Oil paint has a long and distinguished history. Originally developed in the High Middle Ages it was used in place of tempera for purposes such as the decoration of shields. It was mentioned in Theophilus, On Diverse Arts, in 1125 but it was not until circa 1410, when Jan van Eyck developed a stable siccative oil to bind mineral pigments that artists generally began to use oil paint. From that point until the present day, oil paint has dominated Western Art. Throughout this period there have been numerous changes in artists’ techniques but oil paint has managed to cope with them all, confirming its status as the most versatile paint available and building a formidable tradition and mystique.
Yet for all its pre-eminence in fine art over the centuries, oil paint has never been a perfect vehicle for artists. Professor A. P. Laurie concluded in The Painter’s Methods and Materials : ‘There is no universal method of overcoming the bad properties of the oil medium. It is a good servant but a bad master.’ Ralph Mayer noted in The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques : ‘Its principal defects are the eventual darkening or yellowing of the oil and the possible disintegration of the paint film by cracking, flaking off, etc.’ Today’s artists, while revering oil paint and respecting its tradition, generally accept that it is not fully responsive to their requirements.
- Access to all of the techniques used in the past, plus whatever new possibilities modern paint technology makes available.
- Total reliability and the freedom to use whatever techniques they wish.
- Faster drying times to permit complex layering techniques even though time may be limited.
- Paint that is safe to use. In the twenty first century health issues are more important than ever as people’s immune systems come under attack from so many directions in everyday life.
New technology has been used to make oil paint more responsive to contemporary requirements and styles while maintaining the classic tradition. As a result, most brands now offer:
- Alkyd based mediums which dry faster
- Modern pigments to replace some ‘traditional’ colours which were lacking in light fastness
- Odourless solvents to reduce health hazards.
The Archival Oil range seems less outlandish today than in 1990, when we introduced all of the above innovations as standard practice rather than optional extras. Our most important innovation, however, is patented, thus remaining exclusive to the brand.
Traditional oil paints are still bound with linseed oil, usually these days, with less yellowing oils for whites. No failsafe modern synthetic binder has been able to replace the traditional oils used in artists’ paints because handling qualities are so important. The most fundamental problem in oil painting is the brittleness of this traditional binder which has led to many oil paintings, including the Mona Lisa, starting to crack as time passes. Archival Oils solve this problem!
How can technology be introduced to overcome the brittleness defect in the traditional oil binder?
The invention of acrylics in the 1960’s gave artists a high tech paint which could be used without rules and which allowed artists ‘free expression’ without penalty, yet many artists still preferred the handling properties of oil paints. Could oils become high tech to give similar free expression?
Acrylics had provided the right clues. Artists’ paintings are usually built up in layers, which can be thicker or thinner according to the artist’s intention. It soon became clear that the acrylics were settling down without tensions between layers, because the paint was formulated to be flexible. This same flexibility also helps acrylic paintings to age well, because the paint is able to move when the substrate moves, and canvas, especially, expands and contracts with climatic changes. As a result, acrylic paintings are expected to have an incredibly long lifespan without museum style climate control.
Chroma began making flexible Archival Oils based on the same principle as flexible acrylics using plasticiser technology. We found, among the 500 plasticisers available to modify brittle substances, two which are compatible with linseed oil and other natural oils or alkyd resins.