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What is Oil Paint?

By Kris Roudebush
Updated May 17, 2024
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Oil paintings are among the most beautiful and realistic, with their texture and depth bringing a photograph-like quality to painting. Oil paint is a simple mixture of pigment and oil, usually linseed, walnut, or poppy oil. It's slow to dry, which allows an artist to alter his or her work before the paint sets.

Before oil paint was invented, artists used tempera paint, made from egg yolks. Tempera paint is a much faster drying paint and lends itself to be a very precise style of painting. When using tempera paint, you’ll use small brush strokes, in layers, because it dries so fast. It's also associated with classical art and, oddly enough, poster paint.

Jan van Eyck is credited with inventing oil paint in the 1400's. Oil paints gave artists another medium for catching and reflecting light that would allow them to realistically imitate life. You'll notice that many oil paintings look a lot like a photograph. This realism would popularize oil paint until the 50's, when acrylic paint replaced it as the paint of choice for many artists.

While painting with oil paint gives an experienced artist options, it can challenge many budding artists. All the things that are loved about oil paint also create challenges for those not used to working with the long drying times. The term "fat over lean" is a concept, in painting, for artists to increase the amount of oil with each layer. When top layers dry before bottom layers, the paint can crack. By adding more oil to the top layers you can slow down the drying time of the top layers.

Linseed oil dries the most quickly and is good for bottom layers or underpainting. It's important to note that linseed oil tends to yellow, which very noticeable with light colors. Avoid it for upper layers in soft hues. Poppyseed oil is a good replacement, but it is slower to dry. When drying your art work, never let it dry in the dark. Oil can rise to the surface, creating a thin film, and cause yellowing. If this happens, put your art in a sunny window for the day to reverse any damage.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Feb 15, 2015

@Ana1234 - Acrylic paints have their own good points. They are much more versatile, for example. There are only a limited number of oil paint techniques that aren't hundreds of years old.

And I've got a soft spot for acrylics because they allowed painting to become an art of the masses instead of one for the elite few who could afford them.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 15, 2015

@umbra21 - I believe there are substances you can buy to mix with oil paint so that it dries more quickly, but I'm not sure if they end up making the painting of an overall lower quality.

The main reason I usually choose acrylics over oils is because acrylics (and most other options) are so much cheaper.

Even modern oil paints are expensive because of the carrier oil, but if you get traditional pigments they can be upwards of $100 a tube, which is well outside my budget at the moment.

Oil paints look better and last longer, of course, but they really are only for people who are serious about art, or have a lot of money to burn.

By umbra21 — On Feb 14, 2015

I don't know what it is about oil paint that makes it so much more beautiful than acrylic. I couldn't point out a single quality. But oil paint simply is more vibrant. It feels more real somehow.

It's a shame that acrylic is so much easier to use. I'm too impatient to use oils all that often.

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