This week I’ve been doing some research into oil painting and its historical development. Most accounts start in the 15th century with the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck who blended pigments with drying oils and various other substances like wax and crushed bone. After that it steadily took off until it became virtually synonymous with art itself, especially in the European tradition. It’s a simple story, but it wasn’t as simple as that. van Eyck may have been instrumental in the uptake of oil painting in European art but he didn’t invent oil painting, not by a long shot.
The interesting thing is that the materials, the theory and even the practice of oil painting had been around for seven centuries before the Flemish master, and maybe even longer. As early as the 650s CE, Buddhist painters were mixing their luminous pigments with walnut and poppy-seed oils to paint the walls of caves in the Bamiyan Valley in what we now call Afghanistan. Check out some images of them here. If the name rings a bell, that’s because we all saw the great towering Buddhas of Bamiyan when they were destroyed by the Taliban back in 2001. Bamiyan is also significant because it lay on the great Silk Road, one of the greatest conduits of life and culture. This was only discovered in 2008 and the discovery radically changed the story. Odds are that possibly even earlier examples may still be found, maybe on other parts of the Road.
You see, for centuries before Jan van Eyck thought of concocting his weird and wacky paint recipes, much of the art was produced in workshops where artisans had to keep up with a steady demand for religious objects, including crucifixes, altarpieces, and other stock objects. As beatiful as much of this was, it was often quick and formulaic work, very unlike the tortured musings of the modern romantic image of the artist that we are familiar with from the last couple of centuries. These painters needed speed in order to be able to deliver finished (and dry) artworks to their patrons and they achieved this with a fast medium, tempera, in which pigment was mixed with egg yolks. As well as being fast, it was very durable and we have many fine examples that go back as far as ancient Egypt (including the famous Fayum mummy portraits).
For as long as speed was paramount and art production was based so heavily in the workshops tempera was king. During this time oil painting was used, but not for artwork. It was used for decorative purposes, for painting shields and the like.
But something interesting happened. With the flowering of the Renaissance art itself changed. The place of the artist changed, as did their way of working, and the demands this placed on their techniques and materials. I’m not going to even commit to trying to create a snapshot of the extraordinary transformation of society that took place around this, and indeed the events that lead up to it (like the re-adoption of Aristotle and Classical literature in Europe, printing, etc..). The main thing was from the 15th century the quick drying tempera no longer suited artists as it had. Instead, new styles lent themselves to slower mediums like oil paint and once adopted, the medium itself continued to present a great array of new creative possibilities, especially when taken together other things like the linen from sails and the preparation of pre-mixed paints in tubes. The time for oil painting had come.
I’m only beginning to put the pieces together, but the story of oil paint and the confluence of events, individuals, and their changing visions is one the goes to the heart of so many stories of success. As a student of history, if I’ve learned anything, it’s to be skeptical of overly simple explanations for anything.
One of the things I like about this story is that oil painting, the solution to the needs of European painters, was that in a manner of seeing, it was ready and waiting for them, waiting for that time to come when it would be exactly what they needed.
Thinking about this, I see this applying to people and other kinds of knowledge whose time has not yet come. It also makes me wonder whether the solutions to tomorrow’s challenges are already amongst us, known and yet not valued in the way they will be. They too are waiting for their own van Eyck to recognise their value in a way that others can recognise.
But the times have to be right for the optimal reception – the conditions, the environment, the champion.
There is something comforting in the knowledge that these forces, the environment, is bigger than me, than you, and all of us, because this takes the pressure of us a little bit. But not really, because though we are only one little part of the picture, tiny in fact, the part we play matters, we don’t always know how, but it does. And one of the things I see most strongly in the stories around the Renaissance is the re-emergence, the flowering, of the idea of the individual, a truly heroic consciousness in a way, striking forth like David versus Goliath, no less, cutting down the limitations of the past, striking down old truths, old beliefs, old ways of seeing and living, now obsolete, and making way for the new.
Some of these are the visionaries amongst us, the Steve Jobs’ of the world, who are able to see beyond the world that lies around them, and by showing us what is possible, take the rest of us with them for the ride.