By Dana Fatzinger
Paint. The medium an artist uses to create...a painting. It may seem like a straightforward topic with few intricacies, but paint has evolved and changed through time just as art has, in some cases it has been the leading cause of dramatic transitions in art history. Through innovation and scientific invention paint changed forms and allowed art to expand into new possibilities.
All paint is made up of a pigment suspended in a medium. The type of paint depends on what the pigment is suspended in. Oil paints consist of pigments ground in oils, usually linseed or walnut oil. They became popular in the 15th century because they allowed for more detail than egg tempera which was what was used prior. Acrylic paints were popularized in the 1950’s, they give a bold color and can be manipulated to act like watercolors or thick oil paints. Each type of paint has its own characteristics and properties that can provide a painter with different effects. Oil paints have very
slow drying times which allows ample time for blending and adding minute details. They are often used as glazes which can be layered on top of each other. Glazing is what allows for subtle changes in tone and gives oil paints a slight glow. On the other hand acrylic paints are extremely versatile, they can made glossy or matte, watery or thick, heavy bodied and pasty or fluid.

Oil Paint

As said before, oil paints consist of pigments ground in oils. Once the oil and pigment are mixed they are dried to a consistency like butter so when the paint is applied it dries slowly without changes in color intensity. When the oil oxides it forms a film that secures the pigments in place. Its properties can be changed by adding more or less oil and/or turpentine. It is advised to add varnish to a dry oil painting to protect it from dust and dirt, varnish can also bring out the richness of the colors. Some paintings can take 6 months to a year to dry but you must wait till it is completely dry to varnish or the painting could be damaged.
Until the 15th century oil paints were only used in decorations and egg tempera was used in paintings. Egg tempera is good for bold colors but it dries faster so sections must be finished quickly. Virgin and Child by Carlo Crivelli is a tempera painting from southern Europe where egg tempera was most popular. The shadows in the painting are geometric and harsh unlike the blended shadows that can be achieved with oil paints and the colors have little change in value. In the painting the sharp diagonal brushstrokes can be seen which is traditional with tempera paintings.

Virgin and Child by Carlo Crivelli
Virgin and Child by Carlo Crivelli


Oil paints became popular because diluted paints would still dry quickly but translucent layers could be built up with glazes and washes. Undiluted paints dry very slowly which allows artists to keep working on one section for days or even weeks. An increase in demand for it was coming from the Dutch because realism paintings and painters wanted high detail and the slow drying time of the oil paint “allowed for subtle developments of tone” (Source 2). This transition between paints really got started in the 15th century and then oil paint really became the dominant paint medium in the 16th century. Jan van Eyck was often credited with the invention of oil paint in the 15th century, while that isn’t true Jan van Eyck is recognized as a revolutionary in oil painting. In Van der Paele Virgin, Jan van Eyck uses the properties of oil paint to seamlessly blend in the shadows and elevate the textural differences.

Van der Paele Virgin by Jan van Eyck
Van der Paele Virgin by Jan van Eyck

Van der Paele Virgin by Jan van Eyck
Van der Paele Virgin by Jan van Eyck

Oil paint overtook fresco painting and the use of egg tempera pretty quickly because both fresco and egg tempera have short drying times which forced the artist to work in sections. Once oil paints became the preferred medium, different oils were tested to see which produced the best results. The ones that seemed to work the best were linseed, walnut, poppy, and safflower oil. Linseed oil is the most popular choice for oil paint because it is flexible and resists cracking but it tends to yellow over time. Walnut oil is very popular and along with poppy and safflower oil it doesn’t yellow as much as linseed oil but it is more prone to cracking. The difference between the oils can be seen in Raphael’s The Mond Crucifixion, the ground, figures, and green robes were painted using linseed oil while the sky was painted with a nut oil (Source 3). It seems that Raphael preferred the sky to remain bright blue and was willing sacrifice its smoothness but it was acceptable for the figures and the ground to experience some yellowing (Source 3).
Mond Crucifixion by Raphael
Mond Crucifixion by Raphael

Oil paints crack because of the way they dry. Watercolors and acrylics have water in them so they dry by evaporation. Oil paints have a siccative quality so they absorb oxygen and as it absorbs oxygen it hardens. A good analogy is to imagine the oil as a bowl of jello and the oxygen as chunks of pineapple, as more pineapple is added to the jello it becomes harder and harder for the jello to jiggle (Source 3). The oxygen is absorbed through the paint surface, so in a thick layer of paint the surface and the bottom layer will dry at different rates. As the paint absorbs oxygen it expands, so as it absorbs oxygen it is simultaneously hardening and expanding. Once it has hardened completely it has also stretched as far as it can. Eventually the oxygen reaches the lower levels of paint and those start to harden and expand. At this point the top layer is completely dry, so how does it expand with the lower levels? It cracks. To deal with this problem painters use the fat over lean rule. More oil is added to the top layers so that they will take the same amount of time to dry as the lower level. Adding too little oil to the lower layers can damage the painting so turpentine is added instead, turpentine loosens the paint, disperses the pigment and then evaporates quickly, leaving behind the oil and pigment. An additional issue that arises with oil paint is that not all pigment particles are the same size so different colors end up requiring different amounts of oil. To make the paint work and last a long time the colors must be applied in a specific order following the fat over lean rule.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint consists of “a pigment suspended in a binder acrylic polymer emulsion” (Source 1). It can be watered down to act like watercolors but it can also be applied thickly like oil paint. Different acrylic mediums, gels, and pastes can be added to alter the consistency. It dries quickly but if kept moist it remains usable (misting it with a spray bottle works fine). Acrylic gesso is used on a canvas before the actual paint. Gesso is a combination of acrylic paint and calcium carbonate, acrylic polymer, medium latex, and other chemicals used to adjust consistency, applicability, and durability. Acrylic retarder slows the drying time of the paint. It is advisable to cover acrylic paintings with a varnish which seals in the paint and protects it from UV rays, dust, and dirt. Andy Warhol often used acrylic in his paintings. The way he utilizes the paint in Campbell Soup Can shows how acrylic paint can be bold and sharp (Source 6). In contrast Little Electric Chair (Orange) shows how acrylic paint can show eeriness (Source 6).

