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Art materials - Painting

There's a wide variety of art materials used and new ones are coming onto the market all the time. Perhaps you have been in an art shop and seen something and wondered what it is used for. This is not a comprehensive list by any means but we hope it covers the more common art materials.

We'll start by looking at painting. To view materials used in graphics, click the Next button.

Oil Paint

This is simply oil and a finely ground pigment. Usually refined boiled linseed oil is used. Originally some paints were made with highly toxic pigments. Today we process these poisonous pigments into a frit that is insoluble, making it harmless.

Artist versus Student Oils

Some pigments are far more expensive than others, which whilst being the same colour, may fade with time. Generally artist grade paints are made from finer ground expensive pigments are are less prone to fading. A wise artis will stock up with student grade paints in those colours that are less permanent, to keep costs down.

Pallet knife

Birch Grove - a pallet knife painting

The painting above was painted solely with a pallet knife. A pallet knife is a flexible metal spatula-like knife used to mix paint colours on the artist pallet and to apply paint to the canvas. Using a brush, can often mix colours, whereas using a pallet knife allows the artist to apply the colour purely as mixed. A pallet knife also can be used on edge for fine lines, like the rigging on a sailing ship or flat, for areas of paint that require a definite sharp edge. Used on the flat, a pallet knife can make a gradual subtle blend of colours with the added bonus of no distracting brush marks, however it does use up more paint. They can be used for acrylic or oil paints.

A selection of different pallet knives

Pallet knives come in a wide range of shapes and sizes.

Oil Paint Toxicity

The pigments in paints are chemical compounds and typically poisonous. Until recently many oil paint colours were made with toxic pigments. Monastrial blue was a cyanide compound of iron and deadly toxic. Colours derived from compounds of cadmium and chromium were also toxic. Recently we have discovered a way of reacting many of these toxic pigments with borate or silicon, to form a frit, an insoluble compound, which is then ground to form a less toxic version of the pigment. However this process does not apply to all colours and some pigments still contain lead. Treating all oils paints as toxic is the wisest practise. This especially so, when working with old artworks and old picture frames, which frequently used lead fillers and lead based undercoats.

Permanent versus fugitive

This term refers to the pigment. Some colours will change over time due to oxidation or contact with airborne pullutants. Colours that remain unchanged are termed permanent and colours that change are called fugitive. In some cases the process can be reversed, French Ultramarine for example loses it's intense cold blue with exposure to acidic pollutants (e.g. smoke, sulphur pollutants). It turns transparent. Treating a old painting where the artist has used French Ultramarine, with an alkaline picture cleaner can result in some surprising transformations.

Picture cleaner

This is a milky beige solution used to clean oil paintings. The main ingredient is usually phenol, which strips off the outer layer of oil (and the dirt stuck to it) from the paint. It is important to wash off the cleaner and replace the lost oil glaze, to preserve the painting. Because this is alkaline, it will also restore some hues lost over time. The cleaning process will often leave the painting with fine crazed cracks.

Canvas and ghesso

This generally refers to the area you paint but oil painting is usually done on canvas cloth, stretched tight over a frame and sealed with a primer, called ghesso. Before acrylic paint was developed, ghesso was made from whiting and linseed oil. Today a cheaper acrylic undercoat is usually used. The fabric does not have to be canvas, however manmade textiles tend to deteriorate with exposure to ultraviolet light, so linen is preferred. Wood can also be used but must be primed first.

Painting Medium

Paint straight from the tube does not flow, so a painting medium is added to improve it's consistancy and increase it's coverage. Paint mediums can also have added properties, like quick drying or retardants for slower drying. You can make your own paint medium by adding equal parts refined boiled linseed oil and turpentine. For faster drying add a little poppy oil - about 5mls (one teaspoon) to 100mls of medium. There are also commercial mediums that can be added to oil paint to make it thicker for a 3-D (impasto) effect, ideal for pallette knife work. If the smell of oil painting is a concern, you can use spike lavender oil instead of turpentine. To reduce the costs, mix this 50/50 with low odour turps.

