In art, there are many kinds of paints. Yet their structure has changed since antiquity. The oldest paint in history are tempera paints. As time passed, oil painting gradually replaced the tempera as far back as the 8th century. However, not until the early 15th century did oil painting become widespread. The major difference between the tempera and oil paint was the binder of the coloring pigments. Tempera is bound by egg yolk, while the binder in the oil paint is plant-based oils such as flax, hemp, or almond, to name a few.
Flemish artists were among the first to employ oils, often mixing them with tempera. Italian painters followed them. According to scholars, the Dutch artist Jan van Eyck was the first who develops the secret of making oil paints. Early Dutch paintings of Van Eyck and Robert Campin, as well as the Italian Leonardo da Vinci, were the first to master oil paints. The masters did it so well that they became a common painting medium and explored the use of layers and glazes.
Both tempera and oils can apply to various surfaces. The advantage of the slow-drying quality of oil paint is that the artist can develop their painting slowly. Earlier mediums such as egg tempera dry quickly, preventing the artist from making changes or adjustments. With oil-based paints, reworking was relatively easy. Mastery of oil painting is considered the pinnacle of creativity. The oil paints blended well with each other, making subtle variations of color possible, and creating lots of detail of light and shadow. Advances in oil paint allowed for much more intense, brighter, and more detailed images of people, landscapes, interiors, and objects.
This first generation of early Dutch artists was interested in the genuine reproduction of objects, paying great attention to natural phenomena such as light, shadow, and reflection. The so-called “Flemish method” of oil painting is a multi-layered and challenging technique. The layering implies an intense depth of image and brilliance of color. They moved beyond the flat perspective and delineated the figuration of earlier paintings in favor of three-dimensional pictorial spaces. The position of viewers and how they might relate to the scene became crucial for the first time; in Portrait of Arnolfini, Van Eyck arranged the set as if the viewer had just entered the room containing the two figures. Hence, it’s not surprising that so many world-famous masterpieces are namely oil paintings.