Little Electric Chair (Orange) by Andy Warhol
Little Electric Chair (Orange) by Andy Warhol



Campbell Soup Can by Andy Warhol
Campbell Soup Can by Andy Warhol

Acrylic compounds were first being synthesized in the mid 19th century. German chemist Otto Rohm used it in paints and was the first to commercially produce it. Polymethyl methacrylate also known as PMMA or acrylic, is a “transparent thermoplastic” often used as an alternative to glass. PMMA is an alternative to polycarbonate, PMMA is easier to stretch, more flexible, transparent, polishable, and has a higher UV tolerance. While polycarbonate has more impact strength, chemical resistance, and heat resistance. Non-modified PMMA is brittle under weight and prone to scratching. When modified it can be highly scratch and impact resistance. Acrylic acid was created in 1843 and then methacrylic acid was made from the acrylic acid in 1865. Methacrylic acid reacts with methanol to create methyl methacrylate. Then in the 1930’s British chemists Rowland Hill and John Crawford discovered Polymethyl methacrylate. At the same time Otto Rohm attempted to produce safety glass by polymerizing methyl methacrylate between two pieces of glass. “The polymer separated from the glass as a clear plastic sheet”. Rohm trademarked this material as Plexiglas. Acrylic paint is PMMA suspended in water,plus pigment, PMMA is hydrophobic, the molecules are not attracted to water, so something with hydrophobic and hydrophilic (attracted to water) has to be added.

Through all my research I kept finding simple instructions on how to make paint; so i decided to try making it myself.
I started with the oil paint because I knew it would take the longest to dry. It was relatively easy process, I started with a small pile of pigment on my palette and created a little hole in the middle for the oil. I added a bit of oil, I chose to use walnut oil, and mixed it together thoroughly. I kept adding oil till I got the consistency I was looking for. I applied it to the canvas using a variety of brushes and tools to see how it would act. It was definitely not as smooth as the other two paints but that could have been to due to my inexperience in paint making.

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I started the acrylic paint the same way as the oil paint, a pile of pigment on my palette, but from there I mixed in a small amount of isopropyl alcohol as the solvent. Water is usually the solvent in acrylic paints but the pigment I used didn’t mix well with water so i had to use alcohol instead. Mixing this in creates a thick paste kind of like peanut butter. After that I added the acrylic medium, I used a matte form which exemplifies one of the differences between oil and acrylic paint. Oil paint will always have a glossy or luminescent finish to it but acrylic is a manufactured substance so it can be developed to have a multitude of characteristics. The acrylic paint was more fluid than the oil paint and the pigments seem to disperse more evenly. The paint was smoother when I painted with it and it seemed to have a more even tone. I also tried watering it down a bit to see how it would act. It maintained it’s color integrity pretty well and acted much like a watercolor.
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Finally I made an egg tempera paint. For this I separated out an egg yolk and towel dried it. This may seem strange (and it was strange to hold a dry egg yolk) but there can be no egg white in the paint because albumen, a protein found in the egg white, prevents the paint from binding to its surface. I then broke the yolk making sure to remove the yolk sack and mixed the yolk with a bit of water. On my palette I mixed the pigment with some alcohol to create a creamy paste. Then I added an equal amount of the egg yolk to my palette and mixed the two components together. The egg tempera brought me right back to my elementary school days of paintings hundred’s pictures of flowers during kindergarten play time. It was a little on the liquidy side, it didn’t have any body to it so it flowed like a watercolor, but again that may have been my own fault. The color of this paint didn’t get as dark as the other two and remained very one-dimensional.

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Overall the results from the paints that I made coincided with the expected results. The oil paint as of three days later is still drying which is evident by the smear marks around the the top of the canvas. The oil paint is the only paint that really carried through the lustrous property that the pigment I used was supposed to have. Granted the acrylic medium was matte but the egg tempera doesn’t show it at all. The fact that I was able to create all these paints at my home with no prior experience really says something special about paint. Even with all the advances in the science of paint making it has still kept its basics intact.



Source 1: "Pigments through the ages." Pigments through the Ages - Egg tempera. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2017.
Source 2: Monroe, Laura. "A History of Acrylic Painting." ArtMine, Agora Gallery Chelsea, www.art-mine.com/for-sale/paintings-submedium-acrylic/history-of-acrylic-painting. Accessed 7 June 2017.
Source 3: Mellow, Glendon. "The Chemistry of Oil Painting." Scientific American, 2 Aug.
2011,blogs.scientificamerican.com/symbiartic/httpblogsscientificamericancomsymbiartic20110802the-chemistry-of-oil-painting/.Accessed 7 June 2017.
Source 4: Jones, Susan. "Painting in Oil in the Low Countries and Its Spread to Southern
Europe." The MET, MET museum, Oct. 2002, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/optg/hd_optg.htm. Accessed 7 June 2017.
Source 5: Crivelli, Carlo. Virgin and Child. Ca. 1480. The MET, MET museum, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436052. Accessed 7 June 2017.
Source 6: "Acrylic Paint." Early Works Art Gallery, 26 Jan. 2016, www.earlyworksartgallery.com/blog/acrylic-paint/. Accessed 7 June 2017.