History of Painting Materials & Techniques

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  • 0:03 Early Painting Methods
  • 1:00 Tempera Painting
  • 2:16 Oil Painting
  • 3:50 Acrylic Painting
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever painted a picture? What kind of paint did you use? Did you know paints and painting methods have changed through time? In this lesson, you'll explore the history of painting materials and techniques.

Early Painting Methods

Paints are fun to use and great for creating art. But how did different kinds of paint develop?

To understand the history of painting materials and techniques, you should know some basic terms. Paint is made of pigments, finely ground chemical or mineral powders, and a binder, a viscous or liquid substance that allows the paint to be spread. Many popular pigments remained unchanged for centuries and are still used today. But over time, binders changed, providing different qualities that appealed to artists. Another evolving element was the support, or the surface on which the painting was created. Common supports include the wood panel, stretched canvas, and paper.

However, cultures worldwide from prehistory to the present have used many materials and techniques to paint, but we can't cover them all. In this lesson, we're focusing on several painting materials that have been important to Western art.

Tempera Painting

The most common paint in early art was tempera paint, sometimes called egg tempera. It was made of pigment mixed with a binder of egg yolk and water. Tempera wasn't the only painting method in the ancient world; some artists worked in encaustic, a difficult medium made of pigment mixed with melted beeswax. It was worked quickly and applied in many layers because it hardened as the wax cooled.

Tempera was favored over encaustic because it was easier to mix, was easier to use, and resulted in bright colors. But it dried quickly and didn't blend well. Artists worked in quick, thin strokes, giving tempera paintings a precise linear quality. Tempera had a no-reflective matte surface, and it wasn't effective for dark or rich tones. It also formed a brittle surface when dry.

So, tempera painting was done on bulky wood panels prepared by coating them with gesso, a white absorbent material made of chalk or plaster and animal skin glue. Gesso helped the paint adhere to the support. If an artist wanted to make a large painting, they created it in sections and connected them later. Throughout the Middle Ages, artists created beautiful works in tempera. But then, a new paint superseded it.

Oil Painting

Scholars don't know exactly who invented oil paints. Scattered early evidence shows oil-based paints in places like the Nordic world and ancient Afghanistan. By the early Renaissance period (roughly 1400 to 1479), some artists began coating tempera paintings with a thin layer of oil. When they did, they noticed the shinier surface added depth and brilliance to shadows and dark tones. This led to a new kind of paint.

Oil paint is made of pigment and a binder of natural oil like linseed or walnut. The paint had a thick, buttery consistency and dried slowly as the oil was exposed to air. This created a permanent, flexible surface. Some artists used oils on wood panels, but eventually another support was preferred. Stretched canvas, or fabric on a wooden frame support, was lighter than wood and could be made in many sizes. The canvas was coated with gesso that could be tinted in many different colors.

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