The painting technique that uses powdered pigments dissolved in a vegetable oil (flax, poppy or walnut) is called “oil painting”. The paste obtained is diluted with essences obtained from lavender, rosemary and above all from the buds of the maritime pine or other conifers (turpentine).
Oil colors have a better stability over time than tempera and, drying more slowly, allow the artist greater precision in the execution of the work; they are also more effective for rendering light effects.
Another advantage is the possibility of correcting errors, removing the paint with a small spatula, cleaning the area with a rag soaked in turpentine and repainting it.
Already known to the ancient Romans, in the Middle Ages oil painting was no longer practiced in Italy, or at least it was not very widespread. In his Lives, Giorgio Vasari attributes its invention to Hubert and Jan van Eyck: beyond the alleged authorship, it is true that in the first half of the fifteenth century it was precisely Flemish painters who were then called to the court of Urbino to perfect this technique. In Italian art, the transition from tempera to oil painting occurred around 1470, to meet the needs of a more naturalistic style, which required brighter shades and hues. The first to adopt it were Piero della Francesca and Antonello da Messina.
The preparation of the support
Until the second half of the 15th century the main support for painting continued to be poplar wood (the most used in Italy) or oak (widespread in Flanders). Later, the use of hemp or linen canvases progressively passed, supported by wooden frames and easily transportable due to their lightness.
Before being painted, both types of support – wood and canvas – were prepared through priming, which consisted of applying a layer of casein (cheese glue) and plaster or clay, similar to what happened for the execution of a tempera on wood. We then moved on to a second primer of graphite and black obtained from vine leaves, dissolved in a light amount of oil, to reduce the absorption effect of the plaster and accentuate the brilliance and brightness of the colors.
The way to proceed in oil painting was to paint “fat on thin”, that is to apply the first sketch strokes with more full-bodied pigments, and then move on to final glazes more diluted with oil, that is, softer and more transparent brush strokes. The glazes have the effect of relating all the layers of paint: two overlapping colors create a new color. The skill of the great masters consisted in knowing how to master these results, also because the pigments in use at the time were more difficult to mix than the current ones. In this way it was possible to make light and its reflections on objects or bodies palpable and volumes more evident.
The colors were often used pure, united only with white, and the shades were obtained by overlapping, the palette being very limited.
In the fifteenth century the mark of the brush was almost absent and the surface was smooth. Later the colors were applied in a more material way, that is, more full-bodied, leaving the brushstrokes visible: some painters, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, also used their fingers.
Sometimes a mixed technique was used: egg tempera for the more uniform and uniform parts, such as skies and skin tones, together with oil colors for the more vivid points, shadows and glazes. An example of this is the Baptism of Christ made by Ver-rocchio with the collaboration of Leonardo.
The drying times of the oil paint are long, but eventually the pigment turns into a solid resin. As a final protection of the work, a transparent varnish was applied which gave the painting brightness and depth, but also resistance to light and external agents.
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