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The Evolution of Painting 1

The Evolution of Painting During the Renaissance

Charles Severs

Axia College of the University of Phoenix

Hum 205 World Culture and the Arts

Instructor: Jeff Lyttle

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The Evolution of Painting During the Renaissance

As the Renaissance period approached, paintings were primarily based on the medium of

wood coated with egg whites and then the amount of paint was adjusted for color depth and

pigment desired (the tempera method). The introduction of oil painting on canvas helped to take

the skill and illusion of paint and the use of light to another level entirely. Two major factors,

whether considered a tool or technology (the use of pigments mixed with linseed oil, and the use

of canvas as opposed to other mediums) helped to evolve painting to the quality of work that is

seen from that period. While painting with oil was not “discovered” during the Renaissance, it

was a renewed interest coupled with some significant changes that propelled it to the degree that

it became.

The Encyclopædia Britannica Online states that, “Basic improvements in the refining of

linseed oil and the availability of volatile solvents after 1400 coincided with a need for some

other medium than pure egg-yolk tempera to meet the changing requirements of the

Renaissance” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008). Also noted is that with the development of the

oil based painting techniques, an evolution from the tempera method was accomplished. The

Encyclopædia Britannica continues in this regard, “At first, oil paints and varnishes were used to

glaze tempera panels, painted with their traditional linear draftsmanship. The technically

brilliant, jewel-like portraits of the 15th-century Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, for example,

were done in this way” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008).

Professor Mark Hudelson of Palomar College provides us with a chart that documents the

differences and shows how the evolution from tempera to oil affected art (see figure one). As can

be seen, with the advanced uses of oil paint, more was accomplished on an artistic level not

beheld previously.
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Tempera vs. Oil Painting

Tempera Painting Oil Painting

Medium: Egg (and sometimes water). Oil.

When popular? Middle Ages. From late Gothic period on.

Blending colors is... Difficult. Easy.

Drying time: Fast. Slow.

Rich, deep colors; subtle

Color quality: Flat. gradations. Paint applied in
layers or "glazes."

Wood panels at first, then on

Most often painted on... Wood panels. canvas from the Renaissance

(Figure one. The differences between tempera and oil usage, courtesy of Professor Mark


Benton and DiYanni mention that with using oil, “…painters were able to create a light

that seemed to emanate from the depths of the painting itself” (Benton and DiYanni, 2005, p.

486). Encyclopædia Britannica mentions that, “The outstanding facility with which fusion of

tones or colour is achieved makes it [oil] unique among fluid painting mediums” (Encyclopædia

Britannica, 2008). Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (ca. 1434, oil on wood panels) shows

the vibrancy of color achievable from the use of oils (see figure two).
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(Figure two. Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, courtesy of Wikipedia)

Along with using oil during the renaissance, canvas too was a tool or a technology that

was made use of to further the evolution of paintings during that age. The physical properties and

form of construction changed the look of paintings from that age onward. Benton and DiYanni

state that, “…the texture of the canvas itself was exploited” (Benton and DiYanni, 2005, p. 486),

and this led to a physical difference and quality of the painting. As the brush moved and

deposited paint on the canvas it, “deposits more paint on the top of the weave, and less in the

crevices. This textured surface in turn, ‘catches’ actual light, lending an almost shimmering

vibrancy” (Benton and DiYanni, 2005, p. 486) to the art.

Art from all eras are valuable culturally, artistically and socially. The art from the

Renaissance is no exception, and has evolved in an interesting manner. The furthered use and

“perfection” of oil brought a whole new look to the art of the period. The introduction of canvass
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also had an impact on the look of paintings then and now, and at the same introducing a

transhistorical element tying the Renaissance period to the modern day.

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Arnolfini Portrait. (2008). In Wikipedia [Web]. Wikimedia. Retrieved July 1, 2008, from

Benton, J., & DiYanni, R. (2005). Arts and culture: an introduction to the Humanities. Upper

Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hudelson, M. (2007). Tempera vs. Oil Painting. Retrieved July 2, 2008, from Study Guide Web



Oil Painting. (2008). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 01, 2008, from Encyclopædia

Britannica Online: