The 10 Best Oil Paint Sets
10. Daveliou Colours
9. Martin & F. Weber Bob Ross
8. Jack Richeson Student Series
7. Winsor & Newton Starter
6. U.S. Art Supply PT-OIL-24
5. MyArtscape Professional
4. Grumbacher Pre-tested Collection
2. Royal and Langnickel Beginners
1. Gamblin Artist's Introductory
A Brief History Of Oil Painting
Oil paintings dating as far back as the year 650 C.E. have been found in caves in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, little is known about these paintings and their discovery is relatively recent. The modern history of oil painting begins in Europe in the 1100s. Though it is now revered for its use in art, it wasn't until the 15th century that artists started using oil as a standalone painting medium. Until that point, oil was mostly used to varnish wood and add a protective seal to tempera paintings, in order to help them last longer. It was also used to add details to compositions made primarily of tempera, as well as to add decorative touches to homes and furniture.
By the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, naturalism was becoming the preferred artistic style. Quick-drying, water-based tempera paints were less well-suited to accurate depictions of the real world, so artists turned to oil as an alternative. Natural oils like linseed dry quite slowly, and allow for far more ongoing manipulation as an artist works to complete an image. This gives the artist more time to finesse wet layers of paint into more accurately detailed representations of reality.
By the 1500s, oil painting had become the norm in Europe. The techniques and materials used then remain largely unchanged in artistic applications to this day. Essentially, pigments suspended in oil are applied to canvas, wood, or other materials, and manipulated with solvents like turpentine which thin the paint, making it less viscous. Many credit Flemish painter Jan van Eyck with inventing this technique, though he was more likely just a major proponent of it, since oil's use in painting predates him. He did, however, develop highly advanced skills in the medium, pioneering the wet-on-wet on-canvas mixing technique that remains popular today.
Another Flemish-trained painter, Antonello da Messina, is often credited with having introduced oil paint to Italy, though this is also unlikely. He was, however, the first artist to add lead oxide to his paint mixtures, which significantly improved the quality of dried oil paint. Until then, the surfaces of oil paintings would often crack as they cured. Lead oxide also improved the consistency of the paint itself. These advancements were later improved upon by Leonardo da Vinci, who added beeswax to the mixture, which prevents the paint from darkening as it dries.
The medium remained relatively unchanged from the 1500s until 1841, when an American portrait painter named John Goffe Rand invented the tin paint tube. Before then, paint was typically stored in pig bladders and glass syringes. The patent for the paint tube was quickly purchased by William Winsor of leading paint company Winsor & Newton. The company added a screw cap to the invention and began marketing it widely for their wet watercolor paints, though other companies used similar tubes to mass-produce and distribute oil paints throughout the rest of the 19th century, as they continue to do today.
Aside from improving the availability and consistency of oil paints, the paint tube also allowed artists more flexibility. Famed French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir once said that "Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism." In addition to expanding the range of achievable painting techniques, paint tubes also enabled artists to more easily travel with their tools, and produce true-to-life depictions of the outdoors.
Today, oil paint is occasionally used on outdoor wood and metal furnishings due to its ability to repel water and withstand wear without losing its vibrancy.
How Oil Paint Works
Oil paint is technically made up of a carrier oil infused with pigment. In traditional oil painting techniques, the carrier oil must be one that hardens when it dries, forming a solid film on the canvas or other surface to which it is applied. Such oils contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are often classified by the number of grams of iodine that 100 grams of a given oil can absorb. This figure is called an iodine value, and those oils with iodine values above 130 are considered drying oils, suitable for use in oil painting.
The most popular carrier oil used in oil painting is linseed. It is also known as flaxseed or flax oil, and is obtained from the seeds of the flax plant, which is used to make linen. Linseed oil is prized for its consistency and glossy finish when dry.
Oil does not lose moisture through evaporation, as water does, but rather it polymerizes, forming large and impenetrable molecules with exposure to air over time. This slow curing process is what makes it so desirable as an artistic medium. Its surface can be manipulated and revised over long periods, setting it apart from water-based paints. This same property also allows for very subtle blending techniques, which artists prize for the ability to achieve virtually any hue imaginable.
Oil Painting: Where To Start
Once you've chosen a set of oil paints for yourself or a loved one, you might feel overwhelmed about how to introduce yourself to the medium. While this might not come as a surprise, the best way to get acquainted with oil painting is to practice. Try different application techniques, and focus on mixing colors. Experiment with thickness and try using turpentine or another solvent to thin your paint so that you can attempt layered compositions.
If you're feeling at a loss, perhaps additional tools would help you get more comfortable. An easel is a great way to position your canvas for maximum comfort and ease of painting from a scene or still life. Other than that, consider what types of brushes will be easiest for you to use. If you're aiming for highly detailed compositions, finer brushes will help you make that happen.
A final consideration is what your goals are. If you're completely new to painting, it's a good idea to lower your expectations. Practice with shapes and colors before moving to more difficult subject matter. Before you know it, you'll be making great strides as an artist.