Oil Painting Takes Over

The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck (1464).   Oil on an oak panel, 83 x60 cm.  The National Gallery, London.

This is one of the first great oil paintings.

Before Van Eyck’s time painters mixed their colors  with eggs to make them stick to a wooden panel.

About the time he was born they began mixing those same colors with linseed or walnut oil. What were the advantages?

Greater subtlety and lustre; in short, greater realism.  No painting with eggs had ever looked as astonishingly real as Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage.

In a few years artists all over Europe were experimenting with oils.  The new medium required a lot of practice and many old-timers refused to give up their egg-painting. “Oils take forever to dry,” they complained.  “I put on my egg-paint, it dries immediately, and I can go on. With your new-fangled oils, I have to wait until the next day—or longer—to work again.”

“Granted,” said the young oil-painting enthusiasts, “but that is their only drawback. And once you  start to paint your picture you will see that the slow-drying can actually be another advantage because you can make changes as you go along, correct things. That is impossible in egg-painting because it has such weak covering power. We can spread any oil color on top of another, once that is dry, and bury it completely, or let some of it shine through.”

But some painters refused to take up the new medium.  Here is a masterpiece by Botticelli, painted a full fifty years after The Arnolfini Marriage. All Botticelli’s paintings were done with eggs.

The Birth of Venus (1482-1486)  by Sandro Botticelli.  172.5 cm × 278.5 cm.  Uffizi, Florence

Though this is a great painting, even Botticelli would have to admit that it doesn’t look as real as  Van Eyck’s pictures . The figures do not look as three-dimensional as those painted with oils, nor does the background seem as deep or as luminous. “I wasn’t trying for realism but for beauty,” Botticelli would say.  “Tell me it isn’t beautiful?”

But oils won out and served painters for five hundred years through endless experiments in style and technique.

Then, in the mid-twentieth century, acrylic paints were invented.
Colors (now mostly synthetic) were mixed with a polymer emulsion. The paint dried almost as soon as it was applied—like the old egg-paint—and yet it covered as well as oil-paint. It could be thinned with water and put on in transparent layers.

This is one of the early masterpieces painted with acrylic colors by the British artist David Hockney in 1972.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-71) by David Hockney    304 cm × 213 cm.  The Tate Gallery, London

It might be considered  a modern version of The Arnolfini Marriage. The young married couple shown in their new London apartment were friends of the artist.

A close-up of Mrs. Clark

It does not beat the old Flemish picture for realism (though the figures have a photograph likeness); in fact, its lesser depth and subtlety and the primacy of drawing is more like a Botticelli and his egg-painting.

Yet enthusiasts say that this is only due to the way Hockney used acrylics; that they can do anything oils can.



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