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Oil Paint: A Happy Medium
Oil paint is ubiquitous on the walls of art museums and galleries throughout the world. Find out what makes it so popular among renowned artists and casual painters alike.
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Monet’s Water Lilies. Although these iconic works differ greatly in style, they all share a medium: oil paint. Prized by artists for its rich tones and easy maneuverability, oils virtually slide across the canvas, filling in every minute detail and capturing the complex colors of the world around us. However, the actual oil itself—generally extracted from plants such as linseed, poppy, and saffron—is simply a binding agent, a base in which to suspend different pigments. Each base yields a slightly different finished product—some yellow slightly over time, whereas others lend the finished work a glossy, varnish-like sheen. Since some oils stay wet longer than others, artists can expedite or slow the drying time of a painting by experimenting with the different oils.
Many experts credit Flemish painter Jan van Eyck for the popularization of oil paint in Western art, and from the 15th century onward, oil paint outpaced other media as artists' canvas covering of choice. However, the production of each color—often by hand—was an exhausting process, and it wasn’t until the 1800s, when metal paint tubes made preserving paint easier, that the medium became widely accessible, allowing artists to spend more time ruminating on their work and less time painstakingly grinding pigment into oil.