Painting

There are very many different kinds of painting and I expect you will (mostly) be relieved to know that I won’t be writing about all of them. Oil painting, tempera, and watercolours, are what I know best, so that is what I will write about. Many of the folk who have visited my oil painting classes, started out with a lot of questions - mostly about the materials we were using. These pages are a response to those questions, and a very basic guide to help the (as yet) inexperienced artist get his or her hands on the materials he or she needs. During a recent stay in England I found it very difficult to get the materials I had been accustomed to using in Germany and Holland, and in Italy I have found it even more difficult. Mainly this is because the internet has competed many of the small specialised artist's suppliers out of business. The Internet is a wonderful place, but buying your materials on the internet means you need a sound knowledge of what you want to buy! The helpful shopkeeper is no longer a part of the experience. The good news is that you can get everything you need at reasonable prices - when you know what you are looking for. I shall also offer a little history, including comments on some of the practices described in “The Book of the Art” (“Il libro dell’arte“) by Cennino Cennini.

Rembrandt's self portrait on copper
Self portrait by Rembrandt, oil on copper.

All painting techniques have their pro's and con's, quite apart from your personal preference. Watercolour is relatively fast drying, highly transparent, easily packed with paper and brushes in a small (-ish) satchel, and taken with you into the countryside or the town to paint “on the spot”. Watercolours can be painted as finished works, or as studies for paintings in other media – particularly oil paintings. (Egg-)Tempera is a very fast-drying paint, used mainly on wooden panels, or walls. It has the advantage that it won’t change over time – oil paint will darken, or go a little yellow. Egg tempera was used in ancient Egypt to decorate sarcophagi, and is still used by many artists today. Traditionally orthodox icons are painted using egg tempera, and Michelangelo’s surviving paintings on panel are all done in egg tempera. Oil paint dries much more slowly than water based paint. Which gives the artist a lot more time to work, blending the colours on the canvass. When it is dry oil paint is much more flexible than tempera, and can be rolled up. Oil painting can be done on a variety of supports including (but not limited to) canvass, panel, and some metals.

Rembrandt's self portrait on copper
Oil painting in a cave at Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The oldest known oil paintings have been found on the walls of the Bamiyan caves. In her travel guide “A Historical Guide to Afghanistan”, Nancy Hatch Dupree describes the huge Buddha statues and the caves behind them – although at that time it wasn’t yet known that the caves had been painted using oil-based paint, and the Taliban had not yet destroyed the statues and defaced the paintings. Photos taken since the destruction show the remains of what must have been stunning works of religious art. Scientific study has shown that drying oils were used, a large number of different pigments, and other substances, and that the paintings were done in layers – very thin layers. Painted in the mid-7th century, the Bamiyan cave paintings predate the earliest known European oil paintings. We believe that oil painting was known at least to some European artists as early as the 12th century, as evidenced by instructions for oil-based painting given by Theophilus (who may actually have been Roger of Helmarshausen), in 1125, in his book “On Various Arts”. Even so, Jan van Eyck is often credited with the “invention” of oil painting in the first half of the 15th century.

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