Mixing Oil Paints: It's a Process
Oil painters love to mix things up.
Cheap puns aside, artists who work in oils are truly modern-day alchemists, carefully blending powdered pigments with oils and other solutions to create vivid color palettes for their work.
But how did the oil painters of yesteryear, for whom picking up a tube of pre-mixed oil paint at a craft supply store simply wasn't a possibility, mix their paints?
And how do the oil painters of today abide by, or diverge from, that same practice?
Let's dive in and find out.
Oil painting: origins and process
Though most of the iconic oil painting works in western art history originated in Europe, the oil painting process itself originated much farther east.
Some of the earliest instances of oil painting were created in Afghanistan by Buddhist artists celebrating their faith.
Hundreds of years ago, these original practitioners of oil painting might have done things a bit differently, but today, the oil paint mixing process is as follows.
1. Pour oil into pigment
After sourcing your pigment (in the olden days, pigment was made out of all kinds of curious things, including snail mucus), distribute a small mound of it on a smooth mixing surface like plexiglass. This mound should resemble a small volcano with a fairly wide crater.
Fold a small quantity of oil into it using a palette knife.
2. Smooth out the paint
Once the paint has achieved a (mostly) smooth, paste-like consistency, use a muller to refine it even further, breaking down any lingering clumps or stubborn particles of pigment.
3. Store it (or mix it)
At this point, your paint is ready for storage. Air-tight containers are ideal.
Once the paint is mixed, artists use their brushes (which, curiously enough, are made out of everything from hog bristles to mongoose and weasel hairs) to apply it to the canvas, mixing the base colors they have created to expand their palette even further with a more varied, subtle range of tones.
If you want to alter the consistency or intensity of your paint (also referred to as its "viscosity") before you apply it to your canvas, create a medium to dilute it with. This medium is usually a mixture of solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits.
Check out the video below for an up-close look at the paint-mixing process. And then visit the CMA to see examples of oils in action, with works that range from the Renaissance to the present day.