What Are Oil Paints and What Are They Made of?

Almost all the masterpieces by the Great Masters we admire in museums and galleries have been made with oil paints, more or less. In fact, oil paint has been the most commonly used medium of painting for centuries now.

There are a lot of reasons that artists use oil paint in their projects: oil paint makes any painting more vibrant and durable. With oil paint, it is possible to add more color and details to a painting that might not be possible with watercolor or even acrylic paint.

This is why oil paint is still an extremely popular paint medium for everyone, from beginners to professionals.

A lot of the specialty of oil paint is because of the ingredients used in these paints, which we will discuss in this article, as well as the basic details of oil paint.

What are Oil Paints? 

Oil paints are typically slow-drying paints made from colored pigments and oil, as the name suggests. Most commonly, linseed oil is used in most oil paints manufactured by different brands.

Sometimes, the viscosity of oil paint is changed slightly by adding turpentine or colorless spirit to the pigments, or other solvents to add to the sheen of the paints.

Oil paint was first used in Europe as early as during the 12th century. The first uses of oil painting was in simple decoration of common household items or walls.

Oil paint during that time was used on wooden walls and structures on buildings, as well as the metal portions of bridges and ships to protect them from exposure to water. It wasn’t until the 15th century that oil paint was used on canvas for painting.

The concept behind oil paint is to create a thick and textured paint that can stay on the surface of canvas or paper instead of being absorbed by it.

Since oil paint is thicker than other kinds of paint, it dries and creates a hard coating on top of the surface the artist is painting on.

None of the paint is absorbed by the canvas or the paper, which is one of the reasons that oil paint is extremely vibrant and bright even after years.

The first oil paintings, made with oil paint, appeared during the early Renaissance Era in the 15th century, in Northern Europe. All the Great Masters, both in France and Italy, used oil paint in their works.

Since then, oil paint has been a favorite of both professional and beginner artists. Although oil paint has changed and developed a lot over the centuries, their essence is the same.

Oil paint can be used on a number of surfaces, including specialty paper, wood and of course, canvas – both cotton and linen.

Of course, because painting on any surface with oil paper, a separate coat of primer is required to be applied, which is a glossy and transparent paint-like liquid.

This coating of primer stops the ink from being absorbed into the canvas, paper or wood, but keeps them on the surface.

Just like surfaces, there are a lot of different brushes that can be used with oil paper. Brushes with stiff and long bristles are usually used while working with oil paint, as oil paint is generally thick in nature.

The stiff bristles of brushes can hold on to the thick consistency of oil paint better than any other kind of brush.

Besides, there are other kinds of brushes that can be used with oil paint, namely: bright brushes that are squared off at the edge, brushes that are pointed at the end, fan brushes or the brushes that fan out at the edge and flat brushes with longer fibres.

What are Oil Paints Made Of? 

Most oil paints have three main components: a base, any kind of oil, and the pigments needed to make the color.

Sometimes other solvents are used by some brands to make the paint more durable or more shiny, but that doesn’t fall under the basic ingredients.

  • The Base

The base is the liquid that gives body to the paint, i.e. makes up most of the amount of the paint.

Base isn’t just important, but essential to oil paint; it makes the paint harder and more resistant to any kind of external abrasion. Besides, it is because of the base that stops the oil paint from cracking or shrinking.

Oil paint bases are made from white and read lead, Iron Oxide, Zinc Oxide, Aluminum powder, Copper or Bronze powder. Oil paints are usually also named after the base they contain, i.e. Lead PAint, Aluminum Paint or Zinc Paint.

  • The Vehicle/Oil

The oils used in oil paints are also known as Vehicles, and they are the oils or oily liquids that make both the pigments and the base soluble and liquid.

It is because of the vehicle or the oil in paint that helps it to spread conveniently over the canvas or the paper, acts as the binder so that the oil sticks to the surface and helps the paint to dry.

Linseed oil is the most common kind of oil or vehicle used in most oil paints. Other kinds of vehicles include nut oil, poppy oil and Tung oil.

Linseed oil is most common as it helps the paint dry quicker, but also leaves the paint looking glossy after drying. Linseed oil also happens to make the paint the most durable one, even after years of painting and drying.

  • The Pigments

Of course, one of the most important ingredients of oil paint are the pigments used in them, the finely ground particles that give the paints their extraordinary colors.

Different substances are used in different colors, and they are all sourced from various places. For example, most earth tones like yellow and orange come from yellow and red cadmium pigments, and the white tones come from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Among living organisms, some pigments come from the root of the madder tree. In this way, every single color available in a set of oil paint comes from different sources and materials, some chemicals and some natural.

Besides the base, the oil and the pigments, sometimes other solvents are also added to oil paints.

  • The Thinner 

In some brands, a special thinner is added to oil paints to make them more liquid and fluid. This loosens the consistency of the paint and makes them more flexible, helping the artist to paint more smoothly.

However, only a small amount of thinner can be added to oil paint, and this is not done by many brands. Too much thinner in the paint can dull the shine and gloss of the oil paint made by the oil.

Even if thinner is used in oil paints, it is better to use natural ones such as Raw Linseed Oil, which is also the same ingredient used as the vehicle. Another option is to use Turpentine Oil mixed with the Raw Linseed Oil, or Copal Varnish.

  • The Drier

Oil paints in general take a long time to dry completely. Since this kind of paint is thick and textured, a detailed painting might even take months to dry fully. However, some brands use driers to hurry the process.

Linseed oil dries faster when it absorbs oxygen. Therefore, if linseed oil is added to the oil paint as the vehicle, the drier added to it happens to be something that is naturally rich in oxygen, i.e. Red lead, Manganese Dioxide, Lead Acetate, Litharge or Zinc Sulphate.

  • The Inert Filler 

Only a few manufacturers add some inert fillers to oil paint, and definitely in a very small amount.

Inert fillers are a kind of adulterant that is added to paint to reduce the cost of the other ingredients, without changing the characteristics or features of the paint in any way. 

Most common types of inert fillers happen to be Aluminium Silicate, Barium Sulphate, Charcoal, Silica and Powdered Chalk.

There you have it – all the important information about oil paint in general, as well as every single ingredient that can be found inside each of them.

If you are a beginner or an expert at using oil paint, or just thinking of trying out oil paint, all these information will be both interesting and enlightening to you.

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