Framing oils

Oil paintings do not need glass. When oil paint dries, the oil rises to the surface to form a protective glaze over the pigment. If glass is to be used, a spacer must be inserted between the painting and the glass. Landscapes and pictures with distance are best framed with a frame that has it's outer edge higher than the picture. A gilded edge near the oil painting (whether part of the frame moulding or introduced as a separate fillet), will usually enhance the overall picture. A silver edge suits cold coloured paintings and a gold edge suits warm coloured ones. When choosing a frame, aim to complete the picture, not the room it will hang in. If the frame does not go with the room's decor it will stand out as a focal peice rather than clash with the room.

Washes and Glazes

Master painters can add additional emphasis to a painting by using a wash or glaze made of a transparent pigment with oil (paint medium). Certain transparent pigments impart a particular atmosphere to the painting. Alazarin Crimson in a weak solution as a glaze will add a warm glow, like late afternoon. Transparent Gold ochre will give the feeling of a summer glow. Cerulean blue, adds a morning haze effect. Unless the painting is restored by a highly skilled restorer later, this effect can be lost when paintings are cleaned because the picture cleaner solution will remove this glaze layer.

Oils versus acrylic

Today's pressured lifestyle means many artisticly inclined people are turning to acrylic painting, with it's faster drying times.Acrylic paints are much cheaper than oils too. The two painting techniques are similar and the same quipment can be used for both. Acrylic paintings do not dry with a protective glaze over the pigment, like oild do. This means other than a surface scrub, with a mild detergent, they are not restorable. If attacked by mould, the damage is usually permanent.

Gold leaf, gilding

A book of sheets of gold leaf

Gilding is the art of applying extrememly tin layers of precious metal to a surface. The metal is rolled into small extremely tin fragile sheets. The surface is coated with a sticky preparation called 'size'. In ancient times, this was made with honey and water. Today gilders use a gum that sets but turns sticky when breathed on. Commercially resins are used in gilding. The leaf can be purchased in small books, where it is kept separate between sheets of tissue paper. It is available in silver, cold or copper. Artists like Gustav Klimpt were renowned for using gold leaf in their paintings.

Panels and block mounting

Rather than frame a painting, with it's added costs, may artists are turning to painting panels. This is a deep sided frame that the canvas is stretched over, that stands out from the wall, as opposed to the painting being in a frame. The painting should be continued across thesides as well as the face of the panel.This is important because while oild paint can be cleaned and restored, bare ghesso cannot, so all parts of any canvas must be painted. This patrticularly suits large works, where the cost of framing is prohibitive. Block mounting is a recent development in the art scene. A painting is glued to a board and the edges trimmed off, level with the board, or block. The edges of the board are painted and sealed before hand, This form of presentation suits decor works rather than collectable works. The pasting process is usually done using a polymer sheet that melts at low temperature and binds the painting to the board in a heated vacuum press. If the block is damaged, the artwork cannot be restored easily.

Triptych and Diptych

Where a scene is continuous over two canvasses, it is called a Dyptich. A scene that is continuous over three panels is referred to as a tryptich. This type of presentation was common in the Middle Ages where religious scenes were painted over three hinged panels so they were free standing, to create an altar. Fredrick McCubbins - The Pioneers (below) is probably the most famous Australian Triptych.

Fredrick McCubbin's Triptych, The Pioneers


Although this is commonly used for a period of art, where 1500 years of church's constraints were relaxed and heralded a period of development in art, it applies to all western civilisation. The term renaissance means reborn and aptly describes the period where people were free to express ideas and test new theories.

  The Dark Ages

This is a period in civilisation lasting 1500 years, from the 6th to the end of the 13th century, beginning just after the Roman Empire collapsed, leaving the Catholic Church to rule Western society. It stifled creativity, labelling it a distraction from prayer. In art and architecture, the greatest artisans were restricted to work only on buildings or pictures that glorified the Christian faith. Even personal hygiene was seen as a distraction from worship and discouraged by the church. Many ancient works were destroyed and anyone could be proclaimed a heretic, which could lead to terrible tortures and death.

Paint (Hue) versus colour

A more recent trend in oil paint manufacturing is to take an expensive intensly coloured pigment and combine it with a diluting material, eg Viridian, which appears almost black to the eye, at full strength but is usually used to produce a bluish green. The manufacturer may mix this with a material that results in a blue green colour rather than the intense black green of the pure pigmented paint. It cannot be sold as viridian now, even though it is the blue green colour of viridian, so it is advertised as viridian hue.

Paint comparison - viridian versus viridian hue