a binder and drying agent.

For pigments, artists would grind minerals for different colors. Like Malachite for green and Lapis Lazuli for blue. Modern discoveries of new chemical compounds and synthetic pigments provide artists (like me!) with a wide range of colors and tones to use for their paintings.


When it comes to the history of oil painting, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about a few artist who made big impacts.

In the 14th century, oil painting was used in various forms but credit was given to a group of Flemish artists for refining the development of the paint. One of those artists was Jan Van Eyck, who perfected the technique and medium. He layered glazes of almost translucent paint to create complex coats of color in his works.

Leonardo Da Vinci is a name I’m sure you’ve heard before. However, a technique he created and uses in his paintings, Sfumato, is one you might not have heard. Sfumato comes from the italian “sfumare” which means to blend, fade, or evaporate in smoke. This technique softens the transition between colors so they melt into each other, without any edges. Da Vinci used this to give his portraits their youthful grace.

It was the development in paint production in the nineteenth century that encouraged a break from traditions and created a new way to use the medium. The opening of colourmens’ shops offering pre-milled color which led to the birth of Impressionism.  Artists, like Claude Monet, could concentrate on color, atmosphere, light, and expressive brushstrokes and application of paint.  Post-Impressionism follows Impressionsim, where Vincent Van Gogh would shine. He would place thick sums of paint directly onto the canvas with a palette knife, forming almost sculptural canvas surfaces.

A oil palette with dried oil paint, and open oil paint tube and a dirty palette knife on it.

Oil paint has provided the means for artists to explore all kinds of applications and techniques.

The History of Oil Painting

Throughout history, oil paint has become a way for artists to explore themes, moods, and subject matter. Oil paint has provided the means for artists to explore all kinds of applications and techniques. This resulted in new ways of thinking and seeing the world. While it’s now an “older” medium and not as quick-drying as acrylic paint, the versatility of oil paint for experimentation still makes it one of the most popular mediums.

I hope you enjoyed learning a brief history of oil painting. If you are in the market for some beautiful art to add to your walls, check out my paintings! And of course, if you have a question about one of my pieces, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for supporting your local Colorado artists!