Today, we see what happened when we put oil paint
in tubes. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Oil painting is about 600
years old. It reached a fine perfection with the
Dutch Masters. They'd made oil painting very
popular by 1650. But artists still needed the
training of a chemical engineer to mix their
So art became associated with alchemy. Physicians
and artists both used the same ingredients. Paints
were laced with a physician's remedies -- mercury,
oils, ivory, and so on. Painters bought their
materials at apothecary shops. They even shared the
same patron saint with doctors. That was St. Luke.
By the 1700s the demand for oil paints had led to
new subspecialties among painters. The colourman
now mixed paint and sold it to artists. He
radically changed the business of oil painting. For
example, specialized portrait painters used those
premixed paints in large shops. One such painter
might do three oils of the same subject at once.
While the colourman played a part in
professionalizing painting, he also helped give
birth to the amateur painter. With premixed paint,
anyone could go off on his own.
And what do amateurs always do? They experiment.
They create mutations. They drive change. So, while
the new technologies for containing paint drove
amateurs, amateurs drove painting.
Colourmen sold the first premixed paints in pig's
bladders. Then they sold paint in syringes --
rather like grease-guns. By 1800 you could buy oil
paint in tin tubes. Painters in the Romantic period
could pack off to the country to paint rainbows,
sunsets, and haystacks. They were free to capture
As cameras appeared, painters had to redefine their
own purpose. Equipped with really portable oils,
they changed the game. Instead of reporting the
world objectively, they gave us their
self-expressive response to a far more fluid world.
Still, the new tube paints had problems. The
ingredients that gave paint a toothpaste texture
also made it turn yellow over time. The
impressionists craved a brilliance they couldn't
find in a tube. They went back to relearn
Van Gogh experimented with bright, thick-textured
paints. He sometimes failed. But he honed the new
Impasto technique -- often painting with a knife
instead of a brush. And in Van Gogh we read, once
more, the terrible complexity of technological
For if putting paint in tubes gave rise to Van
Gogh, Van Gogh knew he had to go back to invention.
To finish the very revolution that spawned him, he
had to become an amateur once more. He had to
reinvent the technology of painting before he could
invent a new vision of the world for all of us to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Mayer, R., The Artist's Handbook. 5th
ed., New York: Viking, 1991, see especially pp.
Stephenson, J., The Materials and Techniques
of Painting, New York: Watson-Guptill Pubs,
1989, pp. 15-17, 73-77.
Palmer, F., Encyclopaedia of Oil Painting:
Materials and Techniques. Cincinnati, Ohio:
North Light, 1984, see especially, pp. 153-158.
Encyclopedia of World Art. Vol. 10 and
13, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.
I'm grateful to Lynn Sterba, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for providing extensive
materials and counsel for this episode, to Robert
Stevenson, KUHF Program Director, for suggesting
the topic, and to Carol Lienhard and Margaret
Culbertson for additional advice.
Photo by John Lienhard
Winston Churchill's oil paint case for outdoor
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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